Jews on Hill digging into religious roots

Rabbi Levi Shemtov wouldn't draw a second glance in Crown Heights, but he cuts a distinctive figure on Capitol Hill: portly, relentlessly energetic and Chassidic down to his socks.

In the past two years, the Washington, D.C., director of American Friends of Lubavitch has become a familiar sight in the House and Senate office buildings, and his home on the Hill has become a magnet for congressional aides and the occasional legislator looking for something deeper than just the convenient, ephemeral answers of politics.

A pensive member of Congress wandered over one recent afternoon for a chat about how he could express his Jewishness in a more meaningful way while pursuing his legislative duties.

"My advice was that he should understand that to other members, he may represent their first and only interaction with a Jewish person," Shemtov said recently. "So he has many opportunities to allow people to see what a Jew is all about.

"A Jew represents the Jewish people to the rest of the world; if a Jew is ethical, it's good for the Jews."

Shemtov is part of a quiet revolution in Washington. More Jews in public affairs are tapping their religious roots for ways to ground their daily duties in something more solid than the often-sordid business of politics.

One sign of the trend is a proliferation of classes and other events for Jewish staffers and legislators. Shemtov's recent Purim party at the Rayburn House Office Building turned into a happy mob scene, with hundreds of staffers packed into a caucus room, a handful of Jewish members stopping by for appearances that offered no political gain.

Jews on Capitol Hill, in a sense, are coming out of the closet.

"Fifteen years ago, there were many fewer Jews on the Hill — and they were much less visible," said Doug Bloomfield, the former top lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"Congress didn't worry about scheduling votes on important Jewish holidays; that's not true today," he added. "There's a growing sensitivity clear across the political spectrum to the needs of Jewish members and staffers. Jews feel much more comfortable being openly and actively Jewish."

Despite a lack of statistics, there is no doubt Jews are disproportionately represented in House and Senate offices. Some 20 to 30 percent of the professional-level workforce is Jewish, according to some estimates.

Many younger staffers are seeking ways to use Jewish law and tradition to gain perspective on issues that seem resistant to strictly political solutions.

"Many of us feel a need to examine the moral component of issues, especially today, when we're re-evaluating all these government programs," said a Jewish staffer who works for a non-Jewish congressman.

The Lubavitchers, with their strong outreach to unaffiliated Jews, have been major players in this Jewish renaissance.

"I'm not a Jewish missionary on the Hill," Shemtov said. "I'm very sensitive to that. And I'm not a spiritual leader in a traditional sense. I do all this informally; I don't want to make a big deal out of it."

Shemtov's work mainly involves outreach to hundreds of Jewish staffers and Jewish employees of an alphabet soup of federal agencies around the Capitol, most of whom have only limited experience with Judaism.

"I think that people coming to Washington, especially those working on the Hill, are involved in a very intense phase of their careers," he said.

"Their religious identity and affiliation are basically on the back burner. I try to keep that back burner at least on warm, so when they come back to that identity, it just has to be reheated, not defrosted."

But the holiday parties are just one part of Chabad's work. Shemtov runs regular informal Torah study lunches and periodic formal lunches that feature well-known speakers from the religious world.

Many of the sessions take place in his home, adding to the informal atmosphere.

Though his primary targets are Jewish staffers, Shemtov said Jewish members of Congress have expressed an interest in their own sessions.

"My involvement with them is more one-on-one," he said. "It's not necessarily religious; they don't ask me what butcher to buy from. They have basic questions about the things they see in their lives and their careers, and I'm the closest rabbi."

Many observers see the growth of Jewish activity in the halls of Congress as part of a broader trend.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, president of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said the growing interest is related to frustration with a brand of Judaism that substitutes social action for spirituality and observance.

Besides running Washington's Panim el Panim High School, which brings Jewish students to Washington for an intensive exposure to the intersection of Judaism and political action, Schwarz teaches classes in Jewish spirituality at the local JCC.

"Some of the people are coming to the class and saying, `don't give that social-action Judaism stuff,'" he said. "Part of my personal and professional agenda is to make people realize that they can fulfill much of their Judaism in the public realm. But it has to be connected to something rooted in history and tradition. They want something that's not just political."

Rabbi Jay Marcus is a pioneer in the rise of Jewish life on Capitol Hill, holding lively, wide-ranging discussions with members of Congress.

"We've been meeting for lunch and studying issues from Maimonides and the Book of Psalms to the Torah itself," Marcus said. "And we have been using that study as a way of looking at many different current affairs topics."

His outreach is sponsored by the Genesis Foundation, which was created to bring traditional Jewish teaching to the working world. Most sessions draw six to 10 legislators and top staffers; there is a hard core of about 20 who attend on a fairly regular basis.

"They do not always have a good basic Jewish education," he said of the participants. "But the discussion is very sophisticated, at a very high level."

Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation in Congress, is one of the rabbi's admirers.

"Rabbi Marcus is an incredible individual who has the ability to bring contemporary meaning to our sessions," Cardin said. "One day you're talking about the Megillah, the next day you're talking about term limits. You never know what's going to come up."

The studying "helps me turn the focus away from the minute details of legislation and look at a long-term, historical perspective,"he added. "It doesn't tell me how to vote, but it gives me an additional, broader framework for analyzing issues."

Other Jewish teachers on Capitol Hill report a growing demand for their services.

Rabbi Barry Freundel has been holding regular classes on government ethics from the Jewish perspective for congressional staffers for about five years; before that, another rabbi from his synagogue, Kesher Israel, conducted Capitol Hill classes.

Recent sessions have faced issues like privacy, family values, poverty and welfare and health-care reform.

The American Jewish Committee has started a study group for staffers on "God, Judaism and politics," too; at a recent session, the topic was "the problem of evil," using the Book of Job for text.

Although the capitol's religious revival often seems largely an Orthodox phenomenon, it has touched the Conservative and Reform worlds.

The Conservative movement is considering a permanent Hill presence, said Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"We've found a great deal of receptivity from congressmen and their staffs," he said.

Part of the Conservative effort, he admitted, is a response to the Orthodox cast to most current Capitol Hill Jewish study.

"We want people to understand that there are nuances in the Jewish community," he said.

Through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Reform movement is also finding new ways to bring religious teaching into training sessions for young political activists.

The RAC, an outpost of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, once had a virtual lock on Jewish activism in Washington from a religious perspective. Now, Orthodox groups are increasingly active, and the RAC is enriching its political activism with traditional Jewish study.

"All our sessions start with a text study," said Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, associate director of the RAC. "This is something we started a few years ago because we wanted to show people the rootedness of social action. That's why we call this the Religious Action Center, not the Social Action Center."

Other Jewish groups are asking the RAC for workshops and speeches on the religious foundation of social and political activism as well.

"All over the country, people are asking the question: Why do we do what we do as Jews?" she said. "That's happening in Washington, as well."