I grew up in a political family—my mother was an elected official for 12 years and she ran for the US Congress in 1986. My father was a political analyst and active in the Maryland Democratic Party. He is currently the politically appointed chair of a state commission. One summer in college I had an internship for the Senate Banking Committee (back when interns got paid). Later, I worked on political campaigns and in the White House. I grew up knowing a lot of politicians and political people. You might think I’d have been comfortable lobbying from the cradle but actually lobbying always intimidated me.
Over the years I had been at lots of conferences with lobby days. Mostly I avoided them. There was always something that made me feel uncomfortable affiliating myself in a public way with the positions the organizations were espousing.
But when I go to lobby with J Street, I feel differently because I feel I can come as my true self. I introduce myself as Judith Gelman, Bethesda, MD, and say that I am at J Street as a member of Ameinu, a participating organization. I go to talk to my two Senators, Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and my Representative, Chris Van Hollen (pictured), knowing that I am talking about issues I truly care about and that the information and positions I have been asked to convey reflect my own point of view.
Ameinu doesn’t lobby the US Congress on its own. As Ameinu, we “lobby” inside the Jewish establishment to make sure that progressive Zionism has a seat at the communal table. But as individuals and as a participating organization in J Street, we can also make our views known to our elected officials. Sometimes issues are just too big to do the necessary work solely within the Jewish community. And that’s where the affiliation with J Street helps us call on our elected officials to tell them our views on the two state solution and on preventing a nuclear Iran.
This is my third year visiting Capital Hill with J Street. This year, when I went to visit my senators and representative, they welcomed J Streeters much more warmly than they had in the past. We weren’t foisted off on aides, which is how most lobbying meetings actually happen.
My representative came to talk to the entire national delegation on behalf of the Democratic Leadership before we broke off for meetings with individual representatives and senators. What he said is far less important than that he came to say it to J Street. Why did he come? Maybe because he knows he has nearly 3000 J Streeters in his very liberal district. Or maybe it is because his professional expertise is in foreign affairs, so he really cares about these issues. Or maybe it is because his new, redrawn district is even more politically liberal than the old one. Whatever the reason, he was happy to greet me and take a picture with me and have me do my own private one on one “ask” for the letter and legislation we were promoting.
The two Maryland Senators arranged to meet the J Street delegation at the same time, in a large conference room, and together they spent almost an hour with us—a very, very long time by lobbying standards. Senator Mikulski just came back from Israel and was extremely concerned about the situation regarding women in Beit Shemesh. It wasn’t the topic we came to talk about , but when a Senator wants to talk about a related human rights issue, a delegation has to be ready to address it and of course with a couple of Ameinu people in the group, we were!
Senator Cardin on the other hand wanted to talk about the issue of how the Jewish community handles diversity of opinion. That may sound like code for “J Street vs AIPAC” on the issue of Israel , but it is also about domestic Jewish pluralism. Sometimes it is easier to be the non-Jewish senator who is considered a great friend to the Jews than the Jewish senator that each faction of the community wants to claim as its own and hold to account on each and every issue.
Senators don’t have to take an hour with any group and representatives, especially those in the leadership, don’t have to show up to talk to an entire national delegation. That we were treated so well shows that J Street is being very well received on Capital Hill, at least by liberal Democrats.
It made me very proud of the decision Ameinu made three years ago to be a participating organization at the first J Street conference. Since then we have been joined by many more so that now there are about 40 groups formally participating with J Street in 3 informative days of conference sessions followed by lobbying on important issues where none of us could make the some impact on our own.
Next year, come join me at J Street and stay for lobby day. You’ll find it an interesting and fulfilling experience.