Agudath Israel Opens D.c. Office to Help Lobby Congress

When a representative of Agudath Israel of America was on Capitol Hill some time back, several Senate staff members were surprised by his appearance.

While he had on the dark hat and dark suit worn by many Orthodox men, he was fairly young. “We thought all Orthodox Jews were old men with long white beards,” the aides said.

That perception is expected to change this month with the opening of a Washington office by Agudath Israel, and with Rabbi Stephen Kasnett, Agudath’s representative, expected to become a familiar figure at the Capitol.

Kasnett, a 42-year-old lawyer, has a beard, but it hasn’t turned white yet.

He said he plans to change the perception of how the Jewish community is seen on various issues in Congress by advocating the viewpoint of Orthodox Jews.

Agudath Israel will become the 15th Jewish organization with offices here.

Israel, Kasnett said, will not be a major focus of the new office. “Israel is an issue that nobody disagrees with,” he said, and it’s already “well represented” in Washington.

“What distinguishes us from the other Jewish groups is domestic issues,” he explained.

For example, the other Jewish groups oppose federal state aid to non-public schools and are for free choice in abortion, while Orthodox Jews take the opposite point of view.

Kasnett said that when Agudath Israel recently backed legislation to exempt religiously supported institutions from anti-discrimination laws that go against their religious beliefs, reporters were shocked that a Jewish group would take this position.

DISTRICT COURT RULING

The issue came about over a U.S. District Court ruling that while Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, does not have to officially recognize gay groups on its campus, it must give them financial support as it does other student organizations.

Kasnett said Agudath Israel has also been working with legislators to modify pending legislation that provides federal funds to religious child-care providers.

According to Kasnett, one-third of the day-care centers in the United States are sponsored by either churchesr synagogues.

It is to have input on legislation such as this that Agudath Israel opened is Washington office.

“If we had been on the scene when the (day care) bill started off in the initial stages of legislation, we could have had input in the first draft,” Kasnett said.

He said that in speaking to congressional staff, he has already learned in his short time here the importance of “being here at the genesis” of a bill.

The best advice he has received “is to get there early with concrete proposals, concrete langauge.”

Kasnett said Congress seeks advice in drafting bills because legislators and their staff do not always know the ramifications of a proposed bill.

“This will be the bread and butter function of the office,” Kasnett stressed.

Having a Washington office has been a longtime dream of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Agudath Israel’s president.

Sherer told Kasnett that during World War II, when he and other Agudath Israel leaders went to Washington to plead for European Jews, they frequently had to borrow the train fare.

Up until Sept. 1, David Zweibel, Agudath Israel’s general counsel and director of government affairs, had come to Washington twice a month from the organization’s national headquarters in New York, to represent the group’s interests.

Zweibel will continue to assist the new Washington office, along with Mordechai Avigdor, associate general counsel and executive director of Agudath Israel’s commission on legislation and civic action.

ADVISORY BOARD

Kasnett, who has established an advisory board of Orthodox lawyers and people in government to assist him, said his job is also to monitor legislation as the “watchdog” of the Orthodox community, and to educate lawmakers on the Orthodox viewpoint.

This means not only ensuring that Orthodox schools get their share of federal funds, but also taking stands on moral issues, such as abortion.

Right now, Kasnett, who was interviewed as he was getting his office into shape, plans to educate himself.

Kasnett, born in Washington, lived here until he went to Dartmouth College at 17. He received a law degree from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

He also was a student at the Yeshiva Beis HaTalmud in Jerusalem, and spent years of advanced Talmudic study at the Kollel of the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York.

He is the author of two recent books on the bible and Jewish philosophy, “A Future and a Hope” and “Ancient Mountains, Timeless Hills.”

Kasnett, his wife and their four children are now living in Baltimore, where they moved from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.

Kasnett is beginning a process of meeting with aides of the members of the House and Senate. He noted that Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) has been particulary helpful to him.

MEETING JEWISH LAWMAKERS

He has also been meeting with the staffs of other Jewish lawmeakers, but stressed he plans to deal with all members of Congress.

In particular, because of Agudath Israel’s major concerns, he will be seeking contacts on the congressional committees dealing with education, social welfare and immigration.

Kasnett also plans to meet with other representatives of Jewish organizations in Washington, as well as with local Jewish groups.

He stressed that Agudath Israel was not in Washington “to undermine” any other Jewish organization, or “to be an adversary,” but rather to cooperate with other Jewish organizations whenever possible.

The Agudath Israel office is located at 1730 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., in the heart of downtown.

Kasnett said he hopes to establish a minyan for minchah, or afternoon service, drawing on the many people with offices in the area who have long felt the need for such a service.

He also hopes to start a class in Gemorah.

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