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Agudah gathers in Washington for delegates to `see and be seen’

WASHINGTON, April 17 (JTA) — Moving through the corridors of power from one warm reception to the next, the nearly 200 Orthodox Jewish activists looked like old hands at the Washington scene. “We came to see and be seen,” said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, which brought activists from across the country here this month for a national leadership mission. “We feel it is extremely important” that decision-makers “realize that there is a responsible and effective voice of Orthodox Jewry, not only from what they consider the cloistered areas of Brooklyn, but also from Oregon and Texas and Indiana.” Through their presence in the nation’s capital, Sherer said he hoped to illustrate “that the Orthodox movement of this country has spread throughout the entire nation and that it has independent views which Agudath Israel proudly articulates with dignity and with responsibility.” In meetings at the White House, the Supreme Court and on Capitol Hill, top officials and government leaders briefed the activists on issues such as the Middle East peace process, benefits for legal immigrants, restitution efforts for victims of the Holocaust and church-state matters. Although the visit did not include any direct lobbying visits, the delegation was walking proof that the American Jewish community is not monolithic on the domestic agenda. Unlike most of the organized Jewish community, for instance, Agudah supports greater government involvement with religious schools. The group advocates school voucher proposals and certain forms of indirect aid for parochial students. Praising their work, Vice President Al Gore told the delegates: “Our administration has worked hard to stress the important role of religion and values in our families, communities and our country. “I want to applaud your work day in and day out to make sure that these values are imbued in Jewish communities and families throughout the United States.” At the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative voice, expressed concern about the way the high court has looked to resolve church-state issues in recent years. He said the court has devised “formulaic abstractions” that have moved jurisprudence away from America’s long-standing tradition, which he said “favors religion.” “When I say this before a Jewish audience, I sometimes jump up on the table and do `Tradition’ from `Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” Scalia said. “My constitutional interpretation” of church-state issues “is based as his was, upon tradition,” he said, referring to Tevya, the milkman. The activists were also briefed by Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger and several members of Congress, including Sens. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). and John Ashcroft (R-Mo.). One of the participants, Yosef Davis, 50, who traveled to Washington from Chicago, said he was struck by the “sincerity and honesty” conveyed by the various government officials. “The old traditional values that are so important for us really carried the day,” Davis said. “Everyone was really rallying around that, from both sides” of the aisle. Avi Zarmi, 44, of Milwaukee, said the meetings themselves illustrated the unique political access the Jewish community now enjoys “regarding general Jewish concerns and concerns that are unique to the Orthodox community.” That access, he said, stands in marked contrast to the situation Jews faced 50 years ago when Jewish leaders tried without success to push decision-makers to help European Jews. Now, he said, any time Jewish interests are threatened on either the international or domestic front, “because of the contacts that we’ve been able to establish and the access we’ve been able to gain, we’re able to work mitigate that threat.”