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Behind the Headlines for Jews and Women, Several


For Betsy Sheerr, it was the perfect 21st-century moment: A woman had just ascended to within two heartbeats of the presidency, and Sheerr was spreading the news by text message.

Sheerr, who is prominent in national Jewish organizations and the Philadelphia Jewish community, and was a major fund-raiser for the successful campaign of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), attended an all-women tea last Wednesday as part of a three-day celebration culminating in the election of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I was text-messaging my three daughters all through it,” she said, sporting a button featuring Pelosi in a “Rosie the Riveter” getup and declaring, “A woman’s place is in the House.”

Pelosi is the first woman speaker of the House, making her second in line to the presidency after the vice president.

Women’s empowerment was a centerpiece of the celebrations.

“This is an historic moment — for the Congress, and for the women of this country,” Pelosi said after her formal election last Thursday. “It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years.”

“It was very exciting to see women in control,” said Marla Gilson, who also attended the tea and who runs Hadassah’s Washington office.

Sheerr said she appreciated the moment but hoped it would no longer be sui generis in her daughters’ lifetime.

“One day, I hope a woman speaker or even a woman president won’t generate so much excitement,” she said.

Pelosi is a Roman Catholic, but that didn’t take away from the Jewish elements in her moment in the spotlight.

First, as National Jewish Democratic Council vice chairman Marc Stanley noted, Pelosi is the first speaker who has Jewish grandchildren.Those two grandkids were among the six who accompanied her as she took the podium last Thursday.

She also asked Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, to headline her first celebratory event, a Tuesday-morning Mass at her alma mater, Washington’s Trinity University.

Saperstein quoted Leviticus in speaking about Darfur, the Sudan region ravaged by government-backed militias: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Pelosi had told staff she wanted a Jewish speaker on Darfur, since she sees the Jewish community as leading the fight to raise awareness about the genocide. Apparently she was pleased, since she grabbed Saperstein when the event ended and pulled him into a family photo, saying, “I want you in this.”

Another, perhaps odd reference came during last Thursday’s vote for speaker when Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) likened Pelosi to “the biblical Esther” who “was called to save the nation.”

Yet another inadvertent reference arose during a bipartisan interfaith service last Thursday morning when Pelosi cited a favorite New Testament passage from Mark, instructing believers that “there is one God; and there is none other but He.” Pelosi might not have known it but she was reciting the “Sh’ma,” the holiest Jewish prayer.

For Jewish groups, the hottest item during the new Congress’ inaugural week was not an invitation to one of the many festivities but a dry slab of legislative language.

Jewish lobbyists eagerly sought a copy of the final version of lobbying reform legislation, passed overwhelmingly in the House last Thursday, the first day of the 110th Congress.

The reforms include a ban on travel with lobbies. Jewish groups were reassured when they confirmed that the final version allows nonprofits to run educational tours of Israel for lawmakers, as long as they don’t employ lobbyists.

“Americans need to trust their government,” said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), one of six new Jews elected to the House, all Democrats. “They demand to be closer to their elected representatives than corporate lobbyists.”

William Daroff, Washington director for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, lobbied hard against earlier reform plans, but welcomed the latest version.

Pelosi “dealt with the problem with a scalpel rather than a mallet,” he said.

Powerhouses like the UJC and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will not be affected under the new rules. UJC devolves such tours to local federations, which do not employ lobbyists, while AIPAC long ago spun off an educational nonprofit that does not employ lobbyists to handle the tours.

Smaller boutique groups such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and the Republican Jewish Coalition are examining their options. The ADL, for instance, employs three registered lobbyists and hosts at least two lawmaker tours a year.

For Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), it might have seemed like an act of defiance, except he was one of several dozen.

Engel used a Chumash — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — in his private swearing-in ceremony, defying Jewish radio host Dennis Prager, who said the Christian Bible is the only appropriate text for such occasions.

Prager had stirred a hornet’s nest with a column attacking Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, who chose Thomas Jefferson’s Koran for his private swearing-in.

At one of several Jewish receptions last Thursday, the first day of the 110th Congress, Engel revealed the use of his Chumash to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads the Chabad-Lubavitch office in Washington. The reason: Shemtov had provided Engel with the Chumash four years ago. Shemtov in turn recounted a list of the various Chumashim used by Jewish legislators at their swearing-ins.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) used the first Hebrew Bible printed in the United States, in Philadelphia in 1814, and asked Pelosi to swear him in as she had done Ellison. In a statement Monday, Sherman made clear that the ceremony was in part a rebuke to Prager.

“Each member should take the ceremonial oath of office on whatever religious text the member selects,” he said.

Distaste of the attacks on Ellison by Prager, Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) and others were a recurring theme at Jewish events throughout the week. That made it all the more surprising when Nathan Diament, the yarmulke-wearing director of the Orthodox Union, was accosted by a Roll Call reporter on his way out of Ellison’s office.

“What are you doing here?” the reporter asked.

Diament’s diplomatic reply: He was wishing Ellison well, and the O.U. had much to discuss with the new lawmaker about faith-based initiatives.

That wasn’t Diament’s only surprise: At a reception hosted by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), rising Democratic star Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) recognized Diament as an old Harvard Law School classmate and proffered a warm hug.

There are 43 Jews in the new Congress — 30 in the House, which is just under the record set in the early 1990s, and 13 in the Senate, which is a record.

That doesn’t mean they all think alike. At the reception for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), staff went out of the way to tell people that the pastrami sandwiches and sushi were kosher. That was appropriate for a lawmaker who made her mark in her first term by legislating Jewish Heritage Month; the room was decorated with headlines marking that event.

Five stories up in the Cannon office building, the fare was a little different for freshman Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) — pulled pork and pork ribs were available for all comers. Hodes fought an exceptionally close race and promised the owners of the Down’n Dirty Barb B Q in Manchester, N.H., a favored hangout, that they could cater his first day if he won.

For a politician, nothing is more kosher than keeping a pledge. And besides, beef brisket was on the menu as well.

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