Fiery Freshman

Madison Cawthorn finally sets a date to meet local Jewish community

The only problem: five of the six Jewish leaders slated to be on the call with Cawthorn weren’t informed of the meeting

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Madison Cawthorn

For nearly six months, Jewish leaders in Western North Carolina have been working behind the scenes to arrange a meeting with freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). The GOP firebrand, who represents the traditionally conservative 11th congressional district, coasted to victory in the recent November election. But some of his past statements — including an Instagram post in which he described Adolf Hitler as “the Führer” as well an admission that he has tried to convert Jews to Christianity — have raised questions that the district’s small but tight-knit Jewish community would like the 25-year-old congressman to address directly.

“How can we have a person who is our representative feel as though the desire to convert people is a good thing?” said Rabbi Rachael Jackson of Agudas Israel Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Hendersonville, N.C., where Cawthorn lives. Since August, she has been leading the effort to meet with the newly elected congressman. “It’s not our desire to change somebody,” she said. “It is our desire to help someone recognize that there is diversity in their region and to appreciate that diversity and to be more sensitive to the things that they are saying and why it would be offensive.”

Despite expressing a desire to meet with Jewish leaders back in September, Cawthorn didn’t appear to be prioritizing the engagement. However, last Thursday, a spokesman confirmed to Jewish Insider that Cawthorn’s office had finally set a date to meet with Jewish community members on February 8. “Madison is going to do a Skype call with them, discuss his overall goals for the district and then have them ask him some questions about what their priorities are and how he can best facilitate their priorities,” said Micah Bock, Cawthorn’s communications director, “and just hopefully engage in a productive dialogue.”

The only problem: five of the six Jewish leaders Bock claimed would be on the call weren’t informed of the meeting when asked about it by JI.

As of Sunday evening, Jackson said she had “not heard a word” from Cawthorn’s team. “I have not received an invitation from Madison Cawthorn for any meeting,” said Ashley Lasher, executive director of the Asheville Jewish Community Center. “Crickets,” echoed Rabbi Batsheva H. Meiri of Congregation Beth HaTephila, a Reform synagogue in Asheville. “I have not heard from his office or anyone else,” said Jessica Whitehill, executive director at Jewish Family Services of WNC. Rabbi Shaya Susskind, executive director of the Chabad House of Asheville, did not respond to email inquiries from JI, but a source who spoke with him on Friday said he was unaware of the call.

Only Adrienne Skolnik, who chairs the North Carolina chapter of the Conference of Jewish Affairs, appears to have received advance notice. She told JI via email on Friday night that she had been in contact with Bock about the February call. “I see this as a wonderful opportunity and plan to attend,” said Skolnik, a vocal Trump supporter who has criticized what she perceives as liberal bias in local synagogues. Her hope, she said, is that the meeting will engender “mutual respect between the Jewish community and Madison Cawthorn.”

Several Jewish community members appeared undecided about whether they will attend Cawthorn’s call. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss as Jewish leaders that there would be a meeting,” Jackson said. “I can say with a fair bit of certainty that we could not take the meeting offered on February 8, given the lack of time and the lack of planning.”

The list of invitees, several leaders added, was also incomplete, having omitted Congregation Beth Israel, an independent synagogue in Asheville.

For Rochelle Reich, executive director at Congregation Beth Israel, the hastily scheduled Skype event underscored what she has come to regard as a lack of local engagement on the part of the congressman. “I feel that his exclusion of Beth Israel may illustrate how little he cares about really hearing from his constituency.”

Initially, Jackson recalled, Cawthorn’s campaign was receptive to a meeting when she reached out last summer. But scheduling issues made it difficult to lock down a time.

In a January 19 email obtained by Time magazine, Cawthorn told Republican colleagues: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation” — a message that may provide one explanation for his office’s scheduling challenges.

Some Jewish leaders had already decided against meeting with Cawthorn after he spoke at a rally of Trump supporters before the Capitol was stormed on January 6.

“The Western North Carolina Jewish community had been looking forward to having a constructive dialogue with Madison Cawthorn, our newly elected congressional representative,” Deborah Miles of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Western NC and David Hurand of Carolina Jews for Justice wrote last month in Asheville’s Citizen-Times. “We had asked for a meeting date and were awaiting a response. Now, however, after witnessing his role in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, we have decided that our differences are beyond the pale of conversation. We are instead calling for his immediate resignation as representative of North Carolina’s 11th congressional district.”

Bock, Cawthorn’s spokesman, said it was “frustrating to hear that some people have already written off the idea of having a meeting at all, but it’s been scheduled.”

Jackson said she would still be open to meeting with the congressman despite finding his actions and comments disturbing. “I have a hard time completely shutting the door on dialogue,” she told JI. But she was frustrated that Cawthorn’s office hadn’t yet alerted her to the upcoming call. “There’s no excuse that we haven’t heard from them.”

On Thursday evening, Bock said that Cawthorn’s office would be reaching out to Jewish community leaders over the next couple of days, but then added that he believed the process had already begun.

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