The bipartisan duo creating community for Jewish Hill staffers

The Congressional Jewish Staff Association has big post-pandemic plans

For many of the thousands of Jewish young people who have traveled to Israel with Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trip has led to lasting friendships and even marriages. 

Because this is Washington, a fateful 2019 Birthright trip led to professional advancement. 

In this case, friendships formed on the trip proved useful for the Congressional Jewish Staff Association, a nonpartisan organization that provides programming and mentorship for the hundreds of Jewish Capitol Hill staffers. Charlotte Kaye, a Republican, and Justin Goldberger, a Democrat, hit it off and befriended their trip leader, Joel Cohen. Cohen, who now works for Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), was finishing up a stint as president of CJSA, and he thought Kaye and Goldberger were the right people to take over leadership of the group. “Our Birthright leader actually passed it on to Charlotte and myself,” said Goldberger. 

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider at a Capitol Hill cafe, Kaye and Goldberger suggested that the vicious partisanship of the past year has amplified the need for CJSA’s cross-party relationship-building. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Kaye said, made it “easier” for the organization to bring people together. “It was a traumatizing experience,” she explained. “I think we were all looking for some sort of healing and peace — not peace fully, but some sort of understanding of how to move forward.”

Among members of Congress, across-the-aisle collaboration can be hard to come by these days, particularly after Jan. 6. Democrats and Republicans have been sparring this week about funding for Capitol Police in the wake of the Jan. 6 events. But the policy experts, schedulers, speechwriters and chiefs of staff who handle the day-to-day business of Congress see friendships with aides of the opposing party as a good thing. CJSA, which was founded in 1998 and adopted its current name roughly a decade ago, seeks to create opportunities for those relationships. 

“I remember being intimidated coming to D.C. when I was 22, a staff assistant on the Hill, desperately trying to find some sort of group to fit in with,” said Kaye, a staff member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). She discovered the group two years ago at a lunchtime Passover Seder the organization hosted at the Capitol. “Finding out the CJSA existed and you could start to recognize faces and know people was comforting,” said Kaye. 

Some of CJSA’s bipartisanship is strategic. It’s Washington, after all; young staffers know they need allies to make it in the cutthroat world of Capitol Hill. 

There are no exact numbers on how many Jewish staffers work on the Hill, but CJSA’s email listserv has more than 500 members. “The advice I always give entry-level staffers is to build your network, because you never know who will be your first foot in the door,” said Goldberger, senior policy advisor for Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA). “I have friends who are Republicans on the House side, and it’s a lot easier to find sponsors for a bill if you have a relationship with them prior.”

But groups like CJSA also help young people find community at a workplace that pays little and requires long hours. “My best friends still are people that were in entry-level jobs answering phones when we first came to D.C. and bonding over that,” said Kaye.

CJSA has existed for more than 10 years, but Kaye and Goldberger took over with the hopes of formalizing some of its programs and increasing its offerings. 

“We started realizing that other staff associations were a lot more legitimate,” said Kaye, referring to groups like the Congressional Women’s Staff Association and the Congressional Black Associates. (In years past, a Staff Association Fair — the grown-up, Washington version of a college extracurricular fair — has been held to introduce Hill employees to different membership groups.) “We wanted to bring that organization to CJSA, because there’s such a big Jewish community and it’s kind of a loss if we don’t take advantage of that,” Kaye explained. 

“I think making [the group] more formal hopefully will cover everyone and be a little more inclusive,” said Goldberger. He wants CJSA to be an organization that actively brings in new people, so that if a new staffer shows up to an event for the first time, they won’t feel awkward lingering on the outside of a circle of older staffers who all know each other. “I wish there had been, when I was a young staffer, someone who would actively reach out and be like, ‘Hey, we’re having a Pride Shabbat, you should show up.’ Or, ‘Hey, we have a mentor-mentee program, we’d love for you to sign up.’”

The big changes Kaye and Goldberger hoped to make when they took over as co-presidents last year included hosting more regular programming and events with members of Congress, creating a mentorship program and instituting dues. But then the COVID-19 pandemic began, and CJSA had to pivot to virtual programming. 

“It was tough,” Goldberger said. But CJSA managed to keep members engaged throughout the pandemic. A number of Zoom cooking classes with popular Jewish food institutions in the District included a bagel-making class hosted by Bethesda Bagels and a kugel-making class with Schmaltz Brothers, a kosher food truck. CJSA hosted mindfulness and meditation workshops in the wake of Jan. 6 and joint events with other groups such as the LGBT Staff Association. Some CJSA members convened regularly for a “Booze With Jews” virtual happy hour, and at times members of Congress — including Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) — joined in. 

“Something too that was really cool to see was we had a lot of district staffers and state staffers join us for the virtual events,” said Kaye. “That was nice, for them to be able to connect with the D.C. staff and other Jewish staffers from back home in the district.” 

Although most visitors are still barred from Capitol Hill because of COVID restrictions, many staffers have begun to return to the Capitol and surrounding offices. At the end of this month, CJSA will hold its first in-person happy hour in a year and a half. “We’re excited to get off the screen,” Goldberger noted. “We saw a drop off of attendance in our virtual events. People just don’t want to do it anymore,” Kaye added. 

Also in the works is a mentorship program, where senior Jewish staffers will be paired with a younger aide to mentor. CJSA also hopes to restart “staff dels,” or staff delegations, where staff members visit a particular part of the U.S. to learn about a topic (such as national parks) or another country, similar to the “codels” — congressional delegations — that regularly take legislators to particular areas. Kaye said CJSA hosted staff trips to Israel and Japan several years ago. 

“We have the opportunity to start traditions that we didn’t have before,” said Goldberger. “I know personally I would love a Hanukkah CJSA party… similar to the White House [that] has a Hanukkah or Christmas party — like that, but more for staff.” 

And one goal that they know is a long shot: getting Jewish members of Congress to host parties or Shabbat dinners for Jewish staffers. Before Kaye or Goldberger were on the Hill, members occasionally attended CJSA-affiliated Shabbat gatherings. 

“I heard that [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer used to have these epic Jewish happy hours to set up Jewish singles on the Hill,” said Kaye. “He’s notorious for setting up a bunch of Jewish singles,” added Goldberger. (This is true — a 2012 report in The New York Times found that 12 couples who met in Schumer’s office had gotten married. He signed a ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, for one couple, and another named their dog after him. “Forget Master of the Senate. This is the Yenta of the Senate,” The Times wrote.)

“We want to have that tradition and camaraderie,” said Kaye, “more so than we’ve ever been able to do in the past.”

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