Jewish nonprofits push for additional changes to COVID bill
The House Budget Committee released a draft of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Friday that House Democrats are hoping to push through the lower chamber by the end of the week. But some Jewish groups are hoping to see further changes in the legislation.
The current 591-page draft of the bill includes, among other provisions, $1,400 checks for Americans, an extension of federal unemployment benefits and additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses — including nonprofits, funding for schools and vaccination efforts and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — which seems unlikely to survive the Senate.
This week, the House will further revise the bill before moving it on to the Senate, where it is likely to undergo a range of additional changes.
Shortly after the draft bill was released, the Jewish Federations of North America sent a letter to government affairs professionals calling on them to join a letter from the National Council of Nonprofits and a JFNA campaign advocating for changes to the COVID bill.
The Orthodox Union, JFNA, Agudath Israel of America, Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, Jewish Art Education Corporation, New York’s Jewish Museum and numerous local Jewish organizations signed the Council of Nonprofits letter in late January.
The letter calls for full unemployment benefit reimbursements for self-insured nonprofits. The current bill includes 75% reimbursements — up from 50% previously — but Nathan Diament, the director of the OU’s Advocacy Center, said the OU is pushing for further increases in the Senate.
Another major request made in the letter — increased charitable-giving incentives — is not included in the bill draft, and is unlikely to be added.
“That’s not in this package, frankly, because it’s expensive,” Diament said. “And even though $1.9 trillion is a lot of money, that would make it even more expensive. So that’s not in the cards.”
JFNA’s campaign focuses on Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — otherwise known as food stamps.
The current bill increases federal contributions to Medicaid home and community-based services by 7.35%. JFNA is calling for a 10% increase. The bill also increases Medicaid and SNAP funding, but to a lesser extent than JFNA requested.
The Jewish organizations backing changes to the legislation are also pushing to increase the funding available for Jewish elementary and secondary schools. The current bill allows non-public schools, including parochial schools, to receive funds designated for addressing learning loss and other academic, social and emotional impacts from the pandemic — including funding for additional instruction sessions like summer school or extra tutoring programs.
Under the bill’s current language, this fund will make up at least 20% of the total $128 billion being provided to the Department of Education.
Diament said the OU is advocating for non-public schools to be given access to a larger slice of the COVID relief funding, not just the learning loss fund. The restrictions introduced in the latest bill were not part of the original CARES Act passed last March.
“Here as currently drafted, it’s only for a very, very small part. So we’re trying to see if in the Senate, we can get that revised, so it follows the CARES Act precedent, and frankly so it’s more fair to Jewish, Catholic and other non-public schools,” Diament told Jewish Insider on Friday.
Despite the concerns, the current version of the bill does include many provisions that Jewish groups and other nonprofits had hoped to see.
Diament applauded Congress for expanding PPP eligibility for nonprofit organizations, another goal laid out in the Council of Nonprofits letter. Larger nonprofits had previously been mostly excluded from the PPP, a restriction which JFNA president Eric Fingerhut also previously bemoaned.
“This is something we and the Jewish Federation and others have been working on for months and months,” Diament said. “We’re thankful that now that’s been mostly corrected in this new legislation.”
According to Diament, the PPP changes are largely thanks to action from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Small Business Committee Chair Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).
Diament further praised increases to the child tax credit — to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 to children up to age 17 — as particularly impactful for the Orthodox community.
“The $3,600 tax credit is also going to be of significant help especially to larger families in the Orthodox community that have lots of kids and who are lower and middle income,” he explained.
Senate Democrats are optimistic that Congress can pass the bill — which will, at a minimum, require 50 Democratic votes in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris — and send it to President Joe Biden before March 14, when federal unemployment benefits are set to expire.
House Foreign Affairs Committee picks subcommittee leadership
House Democrats and Republicans are picking their leaders on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittees. Here’s a rundown of who is in charge of the committee in the 117th Congress:
Chair: Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) is the new chairman of the committee, and has promised “a leap towards a new way of doing business.”
Vice chair: Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a former assistant secretary of state, told Jewish Insider, “The job of the committee is not to be a cheerleader. Our job is to conduct oversight” on issues like the Iran nuclear deal.
Ranking member: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is entering his second term as the committee’s ranking member, had a collaborative relationship with former chairman Eliot Engel.
Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism subcommittee
Chair: Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) will serve another term at the top of the subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes Israel and its neighbors.
Vice chair: Freshman Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), the former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, told JI shortly after her election that getting placed on the House Foreign Affairs Committee would give her the opportunity “to stand up for” the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Ranking member: Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) is entering his second term as ranking member on the subcommittee.
Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights subcommittee
Chair: Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) has been the top Democrat on the subcommittee since she was first elected to Congress in 2011.
Vice chair: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who previously faced calls for her removal from the committee following 2019 remarks that invoked antisemitic tropes, was appointed vice chair last week, and some repeated their concerns.
Ranking member: Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who has been in Congress for more than 40 years, was the subcommittee’s chairman when the GOP controlled the House.
Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation subcommittee
Chair: Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) was reelected to chair the subcommittee, with plans to focus on China, North Korea and democratic decline in the region.
Vice chair: Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) emphasized his commitment to protecting Tibet and democracy in India when he was appointed as vice chair.
Ranking Member: Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) chaired the subcommittee from 2013 to 2014.
Europe, Energy, the Environment, and Cybersubcommittee
Chair: Rep. William Keating (D-MA) was reelected to a second term leading the committee.
Ranking member: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) is a former FBI agent in his third term in Congress.
International Development, International Organizations, and Global Corporate Social Impact subcommittee
Chair: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) was one of three members seeking the top spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was the committee’s vice chair in the 116th Congress.
Ranking member: Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) told JI she hopes to preserve and advance the Trump administration’s “significant inroads” on economic and national security issues.
Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration, and International Economic Policy subcommittee
Chair: Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), a refugee from Cuba, chaired the subcommittee in the previous Congress.
Ranking member: Rep. Mark Green (R-TN) is a U.S. Army combat veteran who participated in the capture and interrogation of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Quotable: “I’m delighted to be chosen to serve as the vice chair of the Middle East, North Africa and Counterterrorism Subcommittee,” Manning told Jewish Insider. “Israel is one of our most important allies and I will advocate for policies that ensure Israel’s long-term safety and security. I am also committed to addressing Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, including their continuing efforts to become a nuclear power and their fostering of terrorism around the world, including funding of Hezbollah and Hamas. In addition to these priorities, the Subcommittee must also work to root out antisemitism and to advance human rights across the globe.”
This post was updated at 11:35 on 2/18/21.
Josh Mandel goes all in for the Trump lane in Ohio’s Senate race
Former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel has long had his eye on the U.S. Senate. The 43-year-old Republican made his first bid for the upper chamber in 2012 in a failed challenge against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The following cycle, six years later, Mandel tried again but withdrew from the race citing family health concerns.
Last week, Mandel made clear that he was going for the hat trick when he entered the open-seat race to succeed Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who is retiring at the end of his term in 2022. Though Mandel, a Marine veteran, was the first to declare his candidacy in the Republican primary, the race is expected to be a crowded one. Several other Republicans, including Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) and former Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken, are considering bids.
“Republicans are going to have one of the messiest primaries we’ve ever seen,” said Justin Barasky, a partner at the Democratic media consulting firm Left Hook Strategy who worked as a campaign manager on Brown’s 2018 reelection bid. “There’ll be an opportunity for Democrats to prove themselves as a reasonable alternative.”
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) is expected to enter the race, while Amy Acton, Ohio’s former state health director, is currently exploring a bid. But Mandel insists that he is in a strong position as he enters the race with $4.3 million left over in his campaign account. “I’m confident that we will win the primary and go on to beat Tim Ryan, Amy Acton or whoever the Democrats put up in the general election,” he said.
Mandel, who claims that he entered the race in part because he believes the recent impeachment trial was “unconstitutional,” is positioning himself as a fervent Trump supporter. He avoids acknowledging that the former president lost the election and hopes he will run again in 2024. In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Mandel discussed his campaign. Edited excerpts follow.
Jewish Insider: Why are you running?
Josh Mandel: I think we need a new generation of conservative leaders in Ohio and in Washington. Unfortunately, there is this cabal of Democrats and Republicans who sound the same, stand for nothing and are more interested in getting invited to cocktail parties than they are in defending the Constitution. And I believe that we need strong America-first senators who are willing to fight for the ideals of economic freedom, individual liberty and constitutional values.
JI: That’s a Trump message. Do you think it will carry enough weight in Ohio given that Trump is no longer in power?
Mandel: I do. You know, Ohio is Trump country.
JI: When you say you’re running to help define the party’s future, are you envisioning that Trump will run again in 2024?
Mandel: I hope he does. I hope he runs for reelection in 2024 — pardon me, I hope he runs for president in 2024. And once again, I’ll be a full-throated supporter behind his candidacy. In Ohio in 2016, I was the first statewide official to support Trump. Late in the fall of 2016, after the AccessHollywood tapes came out and all these Republicans were jumping ship, I stuck with him. And in the 2020 reelection, I was part of a small group called the Trump 500, which is a small group of people around the country who raised over $500,000 for his reelection. I’ve been a strong Trump supporter. I think what he’s done for America, and what he’s done for Israel, is unrivaled, and I’m proud to call him my president.
JI: Have you spoken to him about your candidacy?
JI: Do you believe that Trump lost the election?
Mandel: Listen, I believe that there definitely was fraud in this election, just like there is in every election. And if I were a United States senator, I would have voted with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) in delaying the certification of the election to give time for an investigation to ensue. As a Marine Corps veteran who raised his right hand and took an oath to defend the Constitution, I feel like I was also taking an oath to defend the vote of every individual American because that vote and that voice of each citizen is precious, and it’s unique, and it must be protected. And so whether voter fraud occurs to the tune of millions of people, thousands of people or a handful of people, it’s still too much.
One of the things that baffles me is why, you know, the radical liberals oppose photo ID for voting. I mean, if you need a photo ID to get into the Democratic National Convention, and you need a photo ID to do a tour of the White House, why do you not need a photo ID to go vote? In my mind, photo ID should be one of the main priorities in protecting the people’s vote.
JI: What are your thoughts on Trump’s response to losing the election in the lead-up to the Capitol siege on January 6?
Mandel: I think President Trump told the American citizens to march peacefully. And I think ‘peacefully’ is a very clear word that every American understands. The events of January 6 are not President Trump’s fault. It’s the fault of people who chose to break the law. But what President Trump said was very clear — march peacefully — and I think everyone understands what the word peacefully means.
JI: What do you make of Rob Portman’s legacy?
Mandel: Rob is a friend and a statesman — and, you know, I was shocked to hear that he was retiring.
JI: Who in the Senate do you feel you have an affinity for?
Mandel: Ted Cruz. Mike Lee. Marco Rubio. Those are some.
JI: Amy Acton, who is being eyed as a potential Democratic candidate in the Ohio Senate race, faced some pretty vile antisemitic threats before she resigned from her position as Ohio’s health director last June. Do you have any comment on that?
Mandel: I didn’t follow those threats specifically, so I can’t speak to them. But I can tell you that I think Amy Acton did a horrible job as the state’s health director. Her numbers and predictions were completely wrong, and she’s the reason why many families in Ohio are facing economic ruin. Her dead-wrong predictions and her big hand of government invading the lives of small business owners and schools has, unfortunately, waged economic ruin on families and severely harmed the education of kids. I strongly and fundamentally disagree with Amy Acton’s shutdowns of family-owned small businesses, family-owned restaurants and schools throughout Ohio.
JI: Let’s pivot to foreign policy for a minute. Are you worried that Biden will reenter the Iran nuclear deal?
Mandel: Very worried. As a United States senator, I would combat every attempt by the Biden administration to empower and enrich Iran. I think that will forever be a stain on the Obama administration. I mean, the Obama Iran deal was horrible for America, horrible for Israel, and dangerous for anyone who believes in peace and freedom.
JI: On fundraising, are you confident that you’ll be able to pull in as much money as you were able to previously?
Mandel: Listen, I’m confident we’ll be successful in raising money, but this campaign is not going to be about money. This campaign is going to be one of the grassroots. We have an army of Trump activists and conservative warriors around the state who are backing my candidacy, and that will help propel us to victory.
JI: Anything you’d like to add?
Mandel: I guess I would add this: I’m raising my three kids to be proud Americans, proud Jews and proud Zionists. And I am very grateful for the support of evangelical Christians, Jews and others around the state and country who’ve been supporting me and my leadership advancing the U.S.-Israel relationship. One other thing I would say: I’m also proud to have many cousins who live throughout Judea and Samaria, and I believe that Jews have the biblical right to live, build and prosper in every corner of Judea, Samaria and the entirety of Israel.
David Schoen describes dysfunction within Trump’s impeachment team
Despite winning former President Donald Trump an acquittal in his second impeachment trial on Saturday, Trump’s defense team was plagued by inconsistent internal communication and coordination, last minute shake-ups and other management issues, according to attorney David Schoen — who, at least in theory, was the former president’s lead counsel.
Poor communication was a hallmark of the team from the beginning, Schoen explained in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday.
The lawyer said he was asked to join the team “three or four weeks ago,” and had discussions with the former president over the following days. Soon after, Schoen saw news reports that Trump had hired South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers. Schoen assumed that meant Trump had moved on — until he received a call from a Trump associate that he was still wanted on the team to “quarterback the whole thing” as the lead counsel.
Schoen and Bowers began coordinating, but the last weekend in January while Schoen was offline observing Shabbat, Bowers and his associates abruptly split with Trump. Schoen denied news reports that Bowers and Trump had clashed about strategy. “It wasn’t the right fit,” he explained.
Trump subsequently brought on Bruce Castor and others from his firm to assist Schoen in the case.
Schoen explained that the internal transitions left the lawyers with insufficient time to properly prepare and caused the team’s intended structure to fall apart. Schoen added that the disarray led the attorneys to finalize presentations mid-trial.
“[Trump’s team] asked me if I would work with [Castor], if I would take the lead and so on, but then [Castor] would help me and he has a firm that can help and all that,” the Alabama-based attorney explained. “I’m not sure that message was communicated to him clearly enough, because he never seemed to quite understand that I was supposed to be the lead in the case.”
Castor ultimately assumed command.
“He got into the case and started giving out parts on who’s going to do what,” Schoen said. Castor’s agenda, Schoen added, “was kind of based around giving him and his partner [attorney Michael Van Der Veen] leading speaking roles,” leaving Schoen to handle the argument over the Senate’s jurisdiction.
With Schoen focusing on jurisdictional arguments, his role was largely set to end after the first day of the trial. But Trump requested that he speak again.
“I just wrote up my own talk for jurisdiction, and that was going to be my little piece… but that wasn’t really coordinated with the president,” Schoen said. “The president had this other idea that he wanted me to speak more. He said, ‘I’ve made you the lead person. Why is it that you’re only doing that one part?’”
The attorney explained that Castor and his associates largely ignored him when he tried to assert himself as the lead counsel, but also blamed himself for not being more assertive.
“I wasn’t assertive. I didn’t tell them — I sort of did, I thought, but anyway they weren’t hearing it that I was supposed to be the lead person — but it’s just not my personality,” he explained. “They have a whole firm there. I’m just not going to say to another person I’m a better lawyer.”
Trump’s legal defense got off to a rocky start on Tuesday with a speech by Castor that was maligned by many, including a number of the former president’s closest allies. That speech was a “spur of the moment decision,” Schoen explained — Schoen himself was originally scheduled to deliver the opening argument.
“The House put on a pretty good presentation. [Castor] seemed to think he was the best lawyer on the team, or something. So he stood up and said, ‘I think I better jump in here,’” Schoen recounted. “He jumped in and obviously it was like a filibuster. It was not a good presentation.”
“I tried to back Castor up because everybody was coming down on him after that first performance. I thought, ‘This guy’s career is going to disappear,’” Schoen added. “But he didn’t… He still thought he did a good job.”
The New York Timesreported last week that Schoen briefly quit the team the Thursday of the trial, which he disputes.
“Since the president insisted that I speak again, I came up with a program for [Friday,] the last day when I would be there. And it was just a matter of whether that could be organized in time. And if it couldn’t, then I couldn’t really play any meaningful role,” he said. “But it turned out they got it organized in time. So that was all that was.”
Schoen told JI he stayed up through the night and did not finish his remarks until an hour before he delivered them to the Senate.
He only became familiar with one of his main talking points — that the Democratic impeachment managers and the media had misrepresented Trump’s comments about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — while preparing his speech.
“I learned preparing this thing for that day — I really learned the day before, maybe even the morning of my talk — that it’s a much longer speech. He actually affirmatively denounced white supremacists, white nationalists and all of that a couple of times during his talk,” Schoen said. Until that point, he said, he had been dissatisfied with Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
In Schoen’s view, Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results were largely incidental to the January 6 riot.
“January 6, I think, was put out there as a date which is something significant with respect to the election and the country and all of that. I think what is most likely is these folks, the violent folks, also focused on January 6 as sort of a defining date, but had their own agenda,” he said. “I don’t think their agenda had anything to do with appearing with all of the much larger group to hear President Trump’s speech. I think they were maybe opportunistic, on that day, and that day was kind of a central day put out there.”
The Senate voted to acquit Trump by a vote of 57-43 — a lower number of acquittal votes than Schoen had expected, which he blamed partly on the defense team’s performance during the question and answer session on Friday.
“I was pretty confident based on discussions with the senators… that we would have something like 45 or 46 votes,” he said. “Before Shabbos, I heard like two of the Q&As. I didn’t think that our side answered the questions the way they should have been answered. That might have had some influence.”
Schoen specifically mentioned Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who both voted to convict Trump. The senators asked Trump’s defense team for details about when Trump learned of the Capitol breach and what he did in response — questions the Trump team did not answer specifically.
He also broke with Van Der Veen, his co-counsel, who described the trial as his “worst experience in Washington.”
“I found it really inspiring. I love that place,” Schoen said. “I got to know some of the senators — at least on the Republican side… They were just very friendly and warm. But I really felt like it was a very weighty experience.”
Schoen involved his wife and children in his preparation process, making it a “civics experience” for his entire family.
“The experience itself for me was really an amazing experience. Seeing how government works — seeing how government’s dysfunctional, but really seeing it for myself. I care a great deal about those things,” he added.
On the first day of the trial, Schoen went viral on Twitter for covering his head with his hand while taking swigs of water during his speech. The Orthodox Jewish attorney explained that he usually does not wear a yarmulke or drink water during trials, but was feeling thirsty due to a recent bout with COVID-19.
“I was up there and I realized that I didn’t have my yarmulke on. So I was going to say a bracha, a blessing, before I drank. I wouldn’t say that without my yarmulke on. And I’m not used to eating or drinking without my yarmulke on,” Schoen said. “So the closest I could come to it was putting my hand over my head to still have a sense of God’s presence over this and sanctifying the drinking and all of that.”
Schoen added that “seeing the posts online afterwards made me feel really awkward and kind of embarrassed.”
Although some eagle-eyed viewers spotted Schoen wearing a yarmulke at points during other days of the trial, the attorney explained that he had forgotten to take it off when he entered the Senate chamber, and later did so.
Schoen was not concerned for his safety, even after, mid-trial, a vandal spray painted “traitor” on Van Der Veen’s driveway.
“It’s not nice and all that, but when I heard the news report, I was thinking they must have broken into the guy’s house,” he said. “A crazy guy can do anything at any point. But listen, I’ve been a civil rights lawyer 36 years in Alabama. When I lived there, I lived behind an electric fence. I have two German shepherds and I carry a gun. I was always very aware of threats then, I got many death threats all the time.”
“I don’t really like to discuss that kind of thing,” he said, when asked if Trump had paid him yet. “But I will say that he absolutely fulfilled every commitment made to me.”
This article was updated at 12:25 p.m. on 2/16/21.
Repairing the world from the Virginia statehouse
In Washington, D.C., the synagogues of choice for prominent politicians, pundits and the literary set are seen as spiritual status symbols. Indeed, certain ambitious political types have been known to choose a popular congregation because of its prestigious membership roster.
Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended High Holiday services at Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew famously did not work on Shabbat, which he often observed at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel, where Joe Lieberman was also a member when he served in the U.S. Senate. During the Trump administration, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attended services at the D.C. Chabad in Kalorama.
Half an hour from downtown D.C., in Springfield, Va., Congregation Adat Reyim does not have the name recognition or the cachet of the Beltway’s most esteemed congregations. But the synagogue has long counted Eileen Filler-Corn as a member. Elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2010 by a margin of just 37 votes, Filler-Corn, a Democrat, is now entering her second year as Virginia’s speaker of the House — the first Jewish person and first woman to hold the position. A year ago, just before she struck the gavel for the first time, she attended a celebratory Havdalah send-off at Adat Reyim. The music of choice? Filler-Corn’s favorite: Debbie Friedman, the late Jewish folk musician whose music is a mainstay at Reform congregations and summer camps.
“We might have done a Mi Shebeirach, that [Filler-Corn] would continue to have the courage to make her life a blessing,” said Rabbi Bruce Aft, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, referring to Friedman’s classic song about the Jewish prayer for healing. When Aft gave the invocation on the morning Filler-Corn was sworn in as speaker last year, his prayer incorporated more Friedman music, the Hanukkah song “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Filler-Corn’s rise from rookie lawmaker to House speaker in just 10 years owes much to Virginia’s fast-changing political identity, which saw the state change from purple to almost firmly blue over just a few years. As she rose in the party’s ranks, Filler-Corn kept her Jewish community close, inviting Aft to deliver invocations at the statehouse and hosting receptions in Richmond, the capital, for her Jewish supporters from around the state.
“She is incredibly proud of her Jewish background,” Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, told Jewish Insider, calling Filler-Corn “unapologetically pro-Israel” with “Jewish identity coursing through her veins.”
Filler-Corn served on the JCRC’s board before she was elected, and she remains on the boards of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, an organization that provides housing and other services for people with disabilities and mental illness in the Washington region.
Supporting the disabled community was one of Filler-Corn’s first forays into social action. As a child in West Windsor, N.J., Filler-Corn sold lemonade and hosted fundraisers to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Braille Society. The issue was personal to her: “Growing up, my mother had multiple sclerosis. And growing up, she was blind for much of my youth,” Filler-Corn told JI in a recent Zoom interview.
“What got me involved in politics really was tikkun olam, and just from a young [age] really wanting to give back and wanting to repair the world,” Filler-Corn explained.
Before starting at Ithaca College, Filler-Corn spent a gap year in Israel on Young Judaea’s Year Course program. One of her fellow participants was Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. When he moved to the area almost four years ago, Filler-Corn was one of the first people he reached out to. Now, he turns to her regularly for guidance on what he described as “the challenges we’re facing as a Jewish community during COVID.”
Filler-Corn’s tenure in the Virginia statehouse has been punctuated by other challenges for Virginia’s Jewish community. In early 2017, she spoke at a Jewish day school in Northern Virginia after it received bomb threats. That summer, white supremacists marched through the normally serene streets of Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Three months later, Democrats got within a coin toss — literally — of taking the majority in the House of Delegates, flipping 15 Republican seats. Filler-Corn was elected minority leader. “The past couple years have not been easy for her,” Preuss said. “She’s had threats against her.”
Filler-Corn’s political career has served as a kind of bellwether to national political trends: She was first elected in a special election in early 2010, just months after Republicans swept statewide offices in Virginia, foreshadowing the widespread losses Democrats would face in the 2010 midterms under then-President Barack Obama. When Republican State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli was elected attorney general, the Democrat representing Filler-Corn’s district decided to run for Cuccinelli’s seat, leaving an open House seat.
When she became minority leader in 2018, Virginia was fresh off an election seen as a repudiation of then-President Donald Trump. A year later, Virginia’s “blue wave” replicated itself across the country, with the Democrats winning control of the U.S. House for the first time since 2010.
But Filler-Corn’s electoral career began 11 years earlier, when she ran for the same seat and lost.
At the time her children were toddlers, and at a public debate, “somebody held up a picture of my children. And they said, ‘If you want to start making a difference, why don’t you start by raising your own children.’” Filler-Corn said she received criticism like this often in that campaign, noting that “no one ever asked [these questions] of men.” Later, as speaker, one of the first items on Filler-Corn’s agenda was pushing for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
She only decided to run again after being approached by Mark Sickles, another member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Fairfax County. “Often, with women, you need to be asked many times,” Filler-Corn explained.
After talking to Sickles, she heard from now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who at the time had recently left the governor’s mansion, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA); she had worked in both of the Virginia senators’ gubernatorial administrations, running their Washington offices. But it was a conversation with Anne Holton, Kaine’s wife (and the daughter of former Virginia Gov. Linwood Holton, a Republican), that convinced her to run. Holton told Filler-Corn that it was possible to reconcile public service and motherhood. “She just gave me the push that I needed,” Filler-Corn said.
Sickles told JI that it was “characteristic” of Filler-Corn to weigh her options, being a person who “likes to think through things.” That careful consideration has served her well in office. Being House speaker “is one of the hardest jobs I can imagine,” Sickles said, noting that Filler-Corn has to corral both a diverse group of vocal Democrats along with a rambunctious Republican caucus.
In 2016, she built a broad coalition of lawmakers to pass a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Filler-Corn wanted to showcase Virginia’s opposition to BDS, but she knew that the legislation would not send the right message unless it was supported by members of both parties.
“The goal is to get broad bipartisan support, so that it would be rejected by the entire legislature. This piece of legislation was dividing people along political lines,” said Halber of the JCRC. “With [Filler-Corn’s] magic touch, we were able to turn this into a win-win, where the legislature overwhelmingly condemned BDS and did it in a bipartisan fashion.” The bill passed with near-unanimous majorities in both houses.
Filler-Corn works mainly on the progressive priorities championed by Democrats across the country. After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring, she reconvened the House for a special session on racial justice. One of her first acts in office last winter was passing a slate of gun-violence-prevention bills, which Gov. Ralph Northam had tried to pass the year before after a 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. “The Republican majority gaveled out after 90 minutes of not passing any of those bills,” she said — but a year later, the Democrats had taken the majority.
Members of the Virginia Jewish community say that Filler-Corn has also proven a champion of Jewish issues. In a body not known for engaging with international affairs, Filler-Corn worked with the Israeli Embassy and the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, on whose board she previously sat, to pass a resolutioncommemorating Israel’s 65th anniversary in 2013. She said it just made sense that, as a pro-Israel Jew, she would work on that issue: “That was not something I necessarily had always thought of, but once I was there in that position, of course, I’m going to do that,” Filler-Corn said.
Filler-Corn has worked to beef up spending to nonprofits in the state. Halber told JI that Virginia “has traditionally been a state where nonprofits are not well-supported,” but added that Filler-Corn has been “a great ally to the nonprofit sector” who is “strengthening the social safety net for all Virginians.” She has helped bring government dollars to smaller nonprofits, he said, including religious providers of social services. “I’ll always work to help the 501(c)3 Jewish social services,” said Filler-Corn.
She has also sought to bring more Judaism to the state capitol. Last year she changed the institution’s weekly Bible study to an “interfaith devotional,” bringing together “members of clergy from all different religions and races” to discuss religious teachings. The devotional’s first guest: Rabbi Aft, Filler-Corn’s longtime rabbi and friend from Adat Reyim.
Just last month, the devotional met for the first time virtually, and it now takes place weekly on Zoom. Of course, that meeting isn’t the only part of legislating that has changed with the pandemic. Last year, Virginia’s legislative session — constitutionally mandated to take place over 60 days at the start of the year — wrapped up just hours before Northam declared a state of emergency for the pandemic.
The legislature met six weeks later under outdoor tents for the annual reconvened session, “usually a perfunctory exercise to address the governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation,” according to the Virginia Mercury. But Filler-Corn had the difficult task of working with the governor to walk back key policy proposals Democrats had passed, including a delay in increasing the state’s minimum wage, to amend the budget to meet the needs of the coronavirus crisis. It was “very depressing,” said Sickles. “But at least we’re in pretty good financial condition in the state, and we were able to put some of that [money] back later.” Now, Filler-Corn conducts the legislative session from an empty chamber in Richmond, while everyone else attends via Zoom.
Filler-Corn’s religious community moved online as well. She attended a Zoom Seder last year, and she acknowledges that she is “clicking on to services on a much more regular basis” these days. “Whether we’re focused on the discrimination or the hate and misogyny or antisemitism,” she explained, “or we’re talking about just how divided we are as a country… I think people need, really, to connect and unify even more. There’s more of a need for that. And we weren’t able to do that in person, but we can do that on Zoom.”
What continues to guide Filler-Corn is her connection to the Jewish community. “There are numerous times when she would either be giving a speech sponsoring a bill or having a vote on something, where she would contact me and ask me, ‘What does Judaism say about this?’” said Aft. “She wasn’t just putting on a show.”
Manning compares Capitol riot experience to running from Gazan rockets in Israel
Freshman Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), a former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, says her time with the organization has served her well on Capitol Hill, but in an unexpected way: The experience of fleeing from a Gazan rocket attack in Israel while on a JFNA trip prepared her to flee from the House gallery during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the congresswoman said Monday.
“Many of my colleagues were panicked, with good reason,” Manning said during a virtual JFNA meeting featuring nine freshman members of Congress. “But as my heart started to race, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been through much worse. I’ve had to run to bomb shelters in Sderot with sirens blaring and rockets overhead coming in from Gaza.’”
Manning was inside the House gallery, a balcony with spectator seating that overlooks the House floor, with several dozen other members of Congress when rioters breached the building last month and attempted to access both the gallery and the House floor. They initially took cover under seats, with gas masks on, and then had to climb through the seating area and under guardrails to reach an exit.
A Manning spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the Sderot incident.
“Who knew that being chair of JFNA would prepare me so well to be a member of Congress,” Manning added with a slight chuckle. “I’m sure I’ll be able to use things I learned there in the future, hopefully in less fraught circumstances.”
Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA), who recently joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee, discussed the need for bipartisan support for Israel.
“We have to be very intentional about not making [Israel] a political issue, not making it a partisan issue, not making it a political football, not using it as a wedge to separate different candidates of different parties,” Jacobs said.
She also wants to see the U.S.’s position as a credible negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict restored.
“It will be important for us to show that we can look ahead and really think about what the United States can do to help push for peace, push for a two-state solution, that we can become the trusted mediator again,” Jacobs said. “A lot of that has been eroded by the last four years, but I’m confident that the Biden administration is going to be doing everything they can to really be able to move us forward and push us closer to a two-state solution that I think we have a very short window to be able to do.”
Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), who is also Jewish and whose district in the Boston suburbs has a significant Jewish population, laid out the measures he believes are necessary to protect Jewish institutions.
The Massachusetts congressman called for stricter firearms regulations, explaining that he does not believe civilians should have access to assault weapons or high-capacity magazines and said that background checks should be mandatory for gun sales.
“As we have seen on January 6 and has been bubbling up for years now, we have a right-wing domestic terrorism problem in this country. And it’s got to be ripped out by the very roots,” Auchincloss said.
He said that solidarity with other groups targeted by extremists, including Black and Latino Americans, is crucial to pushing back against their influence. “If we’re not standing up for African Americans and Latinos, we’re not standing up for Jews either.”
Madison Cawthorn finally sets a date to meet local Jewish community
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.
Biden’s U.N. ambassador nominee pledges to support Israel at the U.N
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations, pledged to stand behind Israel in her role at the U.N. during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing Wednesday.
In response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Greenfield addressed attacks on the Jewish state at the U.N.
“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions that are proposed against Israel unfairly and… look forward to working closely with the Israeli embassy, with the Israeli ambassador to work to bolster Israel’s security and to expand economic opportunities for Israelis and Americans alike and widen the circle of peace,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It goes without saying that Israel has no closer friend than the United States and I will reflect that in my actions at the United Nations.”
The former assistant secretary of state for African affairs also praised the recent normalization agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, describing them as opportunities for further progress both within the U.N. and around the globe.
“I see the Abraham Accords as offering us an opportunity to work in a different way with the countries who have recognized Israel… We need to push those countries to change their approach at the United Nations. If they’re going to recognize Israel in the Abraham Accords, they need to recognize Israel’s rights at the United Nations,” she said. “I intend to work closely with the Israeli ambassador, with my colleagues across the globe, because this is not just an issue in New York — but also pushing our colleagues to address these issues with their countries bilaterally so that we can get a better recognition of Israel in New York.”
She also condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel unacceptable. It verges on antisemitism,” she said. “It is important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the United Nations.”
Thomas-Greenfield also said she plans to implement a robust approach to thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with the goal of engaging both U.S. allies and adversaries in countering the Iranian regime.
“We will be working with our allies, our friends, but we also have to work with other members of the Security Council to ensure that we hold Iran accountable,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “As the ambassador to the United Nations, if I’m confirmed, I will work across all of those areas to ensure that we get the support but [also] see where we can find common ground with the Russians and the Chinese to put more pressure on the Iranians to push them back into strict compliance.”
Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee did not raise the issue of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, a 2016 measure that declared that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories have “no legal validity” and constitute “a flagrant violation under international law.” In a rare step, the U.S. broke with Israel at the time and abstained in the Security Council vote on the resolution. In 2017, 78 senators cosponsored a resolution condemning the resolution.
Blinken confirmed as secretary of state despite some GOP opposition
The Senate confirmed Secretary of State Tony Blinken Tuesday afternoon by a vote of 78-22, the closest vote thus far for any of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees.
Nearly half of the Republican caucus opposed Blinken’s confirmation, with many citing both his and the Biden administration’s approach to Iran as primary reasons for their votes.
“What’s clear from Blinken’s desire to reenter a nuclear deal with Iran is that he did not learn from the many foreign policy blunders of the Obama years,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “We need accountability and clear thinking, not a retread of Obama’s failed foreign policy.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has been critical of the new administration’s emerging policy on Iran, echoed those views.
“The policies that Mr. Blinken has committed to implementing as secretary of state, especially regarding Iran, will dangerously erode America’s national security and will put the Biden administration on a collision course with Congress, and I could not support his confirmation,” Cruz said in a public statement. Cruz told JI last week ahead of a private meeting with the then-nominee that he believed Blinken’s statements on Iran reflected “naivete.”
A spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also cited Blinken’s positions on Middle East policy as one of the senator’s reasons for voting against the nomination, in a statement to JI.
“Senator Lee maintains significant reservations about Mr. Blinken’s approach to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, his blanket deference to multilateral organizations and agreements, and a posture that limits Article I input in foreign policy decisions where constitutionally required,” the spokesman said, referring to the U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances between the executive and Congress.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee voted 7-5 to advance Homeland Security Secretary-designate Alejandro Mayorkas’s confirmation to a full Senate vote. Two Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Rob Portman (R-OH), voted with the panel’s five Democrats in favor of Mayorkas.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the incoming committee chair, told reporters after the committee vote that Senate Democrats are working to set a date for Mayorkas’s confirmation vote.
Chuck Todd steps off the roller coaster
Chuck Todd, who moderates NBC’s long-running political program, “Meet the Press,” has covered every presidential inauguration since 1992, when he began his career in journalism as an intern at the Hotline, National Journal’s Washington tip sheet. Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony, he says, is one he won’t soon forget. “It was the most meaningful inauguration, I think, for anybody that has lived and worked in this town for 30 years after what happened on January 6,” Todd said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday, alluding to the deadly Capitol breach that left Washington, D.C., in turmoil.
“I’ll be frank, you spend this much time in this town, you become numb to the pageantry and the ceremony because we never had it any other way,” Todd, 48, elaborated. “It was always ceremonial, and we all knew the order of how this worked.” But the riot two weeks ago changed all that. Washington, on lockdown in the lead-up to the inauguration, had become a veritable military zone. “You suddenly feel vulnerable in what you thought was the safest city in the world,” Todd said. “That was the backdrop today. All of a sudden, every ceremonial part of the inauguration, you couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the vulnerability here?’”
The proceedings went as smoothly as possible, all things considered. Still, Todd recalls a time when his adopted city was considerably more laissez-faire — and he wonders what we have lost in the process of increasing security in the capital. “When I first got here in Washington, D.C.,” he told JI, “you could drive and I think you could even parallel park next to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Things have changed since then. “We boarded up our network’s windows, and we weren’t the only network that did this — all the networks that have a presence on Capitol Hill covered up their presence, covered the signs up with Hefty bags,” Todd said. “The question I have is, ‘How long are we going to live that way in this town?’ And that I don’t know the answer to. Is this going to be the start of where D.C. has to constantly feel on edge the way I think New Yorkers felt for a couple of years after 9/11?”
Whatever the outcome, Todd was hard-pressed to imagine a time when that tension goes away entirely. “People may feel relieved today, or they’re exhaling or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “But I can tell you how I feel. None of us believe what happened on January 6 is isolated. I mean, I hope it is. Obviously, we all hope it’s an isolated uprising that will never happen again. But what we’re seeing here, I think there’s a lot of concern that this is the beginning of a new way that D.C. is treated for a while.”
Even with that view in mind, Todd was still encouraged by the president’s inauguration speech calling for unity in an increasingly fractured political environment. “I do think that that only adds to the credibility of what he’s going to try to do,” Todd said of Biden’s appeal to bipartisan cooperation. “I don’t know if it’s going to work. But one thing about it is that I think there’s a genuine belief he’s going to try.”
“Biden’s going to want to work with Congress,” Todd added. “We haven’t had a president since LBJ who has actually looked forward to working with Congress. Don’t underestimate what that means.” Todd, who also serves as the political director for NBC News, speculated that Biden might be capable of bringing more Republicans to his side than such occasional moderate allies as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME). “I have this theory that in the first six months, he will find two dozen Republicans, on various issues, who he can work with.”
Asked to envision the journalistic landscape under the new president, Todd predicted that Biden’s apparent willingness to work with Congress will most likely change the way reporters seek out scoops. Though the president’s administration is expected to be a much more disciplined vessel than Trump’s leaky ship, there are ways to bypass tight-lipped presidential staffers, according to Todd.
“One of the hallmarks of the Obama years is it was easier to almost cover it outside in,” Todd said. “It was harder to cover it inside out because they were a tight unit. Not to say that there weren’t plenty of ways to report from the inside. I was inside being a White House correspondent. But it was always a lot easier to report on the White House through Congress.”
That precedent will serve reporters well, Todd suggested, as they cover the Biden administration. “If you’re a reporter in this town, the best White House scoops are going to come off from Capitol Hill,” he said. “As we all know, Capitol Hill isn’t as tight of a ship as the White House, now is it? So you’ll have that.”
Still, Todd is hopeful that Biden, who has appeared on Meet the Press a number of times in the past, will make himself available to the news media. “There’s a couple things that they can learn from Trump both on what to do and what not to do,” he mused. “One thing that they ought to learn from Trump is that, don’t have one story a day, don’t have one item a day that you’re trying to push or do, don’t get stubborn like that. Flood the zone, because you might get more accomplished if you do that. But the other thing is, be careful. I do think Trump’s words became meaningless. I can’t tell you the day they became meaningless, but you know what I mean?”
“If you worked or lived in Washington,” the past four years were “a bit traumatic in different ways,” according to Todd, who was often singled out for ridicule by the former president. Not that he worried too much about Trump’s taunts. “Look, I’m a big boy. That’s fine,” he told JI. “In some ways, I got numb to it,” Todd added. “But my family didn’t.”
Todd described his chaotic experience bearing witness to the Trump years on national television as akin to a non-stop roller coaster ride. “The closer you were to covering him, the more unstable it always felt,” he said. The ride stopped, he said, not on inauguration day but when Trump’s Twitter account was suspended, leaving the former president without his most powerful megaphone in his final two weeks in office.
“It finally stopped and it’s like, I’m finally off the ride, I’m not going to throw up anymore,” Todd said. Finding his bearings, though, could take some time. “You might still be trying to steady yourself, and I do think a lot of the press corps feels this way.”
The inaugural proceedings, despite the ominous militarized backdrop, appear to have helped Todd find his balance, even if only temporarily. “I just felt like I sat up straighter paying more attention to every little part of this inauguration,” he said. “It’s not as if I never did, but it was like, you just didn’t want to take it for granted.”