On Thursday afternoon, July 19, 15 members of the Reform Movement’s American Leadership met with Jack Lew, White House Chief of Staff to discuss important domestic issues and American-Israeli relations that expressed key Reform Jewish values. The meeting took place in the Roosevelt Room of the White House West Wing, immediately adjacent to the Oval Office, and was an opportunity for Mr. Lew, also Jewish, to discern the policy concerns and hopes of the Reform movement, passing along those concerns to relevant staff members within the Administration. Similar leadership meetings had also recently occurred in the White House between Mr. Lew and Conservative movement leadership, as well as Orthodox movement leadership.
In the recent meeting between the Chief of Staff and Reform Leadership, 15 rabbinic and lay leadership participated, among them, Wise Temple’s Senior Rabbi Lewis H. Kamrass. “I was honored by our movement’s leadership to be included with key lay leaders, as well as my significant rabbinical colleagues and friends, who are all so well regarded,” remarked Kamrass. Among the participants were Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College, and its Board chair Irwin Engelman, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, newly appointed president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and its Board Chair Stephen Sacks, as well as Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Washington, D.C. based Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Steve Fox, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Along with Kamrass, there were four other congregational rabbis from the Reform movement and four national lay leaders.
During the meeting, the Reform movement representatives raised a number of issues to discuss with Jack Lew and the administration, including expressing appreciation for the Administration’s deepening of its relationship with Israel, including America’s establishment of its deepest military strategic and intelligence cooperation with Israel, and the Administration’s support of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Discussion of issues regarding Iran and American-Israeli perspectives also took place.
With regard to domestic issues, issues raised and discussed included tax policy, health care issues for the poor and working class in light of recent Supreme Court rulings regarding Medicaid and the possibility that some states might participate in that federal funding of expanding health care coverage for the poor while other states may not participate in those programs.
In addition, issues of religious liberty with regard to current issues were discussed including contraception, women’s access to health care and their own reproductive decisions, and other religious freedom issues. Also discussed were Employment Non-Discrimination issues for all Americans regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the DREAM act and issues of immigration, and the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), once known as food stamps and anticipated Congressional cuts in funding of that program for the poor and working class. Education concerns were also discussed, including student loans. These were among the issues raised in the meeting and among the many issues in the federal government of concern to the Reform movement.
Rabbi Kamrass indicated that while the group raised several issues, that he was “deeply impressed by the Chief of Staff’s breadth and depth of knowledge of policy details that were expressed without the need for consulting any notes. In addition, his obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness for issues is as deep as his concern for people.” Kamrass was particularly impressed that as the Reform leaders began the conversation from the Torah portion of the week, and the moral and leadership issues it raised, Mr. Lew, himself a religiously practicing Jew, responded by extending that conversation of Torah into other issues. “I was impressed by Mr. Lew’s understated tone that did not need to call attention to his immense intellectual capacities, by his thoughtful analysis of many topics, by his breadth of knowledge, and by a deep, but quiet sense of passion for service and leadership that not only reflects his character, but also his well-regarded career,” said Rabbi Kamrass.
Before becoming Chief of Staff, Jack Lew served twice as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), as well as Deputy Secretary of State for Management Resources and Chief Operating Officer of the State Department. In addition to his government service through the years, Mr. Lew has been Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of New York University, and professor of Public Administration and served on many Boards and in other roles.
In reflecting upon the meeting, Kamrass indicated that it was significant that a Jewish White House Chief of Staff had initiated and hosted these meetings with American Jewish leadership in the West Wing, with a spirit of openness, responsiveness, and clarity that speaks not only to his leadership, but to the voice that we have as American Jews in our political system.
“I believe that as the fifteen of us gathered together with the White House Chief of Staff, that all of us in the room had grandparents and great-grandparents, immigrants to America, who could not even have imagined such a gathering taking place. I was deeply gratified to raise the issues important to us, to be heard, and to be included in such a meaningful moment with respected colleagues,” Kamrass noted.