Staffers Seek Hill Inspiration

Posted January 5, 2009 at 4:13pm

It’s noon on a Friday, and Tom Jones has just laid out a spread for this week’s Torah study session. Staffers filter into the conference room of South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s office and help themselves to pita, hummus and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies before the meeting begins.

The setting is relaxed, and the study sessions last only an hour. But for staffers like Jones and the handful of regulars who meet every Friday, it’s a chance to take time out from a hectic work week to connect with their faith and in some instances strengthen the link between their jobs and their beliefs.

The gatherings are organized by the Congressional Jewish Staff Association and are open to staffers and “Hill-related” folks who may not be with a particular Member’s office but have an interest in Torah studies and are still connected to government work.

At this particular meeting, politics does come up as Rabbi Jessica Oleon of the Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington explores the story of Jacob and Esau. Oleon suggests that in some ways, Jacob is like a political operative — “able to get what he wants from many situations.”

The connections between biblical texts and working in politics do extend deeper as well. Torah session regular Bill Dauster sees a long tradition of Jews serving in advisory roles to influential figures.

“Tradition does respect the adviser to power, beginning with the Joseph stories,” Dauster said, referring to the Joseph of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and became an adviser to the king of Egypt.

Jews who choose to serve by working as some kind of aide or counsel to Members echo that tradition.

“There is a role in the history of the Jewish kings. They had a prophet advising them. That’s long-standing in Jewish tradition,” he said. “You’re looking out for those who have difficulty looking out for themselves, looking out for the stranger,” he added. “You were a stranger in Egypt. You were a visitor in Egypt.”

Beyond the biblical connections, some Jewish staffers say that working in government is a way to fulfill the sense of public service ingrained in them by their faith.

“I came in with [the mindset of] leaving the world a better place than it was when I found it,” said Jones, who is a professional staff member for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Given the fast-paced, demanding nature of working on the Hill, events like the study sessions, and the existence of the Congressional Jewish Staff Association, give staffers opportunities to connect to their faith and to exchange different viewpoints.

Jewish staff events are bipartisan, reflecting the varying ideologies within the community. Finding this common thread across party lines has been a tradition among Jews on the Hill, at least since the first phase of the CJSA was established about 10 years ago.

Charles Konigsberg was working as minority chief counsel for the Senate Rules Committee when he founded the bipartisan Jewish Staff Forum in 1988.

“There had never been any kind of Jewish organization for Jewish Members or staff,” said Konigsberg, who also worked as general counsel for the Senate Finance Committee before moving to the Concord Coalition, where he is now chief budget counsel. “I think that Hill staffers are isolated from each other sometimes. It served as a means of Hill staffers to interact with” one another.

The Jewish Staff Forum hosted speakers, such as the ambassador to Israel, along with writers to speak on different issues.

Dauster said the Jewish community is “more apparent” than it was, say, 20 years ago, but also said he thinks there is “still a level of regular observance that is lacking from the Hill.”

Though conservative and liberal staffers may differ in their political views, Jones says he believes they are all there to serve a common purpose.

“I think if you’re up here, you’re here to make the world a better place,” he said. “I don’t see a rift between politically conservative Jews and liberal Jews.”

In keeping with this theme of reaching across varying ideologies, Jones said rabbis of different religious backgrounds alternate leading the sessions. This broadens the appeal to people who belong to certain sects of Judaism, and the spectrum of the study groups.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the orthodox National Synagogue praised the way the sessions are set up because “you always get new perspectives.” He first became involved on the Hill through the chaplain’s office and he is now part of a regular rotation for the staff group.

The meetings are significant both spiritually and practically, he said. “Where people are engaged in professional life where work is all-consuming, they’re going to realize too late what’s missing,” he said.

“Studying the Bible gives you fresh perspective on political issues,” he added.

Oleon started working with the group last fall. When her synagogue received an e-mail looking for someone to help lead discussions, she welcomed the opportunity.

“As a woman rabbi and as a Reform rabbi, you’re sometimes less visible in important ways, and [alternating rabbis] provides balance,” she said. “I like that they are asking for different perspectives.”

Though Jones says there is a “pretty vibrant Jewish community” on the Hill, he admits he would like to see more staffers participate in the Torah sessions. About a dozen people typically show up, he said. The group meets at noon every Friday, and he has started bringing food for participants as added enticement.

Dissecting the words of the Torah “develops a thought process that lends itself to working up here,” he said.

And, he said, the meetings are a “rejuvenating” time. He can focus on something bigger than work and disconnect from the demands of professional life.

“It’s the only time during the day that I’ll put the BlackBerry away and turn it off,” he said.