Explainer: Congress’s New Gentile-Led Torah Caucus 

By | Jan 31, 2022
L-R: Reps. Kat Cammack (R-FL); Don Bacon (R-NE); Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter; Henry Cuellar (D-TX); and Dan Meuser (R-PA) at the inauguration of the Congressional Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values. (Dirshu via JTA)

On January 11, the Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values was officially inaugurated by Representatives Don Bacon (R-NE) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX). Neither of these lawmakers is Jewish, but presiding over the inauguration was Dovid Hofstedtler, an Orthodox Canadian rabbi and real estate developer who catalyzed the caucus’s formation. The purpose of the caucus is to “be another tool in the fight to combat antisemitism. It is also focused on supporting our Israeli friends,” according to a statement from Bacon’s office. But the circumstances of its establishment—as well as the apparent absence of any of the 37 Jewish lawmakers in the House of Representatives—raised eyebrows and ire from some sectors of the American Jewish community.

“There are many challenges facing Jewish Americans, including the insidious threat of antisemitism,” tweeted Jewish Democratic Council of America CEO Halie Soifer. “With all due respect to our non-Jewish friends, the creation of this caucus is not the way to address them, nor are our ‘Torah values’ in need of your advancement.”

In addition, a group of nine Jewish organizations, including J Street, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Americans for Peace Now, published an open letter asking Bacon and Cuellar to disband the caucus, calling it a “misguided effort.” “To have chosen a single rabbi from outside the country led to a skewed sense of our community’s needs and values,” says the letter. “We hope that going forward, you will look to a diverse set of leaders from the American Jewish community on how best to support us in the fight against antisemitism.” The letter expressed concerns about the separation of church and state as well as the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

What was the genesis of the caucus? It appears that it all started with the group Dirshu, an Orthodox organization offering educational programs and financial incentives for working men to study the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Founded by Rabbi Dovid Hofstedtler in Toronto in 1997, the organization now operates in 26 countries. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have participated in its programs. Hofstedter is a child of Holocaust survivors, and has advocated against antisemitism and hate crimes in Congress before.

According to lobbying disclosures, Dirshu paid public relations strategist and attorney Josh Nass—now acting as spokesperson for the organization—$60,000 for lobbying activities in 2021. Nass attended the 20th anniversary celebration of Dirshu in Connecticut in 2017, writing about the experience as a blog post for the Times of Israel. Since then, he has also assisted Dirshu in promoting its Day of Jewish Unity, an international event meant to “afford both Jews and non-Jews across the globe the opportunity to refrain from bigoted speech and pray that this unfortunate trend [of antisemitism] will cease.” The event has been praised by individuals like Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, and Anthony Scaramucci, American financier and short-lived Trump communications director.

Nass insists that the caucus’s only purpose is to serve as a bulwark against antisemitism, and a way for every Jew in the country to have a congressional “hotline.” He says that the reason for putting “Torah values” in the caucus’s name is that “to Rabbi Hofstedter…a Torah value is combating antisemitism and protecting Jews of all stripes.” says Nass. “By the end of all this, nobody that is anything but well-intentioned will be anything but happy and proud of this caucus’s existence.”

According to an unnamed source closely involved in the formation of the caucus, Bacon and Cuellar were selected as cochairs because of their records as friends of Israel and of the Jewish people. The source says that the selection of non-Jewish congresspeople had been “arbitrary” because “plenty of Jewish members of Congress are going to be members of the caucus.” Citing potential backlash, the source would not provide any names, and stated that outreach had not yet begun, noting that this was a common byproduct of the timeline of the congressional caucus formation process. It is not unheard of for a caucus to serve a group unrepresented by its cochairs. For instance, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus is chaired by Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Jackie Speier (D-CA), both Catholic, and neither John Rutherford (R-FL) nor Mark Takano (D-CA)—chairs of the Deaf Caucus—have impaired hearing. The source also stated that once the caucus is up and running, American Jews who want to report antisemetic incidents will be able to reach out directly to Bacon’s office, which will then seek to address them, either through legislation or denunciation. “I can confidently tell you, they will hear back,” said the source. “Congressional statements are incredibly effective.”

How will the caucus differentiate itself from the existing House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, which has more than 100 members and is led by Representative Ted Deutch (who is Jewish) among others? “The purpose is to be another tool in the fight to combat antisemitism,” Bacon’s press secretary, Abby Schieffer, said in a statement. “It is also focused on supporting our Israeli friends. We are not replacing anything, just meant to add more support and another tool.” The only member of congress who appears to be involved in both the task force and the new caucus is Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, a cochair of the task force whose presence in pictures of the caucus’s inauguration led some to erroneously believe he was a member of the fledgling caucus. His office clarified to Moment that he only attended the event because he was meeting another representative there on his way somewhere else.

In a statement, Bacon’s press secretary Schieffer touted his strong relationship with the Jewish community, noting his support for Holocaust education, his routine meetings with Jewish constituents in his district, and the fact that he was the first member of the House from Nebraska to invite a rabbi to give the opening prayer in the House of Representatives.

Rabbi Mendel Katzman, head of the Chabad Center for the state of Nebraska, says Bacon is “truly concerned about the well-being of the constituency, all the way from personal and medical concerns to helping guide with values of morality and faith in a very inspiring way.” Katzman noted that Bacon was honored by being asked to light the shamash at one of Chabad’s Hanukkah events, and that he shared some insightful reflections at that time. “Without going into individualistic feelings of Judaism versus Christianity, for example, we talk about the common creator of the world in a very practical way, understanding that there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us,” he adds. “Congressman Bacon is really very open to learning and understanding and really getting a good feel of where all of the constituents are at.”

Katzman does have concerns about the caucus, although he is quick to offer the benefit of the doubt. “I’m usually more comfortable with some of the seasoned people that are in the game like Agudath Israel,” he says, referring to a political organization of Haredi Jews. “When I see groups coming from the outside, it raises a certain concern.” Katzman also does not see what the caucus’ goal of fighting antisemitism has to do with “Torah values.” “A Torah value could be eating kosher, which doesn’t apply to all people. Or celebrating Passover—those are Torah values,” he says. “If you stick to the seven Noahide laws and try to apply that as part of the overall ethics and so on, that would be something that I would support if it’s done in the right way. But to sort of try to take it over, like evangelicals would, and take the country in a specific religious direction—I wouldn’t see that being appropriate and I wouldn’t see that as Torah values.”

One specific direction feared by some observers is that the “Torah values” Hofstedter is interested in is that of rabbinical authority. “The implication is that for ’Torah Jews’ to genuinely have the right to religious freedom, they must be free to obey the declarations of their rabbis — even and especially when those declarations conflict with the policies and regulations of city, state, or federal governments,” wrote Judah Isseroff, a PhD candidate in religion, ethics and politics at Princeton University, in Haaretz. “Orthodox Jews have become so beloved of (not to mention fetishized by) some conservatives that certain Americans public officials are being transformed into lobbyists for Haredi self-rule.”

Dirshu spokesman Nass is confident that as understanding about the caucus’s purpose grows, appreciation will increase as well. Bacon’s office met with representatives from the National Council of Jewish Women last week, whose CEO, Sheila Katz, initially tweeted concern about the caucus. A spokesperson for the organization declined to comment on whether the meeting had addressed their concerns.

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