By Rabbi Hal Schevitz
Chair, Richmond Council of Congregational Rabbis
Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a meeting with several community leaders as we met with our Senator, Tim Kaine, and a few members of his staff. This meeting included Rabbis along with Federation/JCRC staff, and lay volunteers. The Senator was very generous with his time, dedicating over an hour of his very busy schedule to us. This was even during the Senate’s vote on the Covid relief package which could have pulled him away at any moment. Lucky for us, he was not called away during our time together.
We requested the meeting to ask questions on a matter we felt was very important to our community. We did so in an attempt at dialogue and what resulted was an open and honest conversation with our state’s representative in the most august body in the nation. After some brief greetings and introductions, Senator Kaine spent the first 30 minutes of the hour listening to us and our concerns before responding to address them.
For me, this was a perfect example of the power of direct advocacy - whether that advocacy is with a local, State, or Federal official. One important aspect of being a Jewish community leader is forming relationships with those outside of the community. Building relationships can sometimes be difficult, but it is the key to getting to know others, and having others get to know us as a community: how we think about ourselves; how we organize; what our concerns are; etc. Once these relationships are built, we can then move to deeper conversations about substantive issues.
Senator Kaine, himself a Richmonder, has many friendships and connections to the Richmond Jewish community. He has always been a great ally of our Jewish community and a strong supporter of the State of Israel. We have done the work to build and maintain that relationship. So, during a Senate confirmation hearing in January, when Senator Kaine made comments about Israel’s vaccine success that raised our eyebrows, we leveraged our relationship with the Senator to address our concerns. It was a give and take, where we shared how our community processes certain comments about Israel - and Senator Kaine reflected on his deep ties and connections to the State of Israel. As knowledgeable on this issue as Senator Kaine is, he heard us and thought a bit more about how his comments may have come across. And we heard him out - and listened to his very strong feelings about Israel and the future of the Middle East.
At the end of this cordial, yet important conversation there was a feeling of camaraderie and mutual understanding by all parties. We, the Jewish community leaders, felt that our questions had been handled with a great deal of respect, and Senator Kaine expressed a keener sensitivity to the issues that concern not just the people on the video call, but also the wider Jewish Community in Richmond who we were there to represent.
But the meeting was much more about this one issue. It was about how our legislators are there to work for us, to be responsive to us - and how we have every right - in fact an obligation - to reach out when we feel we need to be heard. It is also about how much we can get done with dialogue, discussion, and diplomacy. In our current world of social media and anonymous vitriol, we sometimes forget that we can actually speak direct “truth to power.” I am proud to say that our community, represented by our Federation and our JCRC, does this often. Whether the opportunity is a meeting of 10 during our Virginia Jewish Advocacy Day, a larger forum during our Legislative reception, or a smaller more intimate meeting like the one with Senator Kaine, you can join us in these efforts and help move our Jewish community agenda forward. Please contact JCRC@JewishRichmond.org to find out how you can get more involved.