Jewish leaders from New York and Washington met with 16 black representatives from across the nation last week to clear up misunderstandings and forge closer ties. The meeting was noteworthy for the large scope of participants: including Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, John Lewis of Georgia and the dean of New York’s delegation, Harlem’s Charles Rangel.
But also creating a buzz are reports that the event was put together by a 21-year-old summer intern from Flatbush.
"I’ve never seen something this big coordinated by an intern," said one Jewish participant.
Last Thursday’s breakfast was the brainchild of Michael Cohen, a political science major at Brooklyn College placed in the office of Brooklyn Democrat Rep. Edolphus Towns by the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. Towns, an African American, represents heavily Jewish areas such as Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights.
In late June, Towns called Cohen into his office and asked for a briefing on the recent Israeli election in advance of his meeting with a Jewish group.
"I said to him, ‘If you have questions about Israel, and you have a high Jewish constituency, imagine what questions the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus might have,’" said Cohen, a graduate of Yeshivah of Flatbush. Shortly afterward came a wave of racist attacks against Jews and blacks linked to a white supremacist group.
"There was a need to reinvigorate the black Jewish dialogue [in Congress] that had been dead for two years because of fighting over foreign aid," said Cohen.
Cohen spent the better part of July calling black representatives or their chiefs of staff, culminating in last Thursday’s breakfast, in which 16 members of the CBC were briefed on the new Israeli government and other issues by Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York; Brad Gordon of AIPAC; and Rab bi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
"It was a very important session," said Hoenlein. "They asked very specific questions and indicated a desire to continue the dialogue."
Said Towns: "There has not been enough communication between us. We seem to be drifting apart, and this is a way to tighten [the relationship] back up."
The meeting came as the House was considering passage of the foreign aid budget, which was approved on Tuesday. Some caucus members were concerned that past votes against the bill, which includes millions of dollars for Israel, might be misunderstood, said Towns.
"They are not anti-Israel, but felt that Africa is not being treated fairly and should get more discussion," said Towns.
Later the same day, the black representatives joined 11 Jewish colleagues in a press conference calling for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is to be debated this week.
The coordinator of Cohen’s OU internship program, Josh Sussman, said Cohen had "hit the ground running. He knew what he wanted to do. We want our interns to be a resource as well as have a learning experience. They are not going to affect massive policy, but they have something to offer."
It is not the first political experience on Cohen’s resume. He’s worked on the 1998 congressional campaign of Councilman Noach Dear and the City Council bid by Alan Sclar, although both Brooklyn Democrats were unsuccessful. He also does Jewish liaison work for Public Advocate Mark Green. "I have the so-called political bug," he said. "I plan to run for office as soon as possible."
Towns said he hoped to continue the black-Jewish meetings on a regular basis, an idea welcomed by Reva Price, the Washington activist for the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. "Blacks and Jews vote similarly," said Price. "They should be talking more."
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas accepted at least $35,000 for his re-election bid last year from a conglomerate widely seen as driving up the cost of Jewish funerals in New York, according to campaign finance records.
A report by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs in February noted that the Houston-based Service Corporation International "owns at least 10 percent of the registered funeral homes in New York City and conducts about 13 percent of the funerals in New York City. … Consolidation is leading to higher funeral prices. An SCI funeral costs about 25 percent more than a funeral at an independent funeral home."
SCI owns more than 3,700 cemeteries, crematoria and funeral homes, including formerly private, Jewish-run chains such as I.J. Morris and Riverside Chapels. Its aggressive moves in the death care industry here have prompted the state Legislature to prohibit the operation of both cemeteries and funeral homes by the same for-profit entity.
The Washington Post reported this week that Bush (whose $37 million war chest puts him at the top of the heap of Republican presidential candidates) has been subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit by a former state employee who claims she was fired from a funeral regulatory commission for pursuing an investigation of the SCI’s political influence.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind says he’ll help raise funds to keep his friend, embattled Rep. Mike Forbes of Long Island, in office. Forbes is likely to face a serious challenge next year after jumping ship from the Republican party to become a Democrat.
"He goes beyond being a good friend of Israel," said Hikind, a Borough Park Democrat who hosted Forbes (the non-Jewish grandson of a rabbi) on his radio program last week. "He’s been to Hebron and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem with me. There are not too many members of Congress who will go to those places."