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Monday, September 23, 2019

Getting 1,000 people to Washington, D.C. from all over the tri-state area into 466 meetings with almost 90 percent of the U.S. Congress—and guiding them on what to say when they are in those meetings—requires intense planning by the three co-chairs of the NORPAC Mission last week. Richard Schlussel, Laurie Baumel and David Steinberg started planning in January, when they met with participating community representatives to assess current trends on the Hill compared to last year and put together a to-do list.

Bus transportation had to be arranged. Food had to be ordered—including breakfast on the bus, lunch on arrival, and dinner on the return trip home. Area leaders had to choose group leaders from their communities who had experience with previous missions and who enjoy public speaking. NORPAC representatives spoke in schools and synagogues to encourage participation. Once registration closed, the 1,000 attendees had to be organized into groups and assigned to meetings.

NORPAC’s goal in Congress is to ask for support for bills that are crucial to Israel’s security. Schlussel said they began targeting legislation for the meetings about two months in advance. “We survey other organizations and our contacts in Congress to see what legislation is pending and what is most important. The legislative agenda is often fluid and our talking points can change.”

Talking points are crucial to the mission’s success. The co-chairs zero in on the legislation they want to discuss, research the topics and provide briefing sheets to all attendees. Training sessions were held to review the material and train attendees on presentation. Participants were urged to study the issues and study the congressmen they were scheduled to meet. They were advised to learn about what committees the legislators were on and what interests they had. Then they could relate those to Israel. Etiquette was also stressed: cell phones off; no texting at the table. The group was also told not to complain if the legislator they were scheduled to meet was late. And if it looked like there would be a conflict with the next session, the group should split up to attend both meetings.

This year, mission participants asked Congress to support: the Fiscal year 2014 foreign aid bill which includes $3.1billion in military assistance to Israel; Fiscal Year 2014 appropriation of $220 million in Iron Dome funding; the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act (House only) to toughen sanctions; Senate Resolution 65, backing Israel against Iran; and the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2012 to enhance US-Israel security cooperation.

Participants were also told to ask Congress to raise issue of incitement and glorification of terror in Palestinian education when they meet with leaders of the Palestinian Authority. A day or two before the mission, NORPAC got a rough outline of a new piece of legislation, Senate 892, the Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act to block Iran’s access to its foreign exchange reserves. It was introduced on the day of the mission and NORPAC was able to advocate for it.

On the ride home, group leaders fill out forms about how the meetings went and include questions they received from congressional offices that needed answers. Schlussel said changes have been made in the mission’s structure in response to feedback from attendees.

Schlussel said the most fulfilling parts of his role as co-chair is hearing that the attendees had an incredibly meaningful day and being thanked by Congress for the important work NORPAC does.

It’s a job that NORPAC must do annually as the issues and members of Congress change. “Forty percent of the legislators are relatively new and have served less than one term in the Senate or two terms in the House,” Co-chair Laurie Baumel said. “There is a tremendous turnover in Congress and we have to educate them.”

The co-chairs are getting some rest now, and catching up on everything that got eclipsed by the mission. Why spend so much time on a volunteer project?

“The work NORPAC does to help strengthen the US-Israel relationship has very real effects both here in the US and in Israel,” Schlussel said. “I wanted to help with that work.” So did one thousand other people who took time off for a day that began before the sun came up and ended long after it went down.

By Bracha Schwartz