WASHINGTON – From 31 in 2009 to a likely 19 in January, the unofficial Jewish caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives is shrinking fast.
Jewish lawmakers have traditionally been the first stop for Jewish lobbyists seeking inroads for their issues, including Israel, preserving the social safety net, and keeping church and state separate. Additionally, lawmakers generally seek guidance from colleagues most invested in an issue.
Fewer Jewish lawmakers means the community could lose influence in areas where its voice has been preeminent.
“The Jewish community is going to have to work harder,” said one veteran official who has worked both as a professional in the Jewish community and a staffer for a Jewish lawmaker.
The 31 figure was the highest Jewish representation ever in the House, matched only in the early 1990s. The numbers dropped in part because of victories by the Tea Party wave of conservative Republicans in 2010 and a spate of retirements by veteran lawmakers elected in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We’ve lost a lot of seniority,” said the congressional staffer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, noting in particular the retirement this year of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Energy Committee, elected in 1974 and the dean of the unofficial Jewish caucus.
But Jewish lawmakers likely to be re-elected told JTA that a smaller Jewish caucus should not be cause for alarm.
“Jewish representation is still strong in Congress, and we are serving in positions of influence,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, told JTA in an e-mail.
In addition to Lowey, Jewish leaders in the House include Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said 19 members – 4 percent of the body –was still about twice the estimated Jewish representation in the population. In addition, Jews have constituted 10 percent of the Senate, a proportion not likely to shift after the midterms in November.
“We still, compared to other religious and ethnic minorities, have far beyond our percentage in the population,” she said in an interview.
Waxman said Jews in Congress, in both parties, made valuable contributions both on their community’s behalf and to the country.
“For the most part, Jewish members in Congress have lived up to what Hillel had to say when he said that if I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am not for others, who am I,” he told JTA.
“We care about issues of particular Jewish concern such as Israel, anti-Semitism, our Jewish brethren in other countries, the fight for Soviet Jews to be able to emigrate to Israel or anywhere else. But there are other issues I consider Jewish issues as well, which is to fight for a more just society for everyone to succeed to the extent their abilities will take them, that every child should have health care and education and not have impediments such as an inability to move from one class to the other.”
Other leaders who have left the stage in recent years include Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader felled by a Tea Party-associated challenger in a primary earlier this year and the sole Jewish Republican in Congress; Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the Holocaust survivor who was the body’s preeminent voice on human rights, who died in 2008; Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the one-time chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who lost an election in 2012; and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who until he retired in 2012 was the top Democrat on the Middle East subcommittee.