Until recently, the vast majority of frum families in the US were concentrated in a fairly small number of cities and suburbs. Today, thanks to growing numbers—and a welcome decline in anti-Semitism—Orthodox Jews are making homes in a diverse array of locales around the country. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: In communities with emerging Orthodox neighborhoods, local elected officials may lack any knowledge of their new constituents. Ignorance often breeds insensitivity and impatience. The result is a plethora of clashes, especially over municipal or county issues such as zoning rules and traffic ordinances. Even a simple parking restriction near a synagogue or day school may spark bitter arguments. A more complicated matter, like establishing an eruv, can become embroiled in costly litigation. Most of these situations are not fueled by ill will—at least not at first. But miscommunication or unrealistic expectations are enough to cause delays, disputes and enduring resentments.
There is a better way. Whether or not you have experience with government, you and your neighbors can become influential advocates for the Orthodox community. With a small investment of time and effort, you can learn basic lobbying techniques that will head off potential collisions with local, county and state officials. Should problems still develop, these skills will help resolve them. Moreover, lobbying gets easier and more effective with practice.
Here are the five building blocks of successful lobbying.
Get to know your local officials.
The importance of establishing relationships cannot be emphasized enough, especially if you live in a recently established frum enclave. It is also very easy to accomplish. Not only are politicians outgoing by nature, they are always eager to meet new voters. They will be pleased to welcome you at their offices or visit a synagogue or other community hub if you extend a personal invitation. These meetings need not be lengthy or formal; the goal is simply to break the ice and offer a hand in friendship. You’ll find that taking this step before you have a problem makes it infinitely easier to get help when you do have one.
Don’t rely on e-advocacy.
In pre-Internet days, the classic lobbying tool was a form letter. Today it is a standardized e-message, provided by many Jewish groups on their web sites. According to conventional wisdom, flooding a politician’s inbox or Facebook page is the best way to influence her. But that’s only partially true.
While high numbers of similar missives do get a recipient’s attention, a politician and her staff will quickly stop reading them. So if your goal is simply to be counted for or against a position on some general issue, a cyber barrage may be enough. But if you want to convey information, explain a problem or request assistance, it probably isn’t. At a minimum, you should craft an e-mail that is clearly individualized and specific to your situation. Better yet, make a phone call or speak at a public forum. The ideal approach is to arrange a personal meeting. Even—or especially—in a wired world, face-to-face communication remains the most powerful advocacy method. It gives you the opportunity to make your case in full, while demonstrating your sincerity, passion and goodwill.
Target carefully, and confirm your facts.
It happens every day: Citizens plead with officials at one level of government to deal with issues controlled by another. No matter how well-meaning your mayor may be, he cannot change a state law. Conversely, your state legislator cannot fix sidewalks. While approaching the wrong person usually does no harm, time is wasted and tempers fray while these mistakes get straightened out. Do some research in advance to determine the right target for your lobbying effort.
Also, irrespective of the issue, you should never act on the basis of rumors or secondhand reports. For example, a new zoning proposal described in the local newspaper could be a trial balloon with little chance of being enacted—not an imminent threat to the Orthodox community. In general, it’s best not to rely exclusively on any one source of information and to carefully corroborate the facts.
Act promptly, while going out of your way to be positive and courteous.
Government runs on its own clock. While its overall pace may seem glacial, don’t be fooled. Typically, there are tight deadlines for submitting public comments, filing documents and taking other types of lobbying action. Never delay. It is worthless to learn about a critical vote or meeting the day after it happens.
Try to be positive in all of your lobbying encounters, because optimism is infectious. While a positive attitude alone won’t sway a decision maker, it can build goodwill, give you confidence, and inspire others to support your effort. While the situation may turn adversarial over time, you gain nothing by starting out that way.
Similarly, basic courtesy can only help. Dealing with government can be extremely frustrating, but getting impatient or nasty will just make things worse. If you are pressed for time or start losing your cool, reschedule your lobbying activity. In particular, it is important to be respectful toward the administrative and clerical staff in a public office. They have the ears of their powerful bosses and are often in a position to smooth or obstruct your path.
Voting is more than a fundamental civic duty. In local elections, it enables relatively small Orthodox neighborhoods to exercise outsize influence. Politicians at every level carefully monitor where their votes come from. They rarely forget who goes to the polls—and they notice who doesn’t.
You might also consider sponsoring a day school-based voter registration drive. It’s a great way to educate frum youngsters about the enormous importance of democracy to all American Jews.
Of course there are no guarantees in lobbying. Even the most highly paid professionals on Capitol Hill don’t win every time. But advocacy pays off in other ways. Each time you speak up, the Orthodox community increases its visibility, solidarity and political clout. And you become not just a better advocate, but a savvier citizen too.
Amy Handlin, PhD, is associate professor of marketing at Monmouth University and deputy minority leader of the New Jersey General Assembly. She is the author of Be Your Own Lobbyist: How to Give Your Small Business Big Clout with State and Local Government, Government Grief: How to Help Your Small Business Survive Mindless Regulation, Political Corruption and Red Tape, and the forthcoming Dirty Deals: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence and Corruption. She frequently speaks about lobbying and presents lobbying workshops to nonprofit organizations and small business groups. Assemblywoman Handlin may be reached at email@example.com.
Listen to an interview with Assemblywoman Amy Handlin at http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/be-your-own-lobbyist-how-speak-out-your-community-amy-handlin/