The State of the Union: A Progressive Jewish Take: A Q & A with Abby Levine

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January 29, 2014

This year’s State of the Union wasn’t a game-changer, with mainly expected positions on a checklist of issues, punctuated by a few standout, meme-ready lines: “Give America a raise” and “Time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be pleased by a few flourishes, like hearing the shutdown condemned in the first two minutes, and a clear dig in the president’s call for Washington to “focus on creating jobs, not crises.”

While I’d like to see our nation set its vision for 2014 higher, there’s something reassuring — not to mention pragmatic — when the low bar lends itself easily to raising up certain, elemental rallying cries: women need equal rights, poor people need opportunity, workers need a living wage, climate change is real, voter rights matter, education is essential, the time’s come for immigration reform, safer gun laws, and family-friendly policies.

I reached out to Abby Levine for her take, as someone who works everyday with progressive Jews, helping to leverage their efforts on some of these issues. —Erica Brody

Five Questions for Abby Levine

Erica Brody: You were at the White House last night for the State of the Union as part of the White House-sponsored SOTU Chat. At Zeek, we’re frustrated time and again when the Jewish community gets characterized as caring only about Iran, Israel and defense-related issues, especially at a time when so many American Jews are actively engaging with domestic issues. As the executive director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, what were you listening for?

Abby Levine: We knew in advance that the president would announce a minimum wage increase for federal contract workers, so I was looking forward to that. It was exciting to hear him announce such a critical, though limited, new policy. Any increase in the minimum wage is important, but I know he, as well as many of us, would like to see it extend to more Americans than just federal contract workers. I also was eager to hear his tone around immigration, economic inequality and human rights — it was gratifying to hear so many important domestic issues included.

Instead of a traditional pronouncement, President Obama said, “It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.” In what ways do you agree/disagree?

As a fellow community organizer, I admire and respected his reframing of the usual refrain. I think the Jewish social justice field, and activist organizations more broadly, agree that consistent participation in the public square strengthens America. It is a hallmark of his style, to reach out and include his audience in his message as much as possible.

The president touched on economic justice and inequality throughout the speech, although with a more restrained approach than some of us expected. What resonated? Where do you wish the president had gone further?

I heard President Obama’s passion when he talked about economic inequality. There was a noticeable shift in his tone. He feels it in his kishkes (gut), as the saying goes. I’m a big fan of storytelling, so the stories and the references to individuals resonated with me.

The speech was light on policy points, but I was looking more for the passion than the specifics. I appreciated the lighter moments, especially because I was in a room at the White House with 100 people — advocates, supporters — and almost half were people who had applied to the White House to be there. People were there from all across the country. It was fun to have a group experience of the speech. We all loved it when he told us all to call our mothers!

The president can’t address every issues and policy point in a 63-minute speech, so I think he covered a lot. I was surprised at the issues he only gave a few sentences to — marriage equality and immigration. Both deserve more attention. I had hoped he would say something in honor of Pete Seeger, who passed away Monday night.

Immigration has been a key issue for the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, and one you and I have discussed before in Zeek. How hopeful are you, after hearing last night’s speech, that we’ll see comprehensive immigration reform in 2014?

My hope for immigration reform comes not from the speech itself but from the analysis I heard afterward from Dan Pfeiffer at the White House and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. Secretary Perez — a surprise guest — expressed optimism that immigration reform will pass Congress this year.

It’s all in the hands of House leadership at this point, and we will see what progress they make this week when they release their principles. I think there is tremendous pressure on Congress to move beyond releasing principles to actually passing legislation.

I know the Jewish community will continue to contribute to the momentum for immigration reform in 2014.

Enough about policy and vision. What was it like to be there in person?

It was fun to get an inside peek into the White House. It was a young, passionate crowd who cheered loudly for reform on student loans, gender equality — especially the Mad Men reference — and education.

The biggest issue in the room, though, was the speed of the wireless network — everyone was on their laptop or device, tweeting to the world, as our discussion was being live streamed on But I think our #SOTUSchmooze tweets were the best part — great commentary and jokes from Jewish social justice tweeters!

Note: Zeek is an ally member of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

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