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At 25, OU Advocacy Center takes ‘moderate approach’ to church, state aid separation

“The nature of the work is to explain and persuade,” says Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s center in Washington.

Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, speaks during an OU Advocacy mission to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: Courtesy.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, speaks during an OU Advocacy mission to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

Two Republican presidential hopefuls have taken credit in their campaigns for the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Donald Trump, the former president, has broadcasted that he moved the embassy, while Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor, has advertised that she “pushed” Trump to do so.

The way Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, sees it, Israel supporters ought to thank the Orthodox Union.

“It happened under President Trump. But it was actually the OU in the 1990s that really started the drumbeat for that to happen,” he told JNS in a recent interview, as the center celebrates its silver anniversary.

OU Advocacy worked with then-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, to pass legislation in Congress that made it a policy priority to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Several presidents left the embassy where it was before Trump opted to move it to Jerusalem.

“The relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on May 14 marked the fulfillment of decades of promises by U.S. presidents and others to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For those of us at the Orthodox Union, May 14 marked a triumphant conclusion to a hard-fought quest that spanned 46 years,” Diament wrote in a 2018 op-ed.

“It was back then that the OU hosted a gala at a hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., where Sen. Hubert Humphrey called for the reunification of Jerusalem, stating: ‘Jerusalem the Golden must be united and it must be recognized as the capital of Israel. We must not turn the clock back by advocating re-division or internationalization,’” Diament added in the article.

Breaking in

A Yeshiva University and Harvard Law School alumnus, Diament started working for the OU—a more than 125-year-old nonprofit that is also in the kosher certification business—in 1996. Former President Bill Clinton was in his second term when OU Advocacy opened in January 1999.

Diament had spent his first three years at the OU trying to break in and learn the ropes in Washington, where other Jewish organizations had already established relationships with key members of the federal government. That included the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as well as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

White House Jewish leaders
U.S. President Joe Biden looks on as Nathan Diament (far left), executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, asks a question during a White House event with Jewish community leaders on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.

“We had to carve our own niche and find our own place, and that involved both identifying issues and building relationships with policymakers, both in Congress and in the executive branch,” he said. 

It also meant finding issues where the OU could “play a value-added role and have a real impact, and not just be echoing what other organizations might be saying or doing.”

The 2000 election ushered in George W. Bush’s administration and a fresh start for everyone in Washington. “There’s sort of a reset of who is in positions of responsibility and power and relationships,” Diament told JNS. “I would say that then we started sort of hitting our stride.”

Lobbying for Jewish interests

Looking back on 25 years, including victories for Orthodox Jews and others on religious freedom, the U.S.-Israel relationship and defending U.S. Jewish institutions, Diament says his work has been “very gratifying.”

“We are very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to build one of the premier Jewish policy advocacy offices, and that we have a real record of accomplishments in terms of legislation and other policies that have served not only the Orthodox community in particular, but the Jewish community in general and even beyond,” Diament told JNS.

Nathan Diament
Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, shakes hands with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), during an OU Advocacy mission to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

He is particularly proud of strengthening the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem and bringing Orthodox Jews into a fold that secular organizations and other Jewish denominations previously monopolized.

“If you would look at AIPAC policy conferences back in the 1990s, and even early 2000s, you would not have seen many Orthodox Jews involved,” he said. “Not because they weren’t pro-Israel, but just because they were not involved in political advocacy in general.” 

The OU Advocacy head is also proud of the changes it helped bring about that allow religious institutions to participate in publicly funded programs.

“When we first started, groups like the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform movement were all very strongly against government aid being available to religious organizations,” he said. “They had what was called a strict separation of church and state.”

OU Advocacy brought “a much more moderate approach,” he said. To him and his colleagues, synagogues, day schools and other religious institutions—whether Jewish—ought to be eligible for government support. The key was to ensure the funding wasn’t to promote religion but for a general policy purpose.

Diament has helped secure extensive funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to religious institutions and other nonprofits for security measures. Jewish institutions have relied on those funds in particular amid surging Jew-hatred.

He also pushed for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide federal disaster money to help rebuild synagogues and other houses of worship damaged by natural disasters.

Nathan Diament
Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Center, speaks during an OU Advocacy mission to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 10, 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

“For many years, we had a big fight with FEMA over this, and we ultimately got that changed legislatively,” Diament said. “As with Hurricane Sandy, when many synagogues and churches were damaged, when God forbid that happens now, they’re able to get the same federal disaster assistance to rebuild as an office building or some other kind of secular building.”

OU Advocacy has also become adept over the years at writing friend-of-the-court (amicus curiae) briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court in its areas of expertise. “We were a unique leader in the Jewish community because most of these organizations were on the other side of changing the constitutional jurisprudence that governs this area of the law,” Diament said.

“Now there have been a whole series of Supreme Court rulings which made clear that as long as this is on the basis of neutral criteria, religious organizations can receive government support,” he added.

Other times, he has to say “no” and explain why the OU is staying away from a certain effort to change a policy.

“The nature of the work is to explain and persuade, and to influence people, policymakers and others, as to why we’re doing whatever we’re doing,” Diament said. “Oftentimes, we have to explain to people why we’re not taking a position on something, not necessarily because it’s not important, but because we don’t necessarily see a unique or a value-added role for us to play.”

OU Advocacy largely sat out debates about Obamacare and various other healthcare initiatives. Diament figured that Orthodox Jews weren’t uniquely impacted one way or the other by them, with the exception of the contraceptive mandate, which drew the OU’s attention as an issue of religious freedom.

“We thought there are other ways for the government to make sure that women receive those healthcare services without at the same time violating people’s religious rights. So in that limited issue, we got involved,” Diament said.

Oct. 7

Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, OU Advocacy has focused on supporting “Israel’s existential war and her security and combating antisemitism in the United States,” Diament told JNS.

That keeps him and his staff of three very busy in the OU’s Washington office, which is much smaller than its vast operation at its New York headquarters.

“It’s very interesting work. It’s intellectually challenging in terms of developing strategy, developing coalitions and coming up with innovative thinking about how to address problems,” he said.

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