Sen. Bob Casey visits JCC, weighs in on childcare, aging, antisemitism and Israel
search
CommunityDemocracy in Action

Sen. Bob Casey visits JCC, weighs in on childcare, aging, antisemitism and Israel

Toddlers, choralists and conversation enable Pennsylvania's senior senator to experience community and leave inspired

Sen. Bob Casey holds a stuffed animal and introduces himself to early childhood students during a name game song on Jan. 5 at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Sen. Bob Casey holds a stuffed animal and introduces himself to early childhood students during a name game song on Jan. 5 at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

U.S. senators don’t often need to introduce themselves, but when Bob Casey walked into a Squirrel Hill classroom on Jan. 5, most people didn’t recognize him. So, while clutching a stuffed animal and being watched by nearly a dozen seated toddlers, Pennsylvania’s senior senator waited for his turn in the “Hickety Pickety Bumblebee” song before lyrically introducing himself as “Bob.”

Casey’s classroom visit was part of a morning-long tour of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

As he moved through the JCC’s Early Childhood Development Center, Casey walked past handmade challahs topped with sprinkles, colored signs reading “Welcome Sen. Casey, Shabbat Shalom,” and many community members who told him about staffing crises, rising costs and the need for political intervention.

Sen. Bob Casey and State Rep. Dan Frankel enjoy a laugh during a meeting with early childhood students at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Jan. 5. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Across the commonwealth, poor pay and lack of benefits have led to 3,980 unfilled child care and pre-K positions and the closure of almost 1,600 classrooms; if  staffing needs were met, an additional 30,047 children could be served, according to a 2023 survey of 1,107 early care programs by Start Strong PA and Pre-K for PA.

Liza Baron, director of early childhood development at the JCC, and her staff highlighted the opportunities available to enrolled students but noted teacher shortages result in waiting lists with scores of young children unable to access quality education.

Casey thanked the educators for their efforts before exiting the early childhood center and quietly entering the JCC’s Levinson Hall, where a group of older adults sang Gene Autry’s “Home on the Range.” As the choralists concluded, the senator clapped and moved to an adjacent room where more than 50 Allegheny County residents enjoyed a subsidized kosher meal of pasta, ground meat, green beans, challah, oranges, pineapple and oatmeal cookies.

Jason Kunzman, president and CEO of the JCC, told attendees that Casey needs no introduction but mentioned his position as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Casey thanked Kunzman for the opportunity to visit and interjected some levity.

“Here’s the joke that I use: Once you’re born, you’re aging. That’s the best I could do at comedy today,” Casey said before pointing to a Senate-issued book describing common fraudulent activities.

If someone is trying to “scam you,” call 855-303-9470, Casey said. “There’s also no law against hanging up on someone.”

Casey then worked his way around the room, briefly chatted with a group studying the weekly Torah portion, shook hands with attendees and paused for several photos.

Sarah Honig, a JCC volunteer who frequently partakes in senior programming at the center, told the Chronicle she enjoyed meeting the senator and hopes he recognizes her demographic’s needs.

Sarah Honig and Sen. Bob Casey. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

“It’s important we have more support for the JCC, for AgeWell, for transportation,” she said.

“There are a lot of people who can’t come here because they can’t drive. We hope he is going to help us.”

Approximately 19.7% of Allegheny County residents are 65 and older; only Palm Beach, Florida, has more seniors, according to a 2022 University of Pittsburgh report.

Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JFCS, told Casey that thousands of area adults are served by AgeWell, a 20-year-old collaboration between the JCC, JFCS and the Jewish Association on Aging.

“It’s inspiring,” Casey said.

Seeing so many services afforded to people of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds, is “an affirmation of the human family and the importance of making sure that we have opportunities for people to interact and to engage,” the senator told the Chronicle in an interview following his JCC tour.

Elected officials have a responsibility to support centers and communities, he added.

“Sometimes it’s funding. Sometimes it’s policy,” Casey said. “I’m of the opinion that the federal government has to do a lot more than it does on a range of issues: child care, pre-K, home and community-based services.”

Another critical matter requiring attention is antisemitism, he said: “You have to use your voice and your platform to call it out — and not just call it out and highlight it but condemn it, categorically condemn it, literally be intolerant of that intolerance, extremism and hate that is the basis of antisemitism.”

Neither major political party can escape that responsibility, with Democrats and Republicans both guilty of “either turning a blind eye to antisemitism or sometimes fomenting it,” he said.

Identifying and condemning antisemitism is a start, but politicians can do more, Casey said: “When you have a problem on a college campus that has to be  investigated, there has to be a consequence if it rises to the level of what the Department of Education calls a ‘hostile environment.’”

One month after the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reminded schools of their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide “all students” an environment free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

“The rise of reports of hate incidents on our college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict is deeply traumatic for students and should be alarming to all Americans,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation.”

Since Oct. 7, there’s been a dramatic shift in campus attitudes and activities, according to the ADL Center for Antisemitism Research. Before Oct. 7, 66.6% of Jewish students described feeling “very” or “extremely” physically safe on campus; after the start of the war, the number plunged to 45.5%.

The good news is that the Office of Civil Rights is investigating claims, Casey said, but “they’re not going to be able to complete them in a timely fashion if they don’t have the personnel and the resources to support that personnel.”

The senator pointed to his efforts at increasing appropriations for the Office of Civil Rights.

On Dec. 8, Casey wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chair Tammy Baldwin and Ranking Member Shelley Moore Capito that an “increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents following Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on Oct. 7, 2023, has underscored the urgent need to address the overall national rise in discriminatory sentiment and action over the past several years.”

As chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families, Casey noted his concern that “this harassment and discrimination is affecting our nation’s students in schools and on college campuses.”

Funding is a piece of the puzzle, but the solution must be “broader” than merely augmenting government spending, Casey said. “It’s a challenge in society.”

Sen. Bob Casey, fifth from left, is joined by community members and Jewish professionals during a visit to the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Jan. 5. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Casey described the state of domestic antisemitism during a speech on the Senate floor in December 2022.

“I thought and believed at that time it was bad, but if anything, it’s more widespread and more pernicious today than it was then,” he told the Chronicle.

The senator’s assessment aligns with a recent report from the ADL, which found that more antisemitic incidents occurred between Oct. 7-Dec. 7 than during any two-month period since the organization started keeping tabs in 1979.

Casey called antisemitism a “scourge” on society.

Current affairs should foster political cohesion and an eradication of hatred, but Washington has become a place where people too often “categorically” denounce others while failing to resolve the issues at hand, he explained.

Still, the absence of debate and a demand for immediate positioning isn’t necessarily beneficial.

Casey pointed to calls from politicians and pundits that the senator declare a stance on whether Israel should engage in a cease-fire with Hamas.

“I get pressed all the time. People come to my house,” he said.

Whether Israel continues its actions or announces a cease-fire is “in essence a military question,” Casey said before referencing remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

“This could be over tomorrow if Hamas got out of the way of civilians instead of hiding behind them, if it put down its weapons, if it surrendered,” Blinken told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz last month. “What there ought to be as well, is a call on behalf of the entire world for Hamas to do just that — that would stop this tomorrow — but in the absence of that, Israel has to take steps not only to defend itself against the ongoing attacks from Hamas but against Hamas’ stated intent to repeat Oct. 7 again and again, if given the opportunity.”

“I think Secretary Blinken said it pretty well,” Casey said. “They want to repeat October the seventh over and over and over again, because of their hate — not for a state — because of their hate of the people.”

Watching a compilation of footage from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks reinforced Casey’s views, he said: “For me, it told me that this is a group of terrorists that will not be satisfied with simply having a violent act, intermittently or whenever they can engage in that violent act. They want to destroy people. That is a different and much more dangerous kind of terrorism than I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think we talk about that enough: that this October the seventh isn’t over — that wasn’t a day in time — October the seventh is a continuing rallying cry for these terrorists.”

Casey said that although numerous issues deepen societal schisms, there’s hope for the future.

“Places like this can be a platform, or a venue, where people come together of all different faiths and they figure out a way to help people get through their day,” he said. “Look, we need inspiration, and this place is one.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more:
comments