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Local delegates to Iran Advocacy Day flank Sen. Frank Lautenberg. From left are Joy Kurland, Martha Cohen, Lautenberg, Toby Shylit Mack, and Rabbi Neal Borovitz.

A day of advocacy in Washington last week and a rally in New York next week mark major efforts by the American Jewish community to push the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the forefront and increase the general sense of urgency to end it. (See page 29.)

Members of the northern New Jersey Jewish community joined more than 300 other Jewish leaders from around the country who met with legislators in Washington Sept. 10 to thank them for supporting the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009 and drum up support among those who had not yet signed on. The measure would penalize companies that help Iran import or produce refined petroleum.

Though the bill has gained support in Congress, the White House has put off a decision to back the legislation until after the Sept. 24 meeting of the P5-plus-1 group – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. (The Stand for Freedom in Iran rally is scheduled for the same day, as is the opening session of the U.N.’s General Assembly.)

“The administration needs to hear this message,” said Joy Kurland, director of the new regional Community Relations Council that represents UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “This bill needs to be passed and we need to deal with this issue now.”

Kurland and a group of 11 other local activists met Sept. 10 with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Rep. Scott Garrett, and Bob Decheine, Rep. Steve Rothman’s chief of staff. The group included local representatives of the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, AMIT, JINSA, and Emunah of America. Rabbis Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and David-Seth Kirscher of Temple Emanu-El of Closter joined the group.

Rothman noted, in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard on Wednesday, that he was an original co-sponsor of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act. He added that “the U.S. needs to put as much pressure as possible on Iran to prevent that rogue nation from developing nuclear weapons” and that he was “pleased and proud” that the UJA-NNJ delegation had shared “their support for this bill and other measures that highlight the very real threat posed by Iran. A nuclear Iran threatens the security of every nation, including the United States, and [it] must not be allowed to develop nuclear capability.”

“The briefings … all affirmed that Iran is very close to having the potential to develop nuclear weapons,” Borovitz told the Standard. “I was left with the strong feeling … that if Iran doesn’t enter into serious negotiations that the administration and Congress would push this bill through.”

In addition to legislators, the advocates heard from a powerful lineup of Jewish communal leaders that included AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, and B’nai B’rith International Executive Director Dan Mariaschin in a panel moderated by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“There is no national sense of urgency” on Iran, said Foxman, who outlined a “Catch-22″ facing the Jewish community.

“We do not have the luxury to not lead” on Iran, he said. “We have to lead even though it will be perceived as a Jewish issue.”

The advocacy day was organized by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Iran, which is led by the Presidents Conference, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, UJC/Federations of North America and NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

Hoenlein stressed that there was wide unity in the community that increased pressure on Iran was necessary, citing the nine rabbinical and synagogue organizations from across the denominational spectrum that released a joint statement on the issue a few days earlier and the representation of a huge array of Jewish groups at advocacy day.

Hoenlein also noted that the term “crippling sanctions” in regard to Iran was actually first used by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this year, and said that such sanctions are “not targeting people.”

Echoing Foxman, Judy Shereck, part of the UJA-NNJ delegation, told the Standard on Tuesday that one of the advocates’ biggest concerns is that the Iranian issue is seen as just a Jewish or Israeli issue.

“This is not an issue that is important to us just because of Israel,” said Shereck, national vice president of Hadassah and chair of its Israel, Zionist and International Affairs committee. “This is an issue that is important [to us] as Americans.”

While the congressmen the delegation met appeared supportive, the general American public does not understand the threat Iran poses, Shereck continued. Hadassah, she said, is focusing on educating the public on the urgency of dealing with the threat.

“We need to show that there is no more time for waiting on the Iranians,” said Martha Cohen, a member of UJC-NNJ’s JCRC board and chair of its Israel and world affairs committee. “We need to put a line in the sand and stand by it.”

Borovitz said that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has set Israel up as a “bogeyman” in his pursuit of nuclear arms and that the Iranian leader has argued that his country needs to defend itself against an Israeli attack.

“We need to wake up the public,” he said, noting the significance of non-Jewish organizations cosponsoring next week’s rally. “We need to spread this message beyond the Jewish community. This is an existential threat to America.”

Borovitz pointed to another reason for the public’s slow response to Iran: the discredited “weapons of mass destruction” cries that were behind the Iraq war.

“In the post-Iraq era people are very wary,” he said. “Just because the Iraq war was wrong does not mean we should stand idly by and allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

For information about UJA-NNJ’s bus to next week’s rally, call (201) 820-3944.

JTA’s Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report.