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New Jewish voices slated to add to Washington debate

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (JTA) — New voices will soon be heard amid the bustle of Jewish organizational activity inside the Washington Beltway. The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council is set to establish a Washington presence here in early 1997. The group’s officials say the new office will provide a central address in the nation’s capital for NJCRAC constituent agencies and serve as a vital conduit of information. The move is something that the local community relations councils “have been discussing for many years,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of NJCRAC, the umbrella organization of more than 100 local and 13 national agencies. “They have felt that the effectiveness of the system requires that the grass-roots community be represented in Washington through the NJCRAC,” Rubin said. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America also has plans to set up shop in Washington, albeit a bit farther down the road. The move, say O.U. officials, will afford the modern Orthodox movement an opportunity to take on a more visible role in the public affairs arena. Jewish observers say the focus on Washington operations reflects a simple reality. “Jewish interests depend to a significant extent on public policy,” said Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist and former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office. “You don’t have to have an office in Washington to effectively promote the Jewish community’s public policy interests,” he said. “But obviously a presence here that allows for direct contact” with the three branches of government “is helpful.” Other Jewish organizations with Washington operations include the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Council of Jewish Federations, B’nai B’rith, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Agudath Israel of America, which represents fervently Orthodox Jews. NJCRAC’s expansion into Washington is one element of the umbrella organization’s larger plan to enlarge the Jewish communal world’s national public affairs body. The plan has met with resistance from some of NJCRAC’s national member agencies. The AJCommittee, the AJCongress and the ADL have expressed concern that such an expansion would create a fourth full-service agency. “It’s unnecessary to duplicate the services already being offered by three national community organizations who have offices in Washington,” said Phil Baum, executive director of AJCongress. At a time when the Jewish community “should be trying to concentrate resources, this seems to be moving in the opposite direction,” he said. After months of contentious debate, NJCRAC and the three defense organizations reached a compromise last summer concerning the nature of NJCRAC’s Washington operation. NJCRAC agreed to consult with the organizations on all legislative matters and pledged not to engage in activities on Capitol Hill without prior agreement with the defense agencies. “The NJCRAC underscores its commitment to complement, not compete with, the ongoing Washington operations of the national agencies,” NJCRAC said in a strategic planning report issued in June. In addition, NJCRAC said it would not attempt to “represent itself as a definitive address” in Washington for the organized Jewish community. Instead, the office will mainly serve as the eyes and ears for the New York headquarters. The office will also represent NJCRAC on national coalitions formed in Washington, work in close cooperation with the Washington office of the CJF and serve local community relations councils seeking to send delegations to Washington. Rubin believes that NJCRAC’s presence will help fill a void in those areas. The agencies now operating in Washington “have their own priorities, their own needs and their own limitations,” he said. As a Washington player, NJCRAC officials say, the organization will continue to advance its public affairs agenda, with an eye toward such policy concerns as immigration, social welfare, civil liberties, the separation of church and state, campaign finance and the Middle East peace process. “A structure to provide services on the multi-issue agenda could advance the interests of the community in a way analogous to what” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee “has been able to provide on the Israel agenda,” Rubin said. He added that NJCRAC is not trying to become a “domestic AIPAC,” noting that policy is ultimately determined by NJCRAC’s member organizations. Although NJCRAC’s historical mandate has primarily centered around helping the community coordinate consensus on public policy issues, some Jewish observers fully expect NJCRAC to use its Washington operation to begin establishing a more independent and influential role in the public affairs arena. “I would be surprised if it didn’t evolve in that direction,” said one Jewish observer who has watched the umbrella group closely over the years. NJCRAC’s new office will be housed with one of the defense agencies or in CJF’s office, group officials said. They say they hope to have it open in time for NJCRAC’s annual meeting, to be held in mid- February in Washington. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union is now laying the groundwork for its Washington operation. Mandell Ganchrow, the group’s president, said it would probably be 1998 before the office can be opened, pending funding. The O.U. is already expanding its role in the public policy sphere, engaging in debate on issues ranging from euthanasia and abortion to television ratings and kosher food labeling. The group will complement some of the activities of Agudath Israel, which has been vocal on a wide range of religious-freedom issues. But Ganchrow said the O.U. would have a broader agenda than Agudath Israel, pursuing matters related to the U.S.-Israel relationship and working in cooperation with other segments of the organized Jewish community where possible. On certain issues, including domestic concerns such as church-state separation, the O.U. often takes a different position than other Jewish organizations. “We cannot be a complete full-service organization in the field of public policy unless we have a Washington office,” Ganchrow said. “If we’re going to do the job properly, you can’t keep running back and forth between New York and Washington.”