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Umbrella Jewish Group Set to Reaffirm Voucher Opposition

A yearlong Jewish communal study on vouchers is ending the way it began — under attack.

With the Jewish Council of Public Affairs poised to reaffirm its overwhelming opposition to vouchers for private and parochial school students, the Orthodox Union has lambasted the umbrella body of national Jewish organizations and community relations councils as it prepares for its annual plenum later this month.

“Essentially, the process was incomplete and disappointing,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

There was supposed to be “an intense, thorough review of the issues associated with vouchers,” he said.

Lawrence Rubin, JCPA’s executive vice chairman, rejected Diament’s criticisms and defended the organization’s first-ever annual study of a broad issue as “exemplary.”

But the volley of criticism is expected to continue in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Feb. 21 to 25 at the plenum hosted by JCPA, formerly known as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

Some 300 delegates from around the country and hundreds of college students plan to attend the annual policy-making meeting.

While the issue of vouchers is expected to attract much attention, delegates also plan to begin studying next year’s topic — affirmative action.

The conference will also focus on campaign finance reform and the controversial issue of charitable choice, which enables religious institutions to provide government services.

But it is vouchers — which would provide either a tax or tuition oredit for private or parochial education — that has dominated the agenda going into the plenum.

Vouchers, long opposed by most Jewish organizations on the grounds that it violates church-state separation, has in recent years emerged as a hot-button issue as the Jewish community continues to debate assimilation and how to help Jewish families afford day schools.

The Jewish discussion on vouchers comes as the issue has gained prominence in the national debate on education.

JCPA delegates are scheduled to vote on a resolution that spells out opposition to vouchers primarily because they would drain resources from public schools and erode the constitutional separation of church and state.

But acknowledging that more needs to be done to support Jewish education, the group is poised to adopt a recommendation that would establish a new committee to study the need to strengthen Jewish education, in part by ensuring adequate funds for day schools, after-school programs, summer camps and Israel programs.

The draft resolution also urges local community relations councils to devote energy and resources to improve public schools and foster Jewish continuity.

This controversy began last year when voucher proponents attacked JCPA after an official of the umbrella group described the initiative as an effort to “confirm” the Jewish community’s strong opposition to vouchers.

They charged that the exercise was futile because JCPA had already predetermined its outcome.

Now at the end of the process, the O.U., the loudest and perhaps only supporter of vouchers in JCPA, ratcheted up its criticism of the process.

“We never expected them to reverse their position. We’re not that naive. But we did expect there to be a serious process and a serious level of investigation and deliberation,” said Diament, whose group believes that vouchers do not pose constitutional problems and would open the doors to Jewish day schools for families that cannot currently afford it.

Diament vowed to file a strong dissent to the JCPA’s voucher position that is expected to be adopted at the plenum.

The two-pronged JCPA process had a national committee meet at the same time that it urged local communities to re-evaluate their position on the issue.

At least two dozen communities discussed the issue in varying detail with virtually all reaffirming their strong opposition to vouchers, Rubin said.

Diament reserved his main criticism for the national committee — on which he served. He said the committee only met in person one time and never heard experts on the issue. The committee held two conference calls.

Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee — another member of the committee — would not directly criticize the voucher review but said that for the next communal-wide debate, “it would be appropriate to bring in people from the outside with expertise.”

But Marc Stern, the co-director of the legal department at the American Jewish Congress, who says he’s no fan of the overall JCPA process, defended the way JCPA handled the voucher issue.

Diament’s criticism “is really not fair. It’s really sour grapes,” said Stern, an avid opponent of vouchers and a member of the JCPA committee that studied the issue.

JCPA “gave proponents every opportunity to make their case. They did not persuade in the end.”

But while he defended the process, Stern said the topic was not a wise choice.

“Asking JCPA to debate vouchers is like asking the Anti-Defamation League to debate anti-Semitism,” he said.

But JCPA disagreed. Rubin said his organization chose vouchers as a topic for study because it was important to sharpen the communal consensus as the issue emerged on the national and legislative scenes.

This year’s discussion on affirmative action, in contrast, may go farther in spotlighting communal differences.

“Everybody is for affirmative action and against quotas, but nobody knows what they mean by these things,” Stern said.

Leonard Fein, director of the social action commission of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Murray Friedman, director of the Mid-Atlantic region of the American Jewish Committee, are slated to kick off the discussion over affirmative action at the plenum.

Other program highlights at the upcoming plenum include an address by Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister for absorption, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Eliahu Ben-Elissar.

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