WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (JTA) — As President-elect George W. Bush prepares to take office, Orthodox Jewish groups hope they will find a more sympathetic ear in the White House.
After eight difficult years trying to push their agenda with the Clinton administration, groups like Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union are hopeful they’ll have a better chance with Bush and his staff, who support a greater role for religion in public life.
The groups’ early outreach to Bush highlights the domestic priorities of the organizations and their attempts to persuade Bush to include them in the policy circle, particularly on issues such as school vouchers and charitable choice.
“There is reason for optimism that the new administration will move in the direction that we have long been advocating,” said David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs.
Vouchers, which provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools, continues to be a divisive issue for Jewish organizations. But many Orthodox Jews, who send their children to yeshivas or Jewish day schools, support publicly financed tuition vouchers. Both Agudath Israel, a fervently Orthodox organization, and the O.U., a centrist Orthodox group, strongly support vouchers.
In an open letter this month from Agudath Israel to Bush, Zwiebel asks the president-elect to “enlist Jewish support for policies that expand parental options in education.”
Last month, the O.U. sent a memo to Bush outlining its domestic policy priorities.
Agudath Israel recently filed a brief seeking to uphold a voucher program in Cleveland. The program was ruled unconstitutional last month, but the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take on the voucher issue more directly in the coming term.
Last year, the court ruled that it is constitutional for religious schools to use taxpayer dollars to buy computers and other instructional materials. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, considered a swing vote on the voucher issue, joined the majority in that case, but indicated her reservations about unrestricted aid to religious schools.
Many Orthodox schools rely heavily on funding from Title VI or Chapter 2, federal programs designed to aid private religious education.
Zwiebel believes vouchers are one way to give parents meaningful educational options, and that non- Orthodox Jews also support the program. He says there is a “growing groundswell” of parents enrolling their children in Jewish day schools, making Jews more receptive to governmental policies designed to promote educational choice.
Zwiebel is not suggesting that Bush will find a majority in the Jewish community supporting vouchers or charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government social service contracts.
Still, Zwiebel says, Bush will find “significant support” among Jews and should not write off the Jewish community. Rather, he advised, Bush should see it as a group worth courting, even though fewer than 20 percent of Jewish voters supported him in the 2000 presidential election.
The increased role of faith-based organizations is another area where Orthodox agendas dovetail with Bush’s.
Faith-based initiatives have a tremendous amount of potential, and Bush hopes Jewish organizations will benefit, said Juliana Glover, a Bush spokesperson. Glover did not comment directly on the letter and memo the Orthodox groups sent Bush or on specific outreach attempts to Orthodox and other Jewish organizations.
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said he thinks the Bush administration will reach out to Orthodox Jews. The memo Diament sent to Bush last month noted that the Orthodox Jewish community supported a number of the policy initiatives Bush championed during his campaign.
One of them is charitable choice, which passed as part of the 1996 welfare reform.
“We are pleased that this is a central feature of your campaign’s domestic agenda and urge you to expand the federal government’s support for and partnership with faith-based social service providers,” the O.U. memo said.
Bush has said he will establish a federal Office of Faith-Based Action to organize his charitable choice agenda.
Diament insists that the O.U. tries to advance a traditional Jewish agenda, not a liberal or conservative one, and therefore will disagree with Bush on issues such as the death penalty.