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Gap between JCPA and Jews narrowing

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (JTA) — For years, talk of a gap in attitudes between U.S. Jews and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has dogged the umbrella organization.

A survey last year seemed to confirm this chasm. But now with certain hot-button church-state issues front and center of the national agenda, the gap appears to be narrowing.

JCPA, long seen as a liberal group, is an association of 122 local Jewish community relations councils and 13 national agencies.

When representatives from its constituent groups come together next week for the annual JCPA plenum, the relationship between the U.S. government and religion will not be the only focus.

Indeed, with continuing violence and a new government in Israel, the Jewish state is scheduled to be a major topic at the Feb. 25-28 conference.

Still, religion in the public arena is certain to be a topic of discussion.

JCPA has been mobilizing along with other Jewish groups against President Bush’s proposal to grant federal funds to religious groups that provide social services.

With Bush’s new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officially open as of Tuesday, some in the Jewish world fear that the expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions will break down the constitutional separation between church and state, allow for employment discrimination based on religion and infringe on religious liberties.

Hannah Rosenthal, the group’s new executive vice chair, said the issue of charitable choice, which allows religious institutions to bid for government contracts to provide social services, is clearly on people’s minds.

She said her organization needs to continue to educate its members about the potential problems with the Bush plan.

The head of the new office, John DiIulio, Jr., is scheduled to speak at the annual plenum, along with Jewish advocates and opponents of the initiative.

No new resolution on the subject is expected at the plenum. The JCPA’s policy on the issue is to oppose “any social service funding legislation that omits meaningful and effective First Amendment safeguards.”

There is no consensus on charitable choice or other church-state issues, including school vouchers.

On charitable choice for example, Orthodox Jewish groups buck the majority Jewish organizational approach, generally favoring an expanded role for religious institutions, provided that minority religions are protected.

Still, a number of studies indicate the increasing wariness among American Jews over a broader role of religion in politics.

Last year a survey showed the JCPA leadership as more strictly separationist on church-state issues than the Jewish general community and more committed to applying the separation principle in all public arenas.

Leaders often advocate a more extreme position than their public but such discrepancies raised the question of whether the JCPA was out of sync with the American Jews it seeks to represent.

But the survey showed Jews — both in general and in the JCPA — were less inclined than the non-Jewish public to believe there should be more laws governing moral behavior, more religion in government or government aid to schools.

A follow-up survey released last fall showed that Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s vice presidential campaign actually convinced many Jews to continue to oppose religion in public life, rather than be more tolerant to such a change.

The high visibility of religion in the campaign may have occasioned a small backlash, the later survey said, with both Jews and non-Jews becoming more skeptical on certain issues, such as the involvement of churches and synagogues in political matters or support for school vouchers.

The studies are part of a larger project, “Jews and the American Public Square,” being conducted by the Philadelphia-based Center for Jewish Community Studies.

Alan Mittleman, the director of the project, said at seminars he held around the country people indicated they might be less rigid than national Jewish leaders on the issue of charitable choice, but still had concerns.

A separate study conducted in November by the research organization Public Agenda showed American Jews wary of religion’s role in politics and reluctant to accept any increased influence of religion in public life.

When asked about government funding of faith-based organizations, the Public Agenda study showed, Jews demonstrated they are concerned about charitable choice expansion.

According to the survey, which was released last month, only 19 percent of Jews think it is a good idea for government to fund religious groups that provide social services; 44 percent think it is a good idea if the programs don’t promote religious messages; and 36 percent say it is a bad idea altogether.

The vast majority of Jewish respondents said the separation of church and state is one of the most important reasons for the success of the American political system.

All of the studies were funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The gap between the community and the more liberal leadership is narrowed on church-state separation issues because of a concern that Bush intends to Christianize America and a fear of the religious right, according to Marc Stern, an expert on church-state issues and the co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.

Alan Wolfe, a professor of sociology at Boston University, said he would be surprised if there were a big split on charitable choice between Jewish leaders and the community.

Even if there is an immediate benefit for a local synagogue, any violation of the church-state separation principle is bad for the Jewish community in the long term, Wolfe said.

There may be curiosity within the community about how local synagogues may be able to take advantage of the administration’s proposal for faith-based organizations, but there are many unanswered questions that prompt concern on JCPA’s part.

If the administration is not proposing any new funding, the plan would pit groups against each other, Rosenthal said.

Also, she said, at this stage it is unclear what kind of accountability there would be from the government and JCPA does not want to see any protections compromised, such as those against religious coercion or hiring discrimination in local programs.

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