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Some left out as Bush meets Jewish leaders

WASHINGTON, March 8 (JTA) — More than a dozen Jewish leaders got a foot in the Bush administration’s door this week — but others were left wondering why they weren’t invited.

Wednesday’s meeting, President Bush’s first at the White House with the Jewish community since taking office, was intended to focus on domestic issues. But Bush also raised foreign policy issues and took the opportunity to pledge support for Israel, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Bush also discussed the need to isolate Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein and build an international coalition to address the situation in Iran, Hoenlein said.

The president also said he wants to develop an alliance of moderate Arab nations to promote stability in the Middle East, said Stephen Solender, the president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities.

A number of Jewish groups attended the meeting, including the American Jewish Committee, the B’nai B’rith, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Orthodox Union, the American Jewish Congress, the Agudath Israel of America, Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League.

Also in attendance was Adam Goldman, the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community.

The White House, which would not discuss any details of the meeting, said the meeting was part of the president’s ongoing discussions with “people of faith.”

As expected, the administration’s faith-based initiative was discussed. Bush acknowledged the concerns of some groups, participants said.

Many Jewish groups fear that the president’s plan to fund religious groups that provide social services chips away at the constitutional separation between church and state, allows for employment discrimination based on religion and infringes on religious liberties.

Solender said Bush termed his faith-based plan a “work in progress” and said he wanted to work with the Jewish community on the matter.

As the meeting was taking place in Washington, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives gave a speech in Dallas in which he addressed one of the Jewish community’s concerns about the faith-based program: which religious groups will receive the federal government’s money.

John DiIulio Jr. told the National Association of Evangelicals that social service programs run by evangelical groups would not be eligible to receive direct government grants.

But individuals could receive money in the form of vouchers to participate in programs run by evangelical groups, so long as participants were free to choose between programs and provided that secular alternatives were available.

At the meeting with Bush, some groups took the opportunity to raise issues of particular concern to them.

Harvey Blitz, the president of the Orthodox Union, discussed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would require employers to accommodate needs of religious employees, such as scheduling changes for those employees who want to observe religious holidays or allowing Muslim women to wear religious head scarves.

The UJC’s Solender asked that as the administration works on the death and estate tax changes it be mindful to continue to provide tax incentives so that wealthy philanthropists will continue to give to charities such as the UJC.

Several Jewish groups appeared to be miffed that they were not invited to the meeting.

Leonard Cole, the chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he hopes it was an oversight that the umbrella organization was not invited.

Sammie Moshenberg, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington office, said she was “disappointed” not to be included in the meeting.

“We would have hoped the White House would reach out to the entire Jewish community,” she said.

Added Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: “This meeting seems to be the first step, but we’re hopeful it’s not the last step,” Pelavin added.

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