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Conservative rabbis lobby on Hill

WASHINGTON, June 17 (JTA) — While many Jewish groups are making their voices heard in Washington on Middle East issues, a group of Conservative rabbis is focusing on domestic issues. Thirty rabbis from the Rabbinical Assembly converged on the Capitol on Tuesday to lobby against tax cuts that could hurt spending for the poor and needy, and for extending a child tax credit for low-income families. The groups´ meetings with lawmakers also focused on immigration, health care and prescription medicine, and the environment. Many Jewish groups have not taken a stand on the tax cuts, even though they are expected eventually to impact many of the programs Jewish communities support for the needy. Rabbi Lee Paskind, chair of the Rabbinical Assembly´s Social Action Committee, said his group has consistently spoken out against tax cuts, and felt their voices needed to be heard as the issue was being debated in Congress. "For us, these budget matters reflect our nation´s priorities," said Paskind, rabbi at Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Lakewood, N.J. "For the Jewish tradition, there is a priority for the welfare of the most vulnerable members of society." Iris Lav, deputy director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told the rabbis that the tax cuts, passed last month, would lead to large deficits and prevent the federal government from funding many of its existing programs. That means that more programs will be transferred to the states, causing state taxes to increase and programs to be cut. "It´s not the economy, it´s the tax cuts," Lav said. "Fundamentally, the cost of the tax cut is three times the deficit in Social Security that we´ve been hearing about." While the tax cut may stimulate the economy, Lav said, it´s not the best way to do the job. She suggested that increased tax breaks for the poor would be more beneficial, since the poor would be more likely to spend the money. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) pleaded with the rabbis to focus their energy on restoring the tax credit for low income families, claiming the issue was "first among equals" on which their support would be needed. Lav estimates that the current tax law would provide no benefit for the bottom 50 million households, and less than $100 to each of the bottom 74 million households. The Conservative Jewish community often is overshadowed in policy debates by the liberal Reform movement and the more conservative Orthodox community, both of whom often make their voices heard in Washington. The Rabbinical Assembly doesn´t have a Washington office, but is seeking a larger seat at the table. "We are trying to find ways to be as effective as we can be," Paskind said. "We think we have something unique to say, given that we come from a traditional point of view, with a liberal perspective." Rabbi Jan Kaufman, the R.A.´s director of special projects, said her organization´s views differ sharply from those of some more vocal organizations in the religious Jewish world. For example, the Conservative movement has more than 70 day schools across the country, but the Rabbinical Assembly does not support vouchers to religious schools. "We believe in day schools but we believe we should fund them ourselves," she said. "We know the money is going to come out of service to the poor." In addition to their budget concerns, the Rabbinical Assembly is pushing for a national system to track environmental effects on diseases, citing the Jewish moral obligation to save lives. The group´s policy in support of refugees abroad and refugee admissions to the United States is based on Torah values of kindness and respect for the stranger, representatives said. The Rabbinical Assembly also supports the use of stem cell research, citing a Committee on Jewish Law and Standards teshuvah, or decision, permitting such research if it can help find cures for human ailments. The Rabbinical Assembly recently released a statement supporting President Bush´s "road map" peace plan, but it didn´t delve deeply into the issue on this trip to Washington. That´s because there was no question in anybody´s mind that lawmakers who meet with Jewish leaders already are strong on Israel-related issues, Paskind said.