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Social justice through workshops

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NEW YORK (JTA) – Hundreds of rabbis and community leaders are gathering this week in Portland, Ore., with counterparts from other faiths for skill-building workshops related to the social-justice priorities of their congregations.

“We’ll be looking at how to confront hunger in our backyard,” said Bob Horenstein, community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

The Portland workshops are part of a nationwide effort, spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, that has galvanized Jewish community groups around the issue of poverty, a problem that is deepening in the nation and in the Jewish community as the economy continues its downward turn.

But the initiative also has revived questions about whether Jewish groups are willing to confront big public policy issues relating to poverty – including Bush administration policies some Jewish activists believe have vastly exacerbated income inequality.

“There is a timidity, a certain nervousness that develops when you start talking about major public policy issues,” said Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs. “When we address poverty, it can’t just be about the delivery of services, as important as that is. It has to be about change. And that change has to do with the nation’s direction relating to economic policy, the tax structure, the distribution of dollars.”

While Jewish communal officials perhaps have been reluctant to have that big-picture discussion, fearing that it is too politically partisan, the JCPA effort is working on the grassroots. Further down the West Coast from Portland, the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley will hold an educational forum to rally the public toward pushing for more government aid for the 38 million people believed to be living at or below the poverty level.

The San Jose-based federation is also planning an open house at the Second Harvest food bank to discuss the food needs of the area’s needy and to sort and distribute donated food items.

“We want people to put their bodies in motion on this issue,” said Diane Fisher, director of the federation’s community relations committee.

There will be plenty of programs in the Midwest and on the East Coast, too, in a rush of activity culminating in JCPA’s yearlong initiative intended to re-energize the organized Jewish community in the war against domestic poverty and ensure that it becomes a top issue on the domestic agendas of the two major political parties.

A network of 14 national and 125 local agencies, JCPA is focusing on developing a public policy agenda consistent with Jewish values. As such, confronting poverty long had been on its agenda.

But when Steven Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi, took the helm of the organization in 2005, he decided a more concrete emphasis was needed.

“My dream is to have some meaningful impact on fighting poverty in the United States and enhance the activism of Jews,” he said. “By taking this leadership role in partnership with other religious groups, we will all benefit from the closeness of working together on a common cause.”

The anti-poverty initiative was launched in Washington nearly a year ago when Rabbi Gutow and several members of Congress announced they would take the “food stamp challenge.” In order to better understand the plight of the poor, they said, they were limiting their grocery spending to $21 per week, the amount given by the government to eligible beneficiaries.

From Sept. 10 to 16, the emphasis will be on interfaith cooperation and community activism.

“Until now, the explicit focus of the campaign has been on the Jewish community and getting it active and engaged,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the JCPA. “That week will be exclusively focused on interfaith efforts.”

The weeklong interfaith campaign kicks off this Tuesday with a national conference call open to anyone in the country to find out what programs and resources are available in their area. The public will be encouraged to take the food stamp challenge and to contact elected officials.

But it remains to be seen whether increasing social services will take hold as an issue at a time when middle-class voters are seeking quick-fix solutions to the recession rather than long-term remedies to economic disparity – or whether JCPA’s focus on specific pieces of legislation, rather than the nation’s overall economic policy, will make a dent in the poverty crisis.

“Anything to do with the economy may have legs as an issue,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Jews like to talk about social issues and this could be a way to force the candidates to pay attention. But the two critical issues in the race are the economy overall and the war. There isn’t room for too much else.”

JCPA officials in Washington are taking something of a smaller-picture view.

Susskind said the group’s legislative approach “is not to attack the nation’s overall economic policy – that’s not our role. But we’re focusing on really concrete pieces of legislation – the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, for instance – that can change people’s lives. It’s important to talk about the big-picture economic situation, but what we’re saying is: Here are some legislative actions you can take now to tackle this.”

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