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Religious communities: Fight poverty with green jobs

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California speaks on the steps of the Capitol in Washington at the inaugural Fighting Poverty with Faith event in 2008. (JCPA)

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California speaks on the steps of the Capitol in Washington at the inaugural Fighting Poverty with Faith event in 2008. (JCPA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Fighting poverty is an important goal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; so is protecting the environment.

The umbrella group, which brings together the major synagogue movements, several national organizations and local Jewish communities across North America, is taking on both issues in one fell swoop this week with its second annual “Fighting Poverty With Faith” initiative.

Teaming up with Catholic Charities USA, the Jewish council is running a weeklong effort dubbed “Good Jobs, Green Jobs." The goal of the Oct. 14-21 event is to encourage government officials to make sure the poor don’t get left behind in the push to create and develop jobs focused on energy efficiency or environmentally friendly practices in sectors including energy, construction and manufacturing.

President Obama has promised to create up to 5 million new “green jobs,” with a portion of the stimulus bill this year directed for some of those opportunities.

“There has to be an avenue for poor people to fill these jobs, to be trained for these jobs,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of JCPA. If government is providing tax credits or direct subidies for such jobs, he added, “they need to look very carefully at the poor.”

“Good jobs are really a pathway out of poverty,” said Candy Hill, senior vice president of Catholic Charities USA.

The week was scheduled to kick off Wednesday with a national teleconference featuring U.S. Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.). It is set to conclude with a gathering of organizers in the nation’s capital.

Also, a “national call-in” for activists will thank congressional lawmakers for funding green jobs and encourage them to back increased funding for education and training related to the jobs.

In between, local communities will be holding their own events to bring attention to the issue, such as tours of green jobs facilities or interfaith panel discussions to explore the issue.

For example, in Memphis, the local Jewish community relations council will hold an event that includes Jewish and Christian clergy providing perspectives on poverty and the environment, tips on how to make one’s home or business more energy efficient, information on local public policy initiatives related to the environment and opportunities to send e-mails to government leaders or sign up for a home energy audit.

Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finklestein, director of the Memphis CRC, said the event has every synagogue and Jewish organization in the city signed on as co-sponsors, as well as local Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches.

It is the first project of its kind in Memphis that pairs the two issues, Zuckerbrot-Finklestein said, noting that organizers will be telling attendees that by retrofitting one’s home or adding solar energy panels to one’s business, they are creating the need for additional jobs in those industries.

As part of the overall initiative, Gutow joined with leaders of Catholic Charities, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA and the Islamic Society of North America to write a special interfaith prayer that will be read at events throughout the week and by its co-authors at the end of the week.

“So much of your Creation groans from the effects of our pollution,” a portion of the prayer reads. “Make us partners, we pray in your work of healing the earth. Help us to create jobs that both honor the needs of your planet as well as those holy souls who have no work."

Gutow said the fact that 34 national religious organizations — among them a dozen Jewish groups, as well as representatives from the Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities — brings the project a “gravitas” that it wouldn’t have from one faith community on its own.

Hill said they would have liked to have seen more attention paid to the poverty issue by the presidential candidates last year when the “Fighting Poverty With Faith” campaign was inaugurated, but that both JCPA and Catholic Charities are serious about  pressing this issue and think the current economic conditions provide a greater opportunity to stress its importance.

Gutow added that “we now have a government that may be more inclined to support."

“I think we can be an important force,” he said.

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