WASHINGTON, April 26 (JTA) Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) was winding up a speech to Jewish lay leaders with some jokes – and the audience was laughing appreciatively.
But when Lieberman said he’d take questions, it took only a few seconds before the crowd turned serious.
“Faith-based!” one woman yelled.
The leaders of the United Jewish Communities, who came here from across the country this week to lobby Congress on aid to Israel, the administration’s faith-based initiative and elderly care, were showing how they were able to stay “on message,” as they might say in the nation’s capital.
With a laugh, Lieberman told the UJC Leadership Summit that he only gets that question from Jewish groups. He explained the latest developments in President Bush’s proposal to have faith-based groups receive government funds to provide social services.
The administration is hoping to expand charitable choice, a part of the 1996 welfare reform law that allowed religious organizations to get federal money directly rather than through separate, secular non-profits they established to run their social services.
So far, the Jewish community’s reaction to the plan has been tepid at best.
UJC, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social services agency, says it wants to work with the administration. While it supports a national effort to strengthen faith-based groups’ ability to meet social needs, UJC believes those in need of social services must have viable alternatives to services provided by religious groups.
These and other parts of the plan have not been fully fleshed out by the administration. In addition, the House of Representatives is holding hearings on different aspects of charitable choice.
Lieberman told the summit that he is interested in the idea because faith-based groups are doing valuable work. He said, however, that the White House wisely had decided not to move ahead with more controversial aspects of the program.
UJC President and CEO Stephen Solender told the former vice presidential candidate that the community needs people like him who will help shape the legislation to safeguard civil liberties.
Rabbi Eric Silverman of the Greater New Haven, Conn., federation said that when he discussed the issue with his congressman, Rep. Jim Maloney (D-Conn.), he found the congressman was “in the same place as we are.”
Silverman said Maloney agreed that charitable choice has become very complex, and that faith-based organizations will be fighting over too few dollars because Bush has not proposed new money for the plan.
Other leaders said their representatives were receptive on issues such as the need for affordable housing for the elderly.
Among the UJC talking points on elderly housing is a request to increase funding for federally subsidized elderly housing to at least $1.3 billion. Bush’s 2002 budget calls for $779 million.
Injecting a little realism into the budget numbers, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told the UJC leaders that the budget process was just getting under way, but that the budget looks tight.
“It leaves us very little room,” he said.
Leaders from different locales stressed different programs.
In Pittsburgh, the Neighbors program provides activities, social service and nursing interventions to allow elderly to “age in place.” UJC leaders tried to convince their representatives to secure federal money for the program, which until now has been supported only by private funding.
Reps. William Coyne and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) were very receptive, Pittsburgh residents Mahnaz Harrison and Edgar Snyder said.
Harrison lobbied for $15 million for Neighbors-style pilot projects known as Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, known as NORCs.
More needs to be done to help the elderly all over the country, according to Jerry Yanowitz, who came to Washington from the East Bay near San Francisco.
Yanowitz was asking several congressmen to support increased funding for elderly care and housing.
UJC needs federal help to continue its mission of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, Yanowitz said.
UJC leaders also asked their senators and representatives to wear blue ribbons to show solidarity with Israel.
In addresses to the summit, both Lieberman and Specter said the situation in the Middle East is bleak, but that congressional support for Israel remains strong. The senators blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the resurgence of violence.
But Lieberman added that Bush’s posture of “detachment” could not last for long, and said that allowing European countries or Russia a leadership role in the Mideast would not be in Israel’s interest. He also criticized some possible administration plans, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s suggestion to remove American troops from the Sinai.
Lieberman emphasized that support for Israel in Congress was “as strong if not stronger” than he’d ever seen.
It should be noted that UJC knows where the true power of Jewish leadership still lies: In order to book Lieberman as a speaker, UJC officials went through Marsha Lieberman, the senator’s mother.