Op-Ed: A not only Orthodox agenda in November and beyond


NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s an “off year” in the political calendar, with just three races of any import in the entire country — all in locales with sizable Jewish populations.   Statehouses in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as New York’s City Hall, are up for grabs.

New York, besides its sheer number of Jews, also has the Big Apple’s historic, outsized role as the capital of the Jewish Diaspora.

New Jersey’s Jewish population, particularly the Orthodox, is growing and increasingly assertive, active and organized. With independent Chris Daggett’s recent surge and endorsement by the Star-Ledger, the Garden State’s largest newspaper, the race may be decided by a few thousand votes — at most tens of thousands — with every vote counting.

And Virginia has attracted a national bipartisan focus because of its bellwether political implications of a victory being either the repudiation or endorsement of President Obama’s policies and what that means for 2010.

But for the Jewish community, it means that Jewish votes and Jewish concerns are high on the agenda. To be sure, there are differences. But at the broadest level, concerns of both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are one and the same. 

All Jews agree that we must ensure the safety of terrorist targets, the biggest of which remain Jews and Jewish institutions. Current events only suggest greater threats in the near future, whether from Iran-backed cells or homegrown radicals. Federal funding has been critical in helping secure vulnerable synagogues, schools and JCCs — quintessential “soft targets” — but much vigilance, training and deployment of state and local law enforcement remains. Events of the past year prove the bad guys are neither soft or tired but rather creative and persistent. We need our protectors — and once suspects caught, our prosecutors — to be equally relentless and daring.

Another key agreement across the denominations is that energy costs are too high and there are interlocking financial, commercial, environmental and national security reasons to focus on alternative energy and energy efficiency. Nonprofit institutions and faith-based ones must be included in these efforts.

States and cities must provide the wherewithal for cash-strapped nonprofits to refurbish their energy needs, whether through natural gas, solar, wind or greater efficiency. These institutions act as models to their communities and members as to how one acts as responsible environmental stewards.

Inclusion also would provide a critical local job stimulus in a still sagging economy. Local governments with such programs need to aggressively market them to nonprofits; those without must act now to enact them.

Jews of all denominations agree that no American of any religion ought be forced to choose between their faith and anything. Laws to ensure religious accommodation at work, including wearing religiously mandated clothing and accommodating religious schedules for time off for religious observances, must be passed and, if already enacted, vigorously enforced.

The Jewish community strongly supports most civil rights legislation, but there must be strong and robust accommodations of religious institutions — including where appropriate religious exemptions from such laws. Recent court rulings in New Jersey and Massachusetts have damaged severely the cause of religious freedom.

Finally, on the issue of school choice and aid to nonpublic, including parochial schools, we admit to some discord in the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews generally support all forms of school choice, including politically difficult vouchers and the much more popular education and tuition-related tax credits. While tax credits have been repeatedly upheld as constitutional, and the debate on their legality settled, many non-Orthodox Jews continue to oppose both credits and vouchers over separation of church and state concerns.

Still, there are many more areas of agreement than disagreement. Elected officials and candidates should garner broad support across the Jewish community for increased special education services to all children, for full textbook and technology equipment programs, energy retrofits, nursing, transportation and security personnel.

Given their support for social action, or "tikkun olam," all Jews should strongly support efforts, unrelated to vouchers or credits, that help schoolchildren and parents in need, be they families in inner-city schools, rural schools or private, even religious, ones. 

This agenda, which appeals equally to other faith groups and all Americans across party lines, finally proves that two Jews and three opinions really is just a joke. It’s a winning agenda in 2009 and for those already planning, for 2010 as well.

(Howie Beigelman is deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union responsible for state government advocacy efforts across the United States.)

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