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As Election Nears, Community Tries to Stay Involved — but Nonpartisan

June 8, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Jewish religious establishment is trying to walk a fine line, telling Jews to go out and vote, but not for whom. The major religious denominations are coordinating to inform rabbis and other synagogue leaders about what they can and can’t do to educate congregants about candidates and issues in the upcoming presidential elections.

While the Jewish religious world has done similar outreach efforts in other presidential elections, the efforts take on a new significance this year. They come as President Bush’s re-election team is working to campaign through liaisons in the nation’s churches.

Some are charging that the administration is stretching the tax-exempt status granted to places of worship, which by tax law are prohibited from partisan political activity.

The news last week that Bush’s campaign was seeking advocates to coordinate campaigns in 1,600 “friendly congregations” in Pennsylvania has sparked debate about wh! at’s legal to say and do in churches and synagogues. Similar concerns apply to other religious nonprofit institutions, such as Jewish federations, community centers and day schools.

With both national campaigns preparing to reach out to the Jewish community this election season, there’s a very real possibility that synagogues will be thrown into the midst of the political squabble.

The Jewish religious leadership’s message to followers is two-fold: It wants community members to be active and engaged, hoping to maintain Jews’ traditional influence in the political process, but it also wants synagogues and federations to follow the law.

“We’re going to be very careful of the rules and continue to both encourage our community to be involved but be cognizant of what the rules are,” said Reva Price, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization for Jewish community relations councils around the country.

The Jewish Council ! for Public Affairs and the congregational arms of Judaism’s four major streams have sent out “Get Out the Vote 2004” guides to leaders across the country. The publications outline how synagogues and other Jewish organizations can participate in the political process by registering members to vote, holding candidate forums and even serving as polling places.

It also suggests that rabbis should give sermons on the important issues for the Jewish community in the November elections, and on the importance of civic participation.

But the guide defines the limits of what synagogues and their leaders can do. It stresses that any candidate forum must include all viable candidates for office, that no endorsements are allowed and that candidate questionnaires must be done with extreme caution to ensure objectivity.

Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the guide’s co-author, said it’s important for synagogues to follow the guidelines not only to maintain their tax-exempt status, but to avoid a! lienating members of the community.

“We are very cognizant and respectful of the fact that there is diversity in our pews,” Feldman said. “I don’t think we would tell people who to vote for.”

Political actions that Jewish organizations take are likely to be heavily scrutinized in the coming months. Questions already rose when the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Fla., welcomed Vice President Dick Cheney for a speech last month.

The event was paid for by Bush’s re-election campaign but, before allowing Cheney to speak, federation officials set down several parameters to adhere to federal laws for places of worship, said Larry Altschul, the federation president.

The event could not be billed as a campaign event; the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, could not be denigrated; and fund raising, campaign literature and banners were prohibited.

“It’s not that you can’t deal with candidates, it’s that yo! u can’t be partisan,” Altschul said, adding that the federation would be happy to host Kerry as well. “We did get some complaints from folks who were so partisan, it really clouded their objectivity.”

Altschul said the campaign adhered to all the rules, using the speech to recap the Bush administration’s Middle East policy parameters. At one point, when an elderly couple stood up and shouted, “Four more years!” Cheney smiled and said, “No comment.”

Altschul says he’s satisfied that the Cheney event did not cross the line. But religious leaders remain concerned that if the Bush/Cheney campaign seeks advocates in the nation’s churches and synagogues, partisanship could rule the day.

There was nothing illegal in the request the Republican campaign issued in Pennsylvania, seeking volunteers to garner support for Bush in the state’s churches. But places of worship that allow Bush backers to distribute campaign materials inside their gates, as the e-mail suggested, could be subject to fines or Internal Revenue Service revocation of their! tax-exempt status.

“We have heard from religious leaders in various kinds of religious institutions about the offense that they take in being asked to participate in such overt, partisan political strategy,” said C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a group that advocates civil participation and freedom of religion.

It’s unclear whether synagogues would be targeted in Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

Reaching out to members of churches and synagogues was part of the campaign’s strategy to seek support through coalitions, said Sharon Castillo, spokeswoman for the Bush/Cheney campaign.

“Our approach is to do person-to-person contact, individual to individual,” she said. “We are not in any way advocating for people to get together in places of worship for political activity.”

The Kerry campaign has said it will not court voters in their houses of worship.

Jewish leaders hope that concerns about partisan politics don’t stop synagogues from gett! ing their congregants registered to vote.

“If we are going to cont inue to have the role we have had in the body politic in America, we need to return to where we were in terms of engagement,” Feldman said, noting that the proportion of young Jews voting has fallen in recent years, though it remains higher than among the general population.

“The more we vote, the more impact we have in the political arena,” Feldman said.

JTA Washington intern Justin Bosch contributed to this report.

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