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Jews See Cracks in Church-state Wall Even As Policy Group Backs Separation

March 2, 2005
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As American Jewish organizations struggle to find funds for all their priorities, some are considering climbing the wall that separates church and state. For years, Jews have been among the strongest advocates for a strict separation, arguing that any federal aid to houses of worship could be perceived as governmental endorsement or could lead to Christian proselytizing supported by tax dollars.

But those concerns seem to be fading in some segments of the Jewish world, as cash-strapped Jewish communities begin to think about alternative funding sources for their social service needs.

A change in direction could be especially important in smaller Jewish communities, which rely more on synagogues than on federations and outside Jewish organizations to provide social services. Synagogues that perform social services by and large have not sought federal funding in order to maintain the traditional church-state separation.

The debate is intensifying as the Bush administration continues to offer federal funding for social service programming under faith-based auspices.

The issue was a hot topic at the Jewish Council for Public Affair’s annual plenum here this week, bringing together local community relations councils from around the country with national organizations.

The umbrella organization, ending a yearlong examination into the issue, voted Monday evening to support a resolution affirming the separation of church and state and rejecting efforts to insert language that suggested potential benefits for Jewish interests from federal dollars.

A majority of the delegates favored continuing strong support for the separation of church and state and remain wary of increased government intervention in religious-based social service programming.

While many Jewish social service agencies, especially federation-funded agencies, accept federal funding, the programs for which the funds are used are not religious and the funding requires them to be open to non-Jews as well as Jews.

The real objections are to federal funding of programs in houses of worship and religious schools.

Only the Orthodox community specifically advocates for more government engagement in religion, and has backed President Bush’s faith-based initiative program, which allows churches and synagogues to accept federal funds for social service programming.

But even as the delegates of the policy organization as a whole stood firm in its traditional position, several suggested that certain circumstances might require flexibility.

“There is a sense that accepting public support for programs that serve humane needs does not breech that wall,” said Barbra Kaplan, a JCPA community representative from Palm Beach County, Fla.

She said that her community, like most, is open to accepting federal funds for services that do not have a religious purpose, such as senior medical care and psychological services.

“These funds are just as appropriate going to a religious-backed agency as they are going to a non-religious-backed agency,” Kaplan said.

Nathan Lewin, a prominent Orthodox attorney, said the battles the Jewish community have been fighting for decades on the separation of church and state are “obsolete.”

In the past, Jewish groups had to worry more about charities trying to convert Jews or requiring Jews who sought social services to pray. But Lewin said those concerns are not as relevant today as they once were.

“The United States is phenomenal in the way it has treated and the rights it has given Jews,” Lewin said during a debate at the plenum.

But Martin Belsky, a professor of law at the University of Tulsa, said large Jewish organizations are forgetting about Jews in smaller communities, where the fear of misuse is more real.

“You can’t have an agenda based on whether it is true in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia,” he said. “You have to think about what is best for Jews across the country.”

A growing number of Jewish communities already have signed on to accept federal homeland security dollars for the protection of high-risk sites, including synagogues.

Synagogues in Maryland were the first to receive such money.

But the Reform movement, among the most ardent supporters of maintaining a strict separation, opposes that idea as well.

Speaking on a panel on the subject, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, chastised Jewish community relations councils for coaxing Reform synagogues to take federal homeland security money, against the Reform movement directive.

The more controversial issue arises with social service programming for synagogues. These are the programs that many Jews are wary about in churches, because of the proselytizing risks and the fungibility of federal funds.

Jewish groups are also opposed to religious discrimination in hiring for programs that accept federal funds.

President Bush Tuesday — at a speech held at the same hotel as the JCPA plenum pressed Congress to allow faith-based organizations to make employment decisions based on religion.

“Faith-based organizations also need a guarantee they will not be forced to give up their right to hire people of their own faith as the price of competing for federal money,” Bush said.

Stephen Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the Jewish community is very interested in finding alternative sources of funding, and the offers for federal funding are appealing.

“If these are the rules, why not benefit from the rules?” Silberfarb said. He compared the issue to campaign finance reform; candidates raise money even as they complain the system is flawed.

But other communities are hoping to maintain a strong stand against using federal funds in synagogues.

“I feel very strongly that if we believe in our principles, they shouldn’t be sold,” said Lynn Lyss, a JCPA past chair from St. Louis.

Tevi Troy, a former White House liaison to the Jewish community, joked that the Jewish community is trying to have it both ways, speaking out against faith-based initiatives while seeking funding at the same time.

He said he admired what he called Saperstein’s “philosophical purity, but I wonder if we as a Jewish community really want to say we are not going to accept this money that is needed.”

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