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Tackling U.S. Domestic Policies: Jews Grapple with Best Approach

February 16, 2005
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The Bush administration’s plan to slash the budget and transform major institutions such as Social Security, Medicaid and the tax code has sharpened a debate already under way about the role of the organized Jewish community in tackling domestic policy issues. On one side are longtime liberal activists who believe that Jews must maintain their historic role in promoting domestic programs that provide a safety net for those in need.

On the other is a growing chorus of Jewish communal leaders and donors who suggest that it is time to abandon the longtime Jewish advocacy for social welfare programs, and focus exclusively on Jewish needs.

The Jewish federation system, in particular, is especially concerned about sustaining current levels of state and federal support — between $5 billion and $7 billion — that is funneled annually into the federation system.

In unveiling his budget last week, Bush called for a 1 percent cut on domestic spending not related to security, and proposed that 150 programs be greatly reduced or cut entirely next year.

The $2.57 trillion budget proposal also called for additional belt-tightening for many Jewish programs that aid the community’s poor and elderly.

Morton Plant, chairman of the executive committee of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for North American federations, questioned whether lobbying manpower should be spent on issues that don’t specifically concern the Jewish community, like health care, senior issues and immigration care.

“I think we try to do too much,” said Plant of Baltimore. “We are servicing such a mixed group and their interests are not the same. My personal feeling is we ought to concentrate on several things and really do a great job on it.”

Others believe that while the federation system should be fighting for the Jewish piece of the budget pie, other policy organizations should continue to focus on issues that affect others as well.

Martin Raffel, the associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said, “We need to harmonize our two Jewish impulses — to take care of the tribe and to take care of the broader world.”

How the top umbrella bodies involved in domestic policy face these challenges will become clearer as both the UJC and the JCPA seek new professional leaders.

Charles Konigsberg was fired last month as UJC’s vice president for public policy, and Hannah Rosenthal announced she is leaving her position as executive director of the JCPA to head the Chicago Foundation for Women.

One line of thinking is that the Jewish community should rethink some of its priorities, if only to avoid being marginalized by an administration that has different priorities.

There is always concern when Jewish groups take positions opposing White House policies. That can hurt access, especially in an administration known for sidestepping opposing viewpoints, and could hamper efforts to lobby for other priorities, including Israel.

Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said as the Jewish community becomes smaller, it is important for it to use its resources more strategically.

“You have to think about the consequences of taking certain positions,” he said. “You have to think about the political enemies you are making and think about the impact on the critical Jewish interests of taking on these issues.”

There are already signs that some groups are tamping down their positions on issues.

Instead of staking out an explicit position on Bush’s planned Social Security reforms, both the UJC and the JCPA are reissuing resolutions from the late 1990s that call for continued universal access to the program with minimal administrative costs.

Those resolutions, although at least 5 years old, align the groups with critics of the reforms, who say Bush’s plan to privatizate Social Security could substantially hike administrative costs and could create unequal payouts.

But the decision not to add any current commentary underscores the degree to which the community is eager to sit out this fight.

The reluctance to engage stems in part from a diversity of opinions within the community.

While many Jewish professionals who deal with the elderly and the poor oppose Bush’s proposed reforms to Social Security and Medicaid, some lay leaders and donors share some of Bush’s economic policy perspectives.

As Jewish demographics shift, look for more such “diversity of opinion,” say community leaders.

“I think you’ll find UJC may illuminate some of the potential impact from different proposals without saying which way to go,” said Stephen Hoffman, the former president and CEO of the UJC, who has returned to his previous post as president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

“A smart organization knows where it has a consensus of values and where it doesn’t.”

Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, says there is a growing dialectic between what he dubs “particularism” and “universalism” in the Jewish community.

Jews still care about broader issues such as battling poverty, he said, but some prefer to channel those energies into general, non-Jewish organizations.

Those voices want the UJC and other Jewish groups to stick with issues that are crucial to the Jewish demographics and interests: care for the elderly, care for recent immigrants and providing homeland security assistance to Jewish sites post-Sept. 11.

Reflecting that shift, the UJC is increasingly focused on cuts to Medicaid, which is the largest funding source for Jewish nursing homes and hospitals, providing more than $2 billion a year.

The UJC began a push last year to garner homeland security money for the protection of high-risk Jewish sites. It helped secure $25 million for high-risk nonprofit institutions in general and wants the program broadened this year.

UJC officials say they were pleased with the organization’s focus on securing dollars for the federation system under Konigsberg, and will seek someone with experience in lobbying for appropriations.

The JCPA has traditionally taken a broader approach, seeking to support policies that further Jewish values, rather than Jewish institutions.

But it must find consensus among the community relations councils across the country and national organizations it represents, and some, including UJC, which is its primary funder, have been questioning the broad scope.

Rosenthal made combating poverty a top priority for the JCPA in recent years and was criticized by the UJC’s former chairman, James Tisch, who suggested social welfare concerns were outside the realm of Jewish priorities.

“I believe that many of our donors would not be too pleased to see our communal dollars being spent advocating either for or against tax proposals,” Tisch wrote in an e-mail to Rosenthal last year, which was quoted in The New York Times.

Not everyone sees a radical shift immediately in the offing.

Michael Bohnen, JCPA’s immediate past chair, who will lead the search for Rosenthal’s replacement, said he did not envision the organization dropping a broad social agenda.

“There’s always debate over what is a Jewish issue,” he said. “When someone disagrees with a particular position we’re taking, they couch their opposition by saying it’s ‘not a Jewish issue.’ “

A longtime proponent of social justice issues, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said, “There is an overwhelming consensus in the Jewish community that Jewish values require us to take positions on broad and specific concerns.”

“We have a religious obligation as a moral community to be a light of morality and apply moral values to the issues of the day.”

In addition, he said, supporting issues outside the immediate scope of the Jewish community helps build coalitions — and garners support for Jewish issues.

“We can’t expect non-Jewish groups to speak to our particular concerns if we turn a blind eye and silent voice to their concerns which we agree on,” he said.

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