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NCJW goes to Washington

Ellen Jacobs will long remember the day President Barack Obama signed the health-care bill.

The Demarest resident — a national board member of the National Council of Jewish Women and a former president of the Bergen County section — was in Washington that day together with 25 other local women “to speak directly with our elected officials concerning issues of importance to women, children, and families, and to urge them to implement public policy that reflects our progressive ideals.”

The group was in D.C. for NCJW’s Washington Institute, the organization’s “premier public policy event,” said Jacobs, adding that with 400 members in attendance, “the energy was palpable. What a unique opportunity to speak with a collective voice, to share knowledge, and to plan for the future.”

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At the NCJW national policy conference in March, Carole Benson of Englewood — representing the NCJW Bergen County Section — presented a grant of $2,500 to the Center for Women’s Justice in Israel. From left are Benson, vice president of the section, and Susan C. Levine, NCJW national board member and co-chair of the Israel Granting Program.

At the meeting, held late last month, the Bergen County section presented a $2,500 check to the Israel Center for Justice, “an empowerment program for at-risk women.”

“NCJW’s work in Israel directly mirrors the organization’s efforts to create progressive social change in the U.S,” said Jacobs, noting that the grant will help fund the Israeli group’s public interest litigation program.

“By filing strategic lawsuits, advocating creative approaches to Jewish law, and engaging media and policy-makers, the center promotes systemic solutions to the complex religious dilemmas that challenge the status of Jewish women,” she said.

According to the former section leader, NCJW has a long history of supporting Israeli ventures through its Israel Granting Program. Following decades of involvement in programs like the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Women & Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, the group entered a partnership three years ago with US/Israel Women to Women.

“NCJW members contribute to these efforts through grassroots networks, online campaigns, mission trips, and generous philanthropy,” said Jacobs, pointing out that grants are allocated in two categories: literacy programs designated for at-risk populations and development and empowerment programs for at-risk women.

This year’s Washington Institute presented “an opportunity for a close-up view of the operations and activities of various branches of the federal government, particularly as they relate to NCJW’s key issues,” she said, pointing out that the conclave explored four key issues: equal pay for women, paid sick days, and repeal of the global gag rule on abortion education and of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Among the speakers was Lilly Ledbetter, whose efforts on behalf of equal pay for women resulted in passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama after his inauguration.

The final presentation of the event, said Jacobs, was the introduction of NCJW’s new campaign, “Higher Ground,” which works to address the issue of domestic violence. “It’s grounded in the knowledge that economic security is critical to women’s safety,” she said.

Jacobs pointed out that among other causes, the local NCJW group has been actively involved in environmental issues. On April 20, the Bergen County section sponsored an Earth Day panel discussion in Teaneck entitled “From Generation to Generation — Creating an Environmental Legacy.” Among the panelists were former Teaneck Mayor Jacqueline Kates, now community relations coordinator for Holy Name Medical Center, and the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith.

For further information about NCJW, visit www.ncjwbcs.org.

 
 

Elena Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery

WASHINGTON – Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan — “self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic, and tactical” — before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge — she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

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President Barack Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Office last month. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness — she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish-savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client — on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong — both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an opinion piece that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who — let us be frank — had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient — Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself — and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it — hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center — along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Website, AskElenaKagan.com.

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed it. NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court — a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general — or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court — might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me — I’m just going to say it — a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin — a Harvard Law alumnus — was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives, and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences — aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure — Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it — would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe, and in the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi — over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW, and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher — as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”

JTA

 
 

Jewish groups step up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry

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Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and David Saperstein taking part in an interfaith summit in Washington on Sept. 7. Vince Isner

Jewish groups have stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry, with several national initiatives announced this week and supporting statements coming in from a range of Jewish voices.

In Washington, officials from several Jewish organizations took part Tuesday in an emergency summit of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders that denounced anti-Muslim bigotry and called for a united effort by believers of all faiths to reach out to Muslim Americans.

Also Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League announced the creation of an Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which will monitor and respond to instances of anti-Muslim bias surrounding attempts to build new mosques in the United States. (A preview of the announcement ran in The Jewish Standard.)

Meanwhile, six rabbis and scholars representing the Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox streams have launched an online campaign urging rabbis to devote part of their sermons this Shabbat to educating their congregations about Islam.

The efforts come in response to what organizers describe as a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment resulting from the impending ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the controversy surrounding efforts to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Jewish bloggers and pundits, mostly on the right, have become more vocal in opposing the center and calling for greater scrutiny of American mosques.

Among the Jewish leaders at the emergency summit was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“As Jews, we could be nowhere else today,” said Saperstein, whose organization co-sponsored Tuesday’s interfaith summit with the Islamic Society of North America.

“We have been the quintessential victims of religious persecution … and we know what happens when people are silent,” he said, explaining why clergy and believers of all faiths need to be more forceful in speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. “We have to speak more directly to the anti-Muslim bigotry in America today.”

Leaders of the mainstream Protestant, evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Catholic churches, Muslim organizations, and several Jewish streams issued a joint statement Tuesday after their summit “to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation, and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community.”

In addition to the Religious Action Center, representatives from the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of more than 125 Jewish community relations councils and the four major Jewish streams, also attended the summit.

The National Council of Jewish Women released a statement Tuesday denouncing Islamaphobia, decrying anti-Muslim bigotry, and noting that “extremists who use Islam as a justification for their heinous acts of terrorism should not be allowed to dictate the character of the entire religion.”

The group of interfaith leaders met later in the day with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to coordinate parallel efforts with the government to combat anti-Islam sentiment.

The joint statement calls upon clergy of all faiths to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and hate violence from their pulpits, and asserts that “leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness, and respect about other faith traditions.”

In a similar vein, Jewish interfaith leaders in an online letter called upon pulpit rabbis to use part of their sermons on Saturday to address the need for understanding Islam and perhaps to read from the Koran. Professors and deans of the rabbinical seminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, as well as the independent Hebrew College, signed the letter.

“The proposal for the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of multifaith studies and initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a main organizer of the appeal.

Organizers say a number of rabbis from various streams have indicated they will take part.

The ADL’s initiative underscores the shifting tide within the organized Jewish community.

Several weeks ago the organization generated national headlines when its national director, Abraham Foxman, came out against placing the Islamic center so close to Ground Zero. Foxman said the sensitivities of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks should be respected.

Its new coalition is focused on helping Muslim communities that face bigotry when they attempt to build local mosques.

Foxman told JTA that within two weeks, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques will begin its work collecting details of incidents in which mosques are being challenged, determining whether bigotry is involved and, if so, whether public or legal responses are warranted. Mosques that are opposed due to zoning problems will be outside its purview.

The coalition’s charter members, the ADL said, will include a diverse collection of religious scholars and leaders, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church.

Despite creating the coalition, the ADL has not changed its position on the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Foxman told JTA.

“Our position is very clear: They have a legal right, but the location is not sensitive to the victims,” he said, noting that not everyone in the coalition agrees with the ADL position.

One Jewish observer who questions the need for special outreach to Muslims is Steve Emerson, who directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism that tracks radical Islamist groups.

Noting that the most recent FBI list of hate crimes includes many more attacks against Jews than against Muslims, he suggests that talk of anti-Muslim hatred plays into the hands of anti-American radicals.

“Given this significant disparity in real world hate crime incidents, is there truly a ‘surge of Islamaphobia’ occurring, or is it more perception generated in and by certain media in cahoots with the Islamists?” he asked.

Foxman said that defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques “does not obviate” the need to continue to monitor mosques and churches for instances in which they preach hatred.

“We have to do that as well,” he said.

JTA

 
 

As Feingold exits, Senate loses a principled liberal

WASHINGTON – The speech that Russ Feingold gave to end his career in the U.S. Senate was much like his career itself: by turns crystal clear, obscure, ornery, defiant, and gracious — and quoting a fellow Great Plains Jew to boot.

“But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me,” the three-term U.S. senator from Wisconsin said Nov. 2, quoting Bob Dylan while conceding to Republican Ron Johnson, a Tea Party-backed plastics billionaire who beat him by a 52-47 percent split at the polls.

Then, “It’s on to the next fight. It’s on to the next battle. It’s on to 2012!”

Feingold’s spokesmen later denied that the senator was hinting at a Democratic presidential bid exploration like the one he had pursued in 2006-07. What he did mean they wouldn’t say.

It was typical of the fiercely independent streak that put Feingold into office and may well have pushed him out.

Ira Forman, the former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Feingold’s refusal to accept outside campaign money may have helped elect him in the past but likely was his downfall in this election.

“He wouldn’t accept DSCC ads,” Forman said, referring to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, typical of the bodies that run negative ads against opponents. “He often ran against people who were the beneficiary of that kind of advertising. He hoped people would stand up for his integrity, as they had in the past.”

Forman’s voice tinged with regret.

“He’s an independent voice, a loss to Democrats and the Jewish community,” he said of Feingold.

In fact, Feingold’s Jewish identity, while strong, rarely manifested itself in leadership roles on Israel, Holocaust commemoration, or the other areas that many Jewish lawmakers have made their own.

That was an approach rooted in a childhood in Janesville, Wis., a Plains town near the Illinois border. Feingold, 57, has described his upbringing as blessedly free of anti-Semitism.

“I was honored because I was Jewish,” Feingold said, describing teachers and other grown-ups to Sanford Horwitt, who wrote a political biography, “Feingold: A New Democratic Party.” “It was an amazing way to be treated.”

In 2003, asked by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle whether Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) stood a chance in his presidential bid, Feingold’s answer was why not?

“As a Jewish candidate from a state with a small Jewish population, I don’t feel I faced any issues as a Jew,” Feingold said. “In fact, it may sound naïve, but I think some voters regarded my being Jewish as interesting. I’ve only had a good experience.”

The Feingold family was socially involved, erudite, and reserved — characteristics that continue to define Russ Feingold. His staff is fiercely loyal to him, although he keeps them at a distance.

Feingold is embarrassed by forthright fans. The Dylan song he chose to quote, “Mississippi,” speaks to the senator’s teasing intellect: It is not from Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but from his 2001 album “Love and Theft.”

Feingold’s lawyer father, Leon, was the first Jewish president of the local Rotary Club; he mingled with farmer clients at 4-H events. (Leon’s father, Max, a refugee from Russia, established the family in the town and immigrated to Israel in 1950.)

Feingold has said that his Jewish legacy is manifest in his political career.

“I understood my religion as the pursuit of justice,” he told Horwitt.

That’s pretty much the extent of his public leadership on Jewish issues, although he routinely joins initiatives launched by other Jewish Congress members, recently expressing concerns to the Turkish government over its distancing from Israel and in 2008 joining a raft of Jewish senators pushing back against rumors that President Obama is a Muslim. He attends services on the High Holidays, and his sister, Dena, is a rabbi in Kenosha, south of Milwaukee.

Still, a national Jewish community that has a soft spot for independent liberals embraced Feingold. He drew Jewish support in his successful 1992 senatorial bid to oust the Republican incumbent, Bob Kasten, even though Kasten had a strong pro-Israel record.

“He is somebody who’s remarkably dedicated to civil liberties and to the Constitution, and has the courage of his convictions,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council for Jewish Women. “He took a lot of gutsy stands,” she said, citing Feingold’s lone dissent in 2001 when the Senate approved the U.S. Patriot Act.

That vote drew derision at a time of heightened concerns over terrorism, but eventually made him a hero of the Democratic base. It is a legacy still in dispute: A televised encounter last week between two liberals, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell over whether Feingold should have tacked further right to get re-elected — O’Donnell’s position — has gone viral in the blogosphere.

Feingold was among a handful of lawmakers in the recent election who drew the endorsement of both J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, and donors associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Officials in both groups lamented his departure.

Feingold’s independence was his biggest draw. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he crafted a law severely limiting corporate donations to campaigns. Unlike McCain, who won re-election last week, Feingold abided by the rules of his law even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

“This was a public servant who visibly, proudly, and courageously stood on principle,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, which backs election reform. “His effort to make America’s election system more fair and transparent made major contributions to good government.”

It was an independence borne of his upbringing and the turbulent 1960s in which he came of age. Feingold’s home, harmonious in its support of liberal causes until the ‘60s, was riven by a split between Feingold’s two father figures: His father supported the war in Vietnam, and his brother David, older by five years, opposed it.

Feingold emerged from the era determined to do what best hewed to his philosophical principles, and in the process he occasionally frustrated his party. In 1998 he famously was the only Democrat to vote to consider the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment of President Clinton — not because he believed Clinton was guilty, but because he believed in the constitutional process of impeachment.

Three years later he voted to confirm former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) as attorney general, even though they were polar opposites on critical civil liberties questions. Feingold’s reason: his abiding belief that a president, in this case George W. Bush, had the right to pick his cabinet. He later also supported Bush’s nominee for Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts.

His explanation of his Ashcroft vote in 2001, to skeptical Feingoldians at The Progressive, a liberal journal, presaged the vituperative climate that brought about his downfall.

“I believe we have to hold the line and not use ideology alone in making decisions about cabinet appointments,” Feingold said. “I fear if we keep going, more and more areas of our government are going to fall into the Great Divide and be engulfed in a culture war.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Jewish groups adjusting agendas for new GOP-led Congress

WASHINGTON – Faced with a new Congress intent on slashing the U.S. federal budget, Jewish groups are trimming their agendas to hew to its contours.

On issues from Israel aid to the environment to elderly care, Jewish organizations are planning to promote priorities that would find favorable reception in the new Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives. The groups are trying to build alliances based on shared interests and recasting pitches for existing programs as Republican-friendly.

“Some parts of our agenda won’t have much traction in this new climate,” acknowledged Josh Protas, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are looking for items that have bipartisan priorities.”

To be sure, Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, and many conservative initiatives will die in the Senate or by the stroke of a presidential veto. But the House, with its considerable oversight powers and its ability to stymie legislation, remains extremely important.

Protas says the JCPA, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, already has had meetings with staff members of the new House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

On domestic issues, many of the major Jewish organizations are devoted to policies that directly contradict Republican approaches. According to Protas, Boehner’s staffers told JCPA representatives that the best strategy for working around that is to cherry-pick the smaller issues within the broader agendas that could appeal to Republicans.

“We definitely got the sense that smaller, more focused legislation is what we’ll be seeing, so we’re trying to look at more discrete cases,” he said.

For example, on elderly care, a signature issue of the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA will seek to frame Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs, one of the jewels of the federation system, as a cost savings, according to William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations’ Washington office.

NORCs have been pitched previously as appealing earmarks for lawmakers to insert into bills. But Republicans say they will eliminate earmarks, or discretionary spending by lawmakers; the Jewish Federations’ emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an attempt to hit a popular Republican note.

“Programs like NORC,” Daroff said, “shift governmental policy away from expensive institutionalized care to less expensive” programs.

Daroff invoked Republican talking points in explaining how the Jewish Federations would continue to seek funding for security for Jewish community institutions. Security funding, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in recent years, has given local law enforcement the power to decide exactly how the money is spent, not federal officials.

“It’s not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat in downtown Washington making a decision but someone in a community allocating funds to what a community feels its needs are,” he said.

Another strategy is to establish relationships with Republican Congress members based on mutual concerns, and then trying to make the lawmakers aware of what drives Jewish community concerns, said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

He cited international religious liberty issues, including the persecution of Christians around the world.

“You have to go member by member to find people’s interests,” he said.

Jewish organizations will continue to promote some issues even if the Republican-controlled Congress isn’t interested in them. Protas and Pelavin cited cuts in funding for the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or food stamps, as an area where their groups would push back against GOP cuts. Daroff mentioned plans by some fiscal conservatives to disburse funding for Medicaid and poverty assistance in bloc grants to states, which would dilute spending on programs for the disabled.

Israel funding is likely to remain steady, Capitol Hill sources said, although there are concerns about how the funding will take place given the Republicans’ interest in trimming foreign spending.

Some leading Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, say Congress could separate funding for Israel from overall foreign spending, allowing conservatives to maintain current levels for Israel while slashing foreign spending for countries they don’t see as friendly or programs they oppose.

The pro-Israel community sees such a proposal as disastrous, in part because it will make Israel a “special case” after years of efforts to make backing Israel a natural extension of foreign policy. That could engender resentment of Israel.

Correspondingly, the pro-Israel lobby sees foreign aid as a means to bolster support for the U.S.-Israel alliance in the international community. Pro-Israel groups in Washington often have taken the lead in lobbying for Israel-friendly countries in the past.

One proposal has been to make Israel funding a part of defense spending. Insiders say they have been reassured that Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, has no intention of giving up funding for Israel and the power it yields her.

It also remains unclear what Republicans mean when they say they plan on keeping funding for Israel steady. Israel and the United States are in the middle of a 10-year agreement that incrementally increases assistance year by year between 2007 and 2017, so that it averages $3 billion a year.

Does “keeping funding steady” mean maintaining the 2010 level of $2.775 billion, or keeping to the agreement and upping the amount to $3 billion this year?

Officials say the best asset available to Jewish organizations dealing with domestic and foreign policy is the grass roots — not the lobbyists in Washington, but the activists across the country who make appointments to see their lawmakers on home visits.

The lesson of the Tea Party, the grass-roots movement that propelled Republicans to retake the House, should not be lost on Jewish groups, says Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women, which will advocate this year for President Obama’s judicial nominees, pay equity, and immigration reform, among other issues.

“The inside-the-Beltway strategy is to find our friends where we can, on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “But also to get the grass roots to speak out — that’s key, that’s what always turns the tide. If the Tea Party taught us nothing, it’s that getting folks to speak out and be persistently involved makes a difference.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

In speech, Obama misses some Jewish priorities

WASHINGTON – Civility? Check. Clean energy? Check. Health care? Check. Immigration? Check. Education? You bet.

Isolating Iran? That’s in there.

Poverty, guns, reproductive rights? Israel? Ummm.…

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was as notable for what it excluded as what made it in.

News Analysis

Obama abjured the traditional checklist and delivered a speech centered on a grand theme, American renewal, after an election that left government splintered, with a Democratic White House and Senate and a Republican House of Representatives.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” the president said. “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics.”

That was a recipe for stirring rhetoric, but it left out the manna for groups that watch the speech to cheer on their special interests.

“What NCJW missed?” the National Council of Jewish Women tweeted on the Internet within seconds of the speech’s conclusion. “Mention of poor, middle class, reproductive rights, gun violence prevention — to name some.”

The absences were telling. Obama focused on areas where he might persuade the Republican-controlled House to join him. The missing pieces all portend clashes with the Republicans: There are increased demands to tighten regulations of automatic weapons in the wake of the shooting earlier this month in Tucson. Democrats want Obama to push back against a national Republican campaign to further restrict abortion rights. House Republicans have vowed to slash funding to the Palestinian Authority, a key element of Obama’s efforts to prop up moderates in the region.

Instead, Obama used the speech to emphasize bipartisan consensus issues, some of which are Jewish community priorities, too. He outlined a plan to boost education, including preparing 100,000 new teachers of science and technology and making a $10,000 tuition tax credit permanent. He called for 80 percent of electricity to be powered by “clean energy” by 2035 and for a million electric vehicles to be on the roads by 2015.

Obama did not entirely leave out liberal causes. He offered some compromise with the Republicans on health care, but he vowed to leave in place the coverage guarantees for people with preconditions, which became law with last year’s reform bill. Obama also pledged to revive his effort, failed in the last Congress, to create paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

He noted the success — spearheaded by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — in the final hours of the last Congress repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule that kept gays from serving openly in the military.

Troops, he said, are “Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

The slew of brief Jewish organizational news releases late Tuesday and early Wednesday were reduced to praising the speech’s general tone. What they’re really waiting for are the details of the president’s budget, to be released at the beginning of February. The Jewish Federations of North America pleaded for special consideration for needs for the elderly.

“President Obama is right when he says we must be cautious of the deficit,” the Jewish Federations’ Washington director, William Daroff, said in a statement. “But there are certain social services that must be preserved now more than ever. Creating more crises for our seniors and poor is not the way to stop the crisis facing our nation.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs sought to highlight the issue of poverty.

“With the president’s budget forthcoming, we are anxious to see that he follows through on his call not to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable,” the public policy umbrella group said in a statement. “President Obama must listen to his own advice and avoid a hatchet where a scalpel is called for.”

Obama reassured Americans that he would not touch Social Security except to “strengthen” it, which got him plaudits from B’nai B’rith International.

“The benefits to seniors are modest in the big picture, but a lifeline for too many individuals, and we must continue to provide benefits at fair levels,” B’nai B’rith said. “An across-the-board domestic spending freeze could have devastating results for many of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center set up a checklist on its website to comment on 10 signature issues as they came up in the speech. On at least five of them, including Israel, gun control, and Gulf Coast recovery, the RAC ended up regurgitating its past statements because they did not get a mention.

Israel was missing in his speech, but Obama noted his success in an area that pro-Israel groups consider key: isolating Iran.

“Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wanted to know what he planned to do going forward — and wondered why he didn’t mention other threats in the region.

“The president also did not mention the threat posed by Iran and Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism and efforts to undermine its neighbors, on the very day that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis took a severe step to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” she said in a statement.

Obama started by noting perhaps the most poignant element of the evening: The empty seat of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), recovering from being shot in the head in the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting that left six dead.

“As we mark this occasion, we are also mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords,” Obama said.

TV stations cut later to a photo of Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, holding her hand in her Houston hospital room.

Marking the civil tone, lawmakers wore black and white ribbons, traditionally used to protest gun violence and in this case designated for the victims of the Tucson shooting.

Republicans and Democrats also sat together. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who since his freshman year in Congress in 1989 has arrived early to secure an aisle-side seat so he can be among the first to shake hands with the president, partnered this year with Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio.), who adopted the same habit in her freshman year, 2005.

The long hours spent watching out for their seats on the House floor have made the two buddies, despite ideological differences.

“In the wake of Tucson, and all the incivility, we want to make the place more civil, and we’ll be heated and passionate about it,” Engel told JTA before the speech.

Schmidt, grabbing Obama on his way out, made sure he signed her program for the evening and added: “Eliot needs one too! It’s bipartisan!”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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