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Orthodox world pushes tax credits for day-school donations

Josh LipowskyLocal
Published: 11 September 2009

As families struggle to meet their day-school tuition obligations, the Orthodox community is turning to the government for help in the form of state tax credits for donations to scholarship funds.

About 150 community members came to Teaneck’s Bnai Yeshurun last Tuesday as legislative policy experts representing two Orthodox advocacy groups discussed political solutions to the day-school crisis.

“Public funding of education can have unbelievable possibilities,” said Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz as he introduced the forum. “We may be a few decades late, but we’re not too late.”

No silver bullet exists, said Howard Beigelman, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs. Beigelman and Joshua Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey heralded corporate tax credits as a possible form of relief.

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The Orthodox Union’s Howard Beigelman, right, and Agudath Israel’s Joshua Pruzansky praised corporate tax credits for day school donations at a meeting in Teaneck last week.

School vouchers, a failed goal of President George W. Bush’s administration, are no longer under consideration, Beigelman said. The idea has long been mired in controversy, particularly for potential violations of the separation between state and religion. Tax credits, however, are “100 percent constitutionally kosher,” Beigelman said.

Under a corporate tax credit program, he explained, a company would make a donation to a central non-profit fund and receive a tax credit. The fund would then distribute the money to families that meet its requirements. Donors could earmark the funds for students in specific schools. Since the money would not go to the school directly, there is no conflict between religion and state.

According to the Agudath Israel, 27,155 students attend 114 Orthodox day schools in New Jersey, an increase of 37 percent since the 2003-04 school year, when the organization last took a census of students.

This year, the state is expected to allocate $24,080,000 to New Jersey’s private schools, with $3,780,000 going to day schools.

The New Jersey legislature has been discussing the creation of a corporate tax credit program since last year. Senate bill 1607, also known as the Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act, would create a pilot program in the Department of the Treasury, which would provide tax credits for contributions to scholarship programs for public and private schools. If approved, the act would set up pilot programs in Lakewood, Paterson, Elizabeth, Newark, Orange, and Trenton.

Funds from the program would be available to children from homes with income that does not exceed 2.5 times the federal poverty level, a requirement that many Orthodox families could meet, given their typically large sizes and tuition bills, Beigelman said.

In the 11 states where similar programs exist, legislative support has been high on both sides of the aisle, and day schools have reaped the benefits of millions of dollars, Beigelman added.

In 2007, Bank of America made a $200,000 donation to two day schools in Rhode Island through the Rhode Island Scholarship Tax Credit program. Last year, two day schools in the Providence area with a total enrollment of 63 students raised about $10,000 per student through the program, Beigelman said. A similar program in Pittsburgh has raised more than $8 million since 2001.

Pruzansky lamented a lack of political will to move the bill forward in New Jersey.

“The leadership doesn’t have the courage to post the bill,” he said of 1607. He cast blame on the New Jersey Education Association, which he accused of swaying politicians with hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

Pruzansky implored attendees to begin meeting with their representatives to push through the bill.

“If we go out there, there might be a chance,” he said.

Many states allow for both corporate and personal tax credits, but New Jersey currently does not allow for individual tax credits for any charitable donations. Sens. Thomas Kean Jr. and Richard Codey introduced a bill in the Senate last year to change that, but it has yet to move out of committee. The OU is focusing its energies on creating a corporate option in the Garden State, Beigelman told The Jewish Standard after the forum, although the organization also supports Kean and Codey’s bill.

Beigelman hopes to see the Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act pass this year, to be implemented in the 2010-11 school year. “If they see it’s important to their constituency, they will do this,” Beigelman said.

 
 

State steps into day-school debate

Parents continuing to struggle with rising day-school tuition may soon get some help from the state.

Passaic Assemblyman Gary Schaer has been named co-chair of the Non-Public Education Funding Commission, created by Gov. Corzine late last month to investigate how New Jersey can aid private schools without crossing the line separating church and state.

“The work of this commission will be critically important in improving educational opportunities for our students and ensuring a bright future for all children throughout this state,” Corzine said Dec. 22 as he signed the executive order creating the group.

New Jersey has 1,200 non-public schools, educating more than 170,000 students, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of the State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. Of those students, approximately 80 percent attend religious schools.

George Corwell, New Jersey Catholic Conference’s director of education, will co-chair the commission with Schaer (D-36). The 23-member body will also include the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, the state treasurer, and the N.J. attorney general, who will monitor church-state issues.

Responsibilities include reviewing ways to help non-public schools maximize grant funding; exploring how to create incentives for charitable giving to non-public schools; investigating how to better the non-public school learning experience through equipment such as textbooks, technology, and furniture; and finding ways to most effectively use state and federal funds within the boundaries of church and state separation. Corzine gave the commission a June 1 deadline to make its recommendations.

“The commission is important in identifying the areas of funding they feel would be of help,” Pruzansky told The Jewish Standard. “The bottom line is, once they do find those issues, what will the legislature or governor do?”

Currently, the state provides $137 in annual aid per student to private-school students — $72 for nursing aid and $65 for textbooks. Schaer, an Orthodox Jew himself, said the commission could potentially come up with $1,500 to $2,000 per student. Specifically, the state could provide additional aid for busing, nursing, textbooks, and technology.

“That would be a great assist to the children and their families,” he said.

Non-public schools have largely been ignored by the state, according to Pruzansky, but their students represent a significant savings to New Jersey taxpayers. If all of New Jersey’s private-school students switched to public schools, it would cost taxpayers an additional $2.75 billion, he said.

“The fact that these schools exist is saving taxpayers close to $3 billion a year,” he said.

Families that do not use the public-school system still pay for it through property taxes. According to the non-profit Tax Foundation, New Jersey has among the highest property taxes in the country. Day-school parents may also pay tuition bills ranging from $6,000 to $55,000 per student, depending on the school.

“We’ve all been living with this issue for as long as we can,” Schaer said. “This is not simply a Jewish issue, not simply a Catholic issue. It’s an issue about our children — about the state we want to live in.”

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella group that has been searching for solutions to the day-school crisis for the past year, welcomed Corzine’s proclamation.

“I hope the recommendations will be [those] we can implement relatively quickly and easily,” said Howie Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy.

The OU and Agudath Israel recently put their weight behind a proposal to allow corporate tax credits for donations to private schools. Both organizations had also supported the idea of school vouchers, but Beigelman noted that Corzine did not support the proposal because he was wary of the constitutional issues involved.

“It’s an honest view,” Beigelman said. “This commission’s going to be able to look at that, what the state can do, what other states are doing, and where the state can go in the future.”

Beigelman said Gov.-elect Chris Christie is a proponent of school choice and may further press the legislature on funding.

Rabbi Saul Zucker, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s director of day school services, called the commission “a wonderful thing.”

“A solution to the overall crisis is not going to lie exclusively in the government,” he said. “It requires a really multi-faceted approach. The model of a kehillah fund is a wonderful component. How we can utilize government programs is another wonderful component. Different avenues of fund-raising are another wonderful component. You have to bring all these things to bear.”

 
 

Orthodox rabbis address the ethics of kashrut

The ethical side of the kashrut industry has been under a microscope in the wake of the 2008 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant, which led to a fraud conviction for the company’s former CEO.

Now, a task force within the Rabbinical Council of America has issued its Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines to “promote and safeguard ethical corporate policies and behavior, and encourage socially responsible activities in kosher food production,” according to the organization. The task force, headed by Rabbi Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, included rabbinical experts in business ethics, law, and kosher supervision.

“Recent events, and the deliberations of our task force, made it clear to us that expectations were not in alignment among the three major stakeholders in the kosher food industry: producers, supervisors, and consumers,” Meir e-mailed The Jewish Standard on Wednesday. “The supervising agencies had certain standards but they were not consistently defined or applied, and the producers were not always of aware of them; the consumers had expectations the agencies had not really understood. Most of all, we wanted to create a set of standards that would be acceptable to all the participants.”

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Rabbi Menachem Genack

The guidelines will help repair the damage caused to the image of the kosher industry since the Agri incident, according to Meir. The guidelines maintain that “agencies should explicitly inform clients that they require lawful conduct, and agencies should distance themselves from any producer whose conduct constitutes a gross affront to the ethical demands of Jewish law and tradition.”

Among the areas supervisors should monitor are employee and animal safety.

Jewish organizations welcomed the guidelines, while the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kashrut supervisory organization, has endorsed them and has begun to direct its inspectors to monitor for violations. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kashrut division CEO and an Englewood resident, served on the RCA’s task force.

“We’re not expecting kashrus inspectors to ferret out issues beyond their expertise, but in the process of the plant, if they become aware of something, they should report it,” he said.

Following the Agri raid, a group of rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah created Uri L’Tzedek, dedicated to promoting social justice in the Orthodox world. In a phone interview with the Standard earlier this week, Uri L’Tzedek founder Shmuly Yanklowitz said there has to be a “grassroots” shift in consumer habits.

“It’s clear that the Orthodox constituency, as well as the establishments, are rapidly changing in their perspectives of consumerism, kashrut, and social justice,” Yanklowitz said.

Until now, the Orthodox community has been more reactive about ethical standards in kashrut, Yanklowitz said.

“There’s an understanding now that the whole country is watching to see how will we clean up this mess,” he said. “But also on the positive side there’s an expanded notion of kashrut as a spiritual and emotional force in the country. That’s creating a great pressure in the Orthodox establishment to put forward solutions.”

Rabbi Morris Allen, founder of the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek — formerly Hekhsher Tzedek — ethical kashrut seal, said the new focus on ethical issues in the kashrut industry is a “victory for the Jewish people.” He credited his organization for spurring the change in attitude toward kashrut.

“Three years ago there was no consensus in the Jewish community about ethical issues in kosher food,” he said. “Now there is clear consensus.”

The role of the rabbi in monitoring ethical concerns remains a matter of debate. Yanklowitz said that, “Rabbis ought to be an inspiring force in helping to guide these values and laws.”

Genack argued that rabbis cannot be expected to take the place of trained government inspectors.

“They shouldn’t substitute themselves for governmental agencies that are by law and experience able to handle these issues more effectively,” he said. “But if they become aware of these issues, they shouldn’t ignore it.”

The RCA guidelines recognize rabbis’ limited knowledge of federal regulations. Rather than begin their own investigations, they are directed to bring their suspicions to the attention of the company in question or federal inspectors.

Once a supervising agency becomes convinced of wrongdoing, according to the guidelines, it “should act promptly and not remain, or even appear to remain, indifferent to such misconduct.” Actions may include removing its supervision; also the RCA may publicly condemn the violations.

“The bottom line,” Allen said, “is that what we’re seeing is a coalescing in the Jewish community around the shared notion that in the production of kosher food, ethical issues that impact a Jewish community are important.”

 
 

Christian student group case poses dilemmas for Jewish groups

WASHINGTON – Is it discriminatory for government to fund some forms of discrimination and not others? And what does “funding” mean?

These questions are at the center of a case concerning the right of a Christian student group to recognition on its campus.

The Christian Legal Society’s quest for official status at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law has wound its way through the courts and now is under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court took up the case in December; it has yet to set a date for hearings.

On the Orthodox side, Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union have filed separate briefs friendly to the Christian Legal Society. So has the National Council of Young Israel, joining a brief that includes Muslim, Christian, and Sikh groups.

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Orthodox Jewish groups say a Supreme Court case dealing with a campus ban on an exclusively Christian society would adversely affect Hillel — some of its participants are shown meeting on campus — and other Jewish student organizations. Max Orenstein

The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are planning to file separate briefs friendly to the university. The American Jewish Congress chose not to file a brief.

The Orthodox vs. secular alignment is not unusual in such church-state cases. However, subtle differences over the case’s ramifications and over strategy have emerged between groups on the same side.

The crux of the dilemma for Jewish groups is whether the greater threat to Jews is posed by groups that exclude — or by marginalizing groups that exclude. The Christian Legal Society requires a signed commitment to what it defines as Christian principles, including proscribing premarital sex and defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. The society wants Hastings, which receives state and federal funds, to allocate it the same funding due other on-campus groups and it wants equal access to campus facilities.

The Orthodox Union’s brief emphasizes the threat that the law school’s lower court victories pose to the ability of OU’s student affiliates, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and the Jewish Student Union, as well as other Jewish student associations, to control membership and leadership.

“A Jewish campus organization such as Hillel would be compelled to admit adherents of Jews for Jesus into its membership,” the OU brief says. “Not only would such requirements redefine the group, they would likely drive away members who wish to congregate with co-religionists, free from proselytizing.”

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director and its counsel in this case, said the school’s refusal to recognize the Christian society violated the group’s constitutional rights.

“They are excluding this group because of a viewpoint,” he said. “This is a state university, and the state is not entitled under the First Amendment, under the free exercise of religion or freedom of association, to say these are the conditions under which to exercise your rights.”

For the ADL, the danger lies in the prospect of federal funding for a group that not only requires Christian commitment but the exclusion of gays.

“We really see this is as a discrimination case,” said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s civil rights director. “What if a club formed that said no Jews? Any organization that says they’re opposed to Jews, women, blacks, gays — if CLS succeeds, public-funded universities will have to fund it.”

The ADL and Agudah, from opposing sides, see far-reaching consequences for funding for faith groups in general. The Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Committee see the case more narrowly affecting student activities.

Lauter says the case has ramifications for the efforts by Jewish civil rights groups to get the Obama administration to make good on promises to restrict faith-based funding for social activism to groups that do not proselytize or discriminate in their hiring.

“This would open the door up for federal funds to be used to discriminate in the hiring and firing of people,” Lauter said. “It’s antithetical to democracy.”

The AJC joined the ADL in its letter this month to the White House regarding faith-based funding, but Richard Foltin, the AJC’s legislative director, said the Hastings case was unrelated.

“I wouldn’t say one motivates the other,” he said.

In fact, Foltin said, AJC was driven to file an amicus brief because the Christian society insists on receiving the same direct funding from the university that other groups receive. Had the society simply asked for the same on-campus status of other groups — access to space and facilities, Foltin said — AJC might not have joined the case.

Lauter says ADL sees any university sanction of the group as crossing a line.

“There’s no distinction — once you open the door up, it’s open,” she said, adding that the Christian society was free to meet off-campus.

Similarly, whereas the Orthodox Union’s brief focuses principally on the ramifications for student groups, Agudah tells the Supreme Court in its brief that upholding lower courts’ decisions favoring Hastings would have dire consequences for expression of faith generally.

“Applying these laws to Orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues, federal, state, or local governments could relegate Orthodox Jews and our institutions to second-class status, ineligible to participate equally in society,” the Agudah brief says. “Such a result cannot be reconciled with our nation’s foundational concept of religious freedom.”

Abba Cohen, Agudah’s Washington director, counted off the programs that could be adversely affected, including state and federal assistance for disabled students, remedial teaching, disaster relief, and homeland security assistance for securing Jewish institutions.

“So much of our religious life involves separation between the genders and services and activities that are exclusive to the Jewish faith,” he said. “This really hits at the hearts of our religious practice.”

Hastings’ inclination to protect gays from discrimination — a key factor cited repeatedly in the university’s brief — is a matter of “contemporary mores” and not law, Cohen argues.

“One would need a much, much higher level of state interest to infringe upon” the rights of religious groups, he said. “You’re dealing with association rights, free speech rights, you’re dealing with the very things which make religion what it is.”

The AJCongress’ board debated whether to file a brief, but found itself torn between the dangers each side sees and decided against, said Marc Stern, the group’s legal counsel and acting executive director.

Stern says the dilemma reflects broader Jewish community tensions.

“Does Jewish security lie in eliminating any vestige of discrimination in a public space?” he asked, “or does it lie in people drawing lines for ideological reasons to meet privately?”

JTA

 
 

OU PowerPoint includes the whole Megillah

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As Megillat Esther is read this Purim, Jews around the world will stamp their feet, hiss, and wave their groggers when they hear the name of Haman.

Many Jews who suffer from hearing loss, however, will never hear that wicked name — or the noise around them when it’s uttered. For these members of the community, Our Way, part of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a PowerPoint presentation of the Purim shpiel, complete with animations of you-know-who being stamped out.

“When you have a community that has trouble hearing, it’s very difficult for them to follow most of the programs that go on in synagogues and temples on a regular basis,” said Batya Jacob, director of Our Way. “We look for ways to include our membership and people in the Jewish community.”

Yachad declared February as North American Inclusion Month and more than 200 synagogues and schools in North America signed up to host Shabbatons and other activities. Our Way’s PowerPoint is one of several outreach projects the OU is promoting throughout the month and into March.

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Our Way, a program of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad/National Jewish Council for Disabilities, has created a presentation of Megillat Esther for the hearing-impaired.

The presentation is projected on a screen and includes Hebrew and English translations of the Megillah. Haman’s name appears in red, prompting the user to click. One of 15 graphics then pops up, showing Haman in a pool of sharks, a boiling vat of water, and swallowed up by mosquitos, among other animated fates.

“Every time you get to Haman you can click on Haman on the English or Hebrew side and there’s a visual stamping out,” Jacob said.

This will be the sixth year the presentation has been distributed. It began as a pilot in five communities and last year it went out to 150 synagogues around the world. At least that many are expected this year, Jacob said.

“We keep growing, thank God, every year,” she said.

In addition to aiding the hearing-impaired, the presentation is also beneficial for the elderly, children with learning disabilities, or the visually handicapped who cannot see the small text of prayerbooks. Children, particularly, like the presentation because of the graphics, Jacob said.

“It’s a really useful tool,” she said.

The presentation is available through e-mail to any synagogue that requests it. It has been used in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues, as well as yeshivas in Israel. Synagogues that don’t have hearing-impaired congregants should still be interested, Jacob said, to draw more people in from the community for the holiday.

Some synagogues request a copy of the presentation that they can edit, Jacob said. They then insert pictures of members into the graphics.

“So it’s their own people popping up, stamping out Haman,” Jacob said.

Cong. Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, which held an inclusion Shabbat two weeks ago, has been using the PowerPoint for years. The congregation holds its traditional Megillah reading in one room and the PowerPoint presentation in another.

“People look at it with a sense of pride that we have such a thing,” said Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler. “We certainly have [hearing-impaired] people coming from the outside. Just having such a program gives them the sense that they’re welcome in our shul and that’s something we take great pride in.”

The Pinebrook Jewish Center in Montville, which also screens the PowerPoint, doesn’t have any hearing-impaired congregants, according to Rabbi Mark Finkel. The presentation just “makes the text more accessible to everybody in the room,” he said.

“It’s added a whole dimension to the reading of the Megillah,” Finkel said.

For more information or to request a copy of the presentation, e-mail Jacob at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (212) 613-8127. For more information on NAIM events, call (212) 612-8172 or e-mail Michelle Orgel at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Rotem conversion law in Israel is under debate

According to Knesset member David Rotem, if he has his way, Israel will enact a new law to make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis to convert to Judaism.

This will have the effect of better integrating tens of thousands of Israelis of Russian extraction, if not hundreds of thousands, into Israeli Jewish society, according to Rotem and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, whose party, the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu, is sponsoring the bill. Most important, they say, the measure will make it easier for the Russians to marry other Israelis.

News Analysis

But critics, including some diaspora Jews and non-Orthodox leaders in Israel, are not happy with the proposal. They say the bill does not go far enough to ease the conversion process, expands the power of the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizes non-Orthodox conversions, and does nothing to secure recognition in Israel for conversions performed in the diaspora.

The objections are part of what prompted a U.S. tour this week by the two legislators from Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, promised in the last campaign to tackle marriage and conversion issues. Rotem and Ayalon spent three days visiting American Jewish organizational leaders in a bid to allay concerns about the proposed bill.

The point of the tour, Ayalon explained, was “to alleviate any concerns from our brothers and sisters in the Conservative and Reform movements that they would be adversely impacted by any form of the bill.”

Rotem and Ayalon also met with the Orthodox Union and federation executives, among others, to discuss the proposed legislation.

Rabbi Uri Regev, a leading Reform rabbi in Israel and now president of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, says that American Jewish leaders should not be distracted from the real harm the bill does in Israel.

“The devil is in the details,” Regev said. “What he’s not telling you is that the bill would result in serious ramifications in terms of the legal status of converts in general, of non-Orthodox converts in particular, and will not provide Russian olim with the kind of access and protection he claims.”

The conversion bill aims to address several problems with the status quo in Israel, according to Rotem, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. While most of the Russian-speaking immigrants were Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, many did not have a Jewish mother and so were classified in Israel as non-Jews. That has led to all sorts of problems for the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israelis in this category, particularly when it comes to marriage. Israeli law makes no accommodation for civil marriage, whether between a Jew and a non-Jew or between two people of no religion. So the only way these Israelis can wed is if they convert to Judaism — no easy process in Israel.

Would-be converts must take classes, pass exams, and pledge to be religiously observant, and the approval for conversions is subject to the whims of special conversion courts. Complicating matters further, rabbinical courts in Israel in the past two years have invalidated a number of conversions performed years ago, casting doubt on thousands more conversions and provoking a firestorm of controversy. The Israeli Rabbinate also has circumscribed acceptance of conversions performed overseas, including Orthodox conversions, rankling diaspora rabbis.

Rotem says his bill would address some, but not all, of these problems.

The measure would empower any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel, or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town, to perform a conversion for any Israeli regardless of place of residence. This would free would-be converts from the whims of the special conversion courts. It also would eliminate the current curricular requirements for converts, instead leaving conversion to the discretion of local rabbis.

Under the proposed law, conversions could be voided only if the rabbinical court that conducted the conversion determined it took place under false pretenses, subject to the approval of the president of the national Rabbinic Court of Appeals. And under Rotem’s proposal, a convert seeking to marry but encountering obstinacy from his local rabbinate could return to the rabbinical court that converted him to acquire his marriage license.

A few months ago, Rotem managed to get a separate bill passed to enable couples with no religion to enter into civil unions. Critics complain, however, that the law’s limitation to couples of no religion limits its impact to some 100 to 200 couples in Israel per year, and that it leaves unclear whether these unions will be recognized overseas as marriages. The bill does nothing to help interfaith couples, who are barred by law from marrying in Israel, or Jews who want to get married civilly rather than through the rabbinate.

The conversion bill faces significant hurdles in the Knesset. Ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, parties are fighting provisions of the bill that would ease the conversion process, and some non-Orthodox leaders complain that certain provisions of the bill may make matters worse for converts.

Rotem says the conversion bill is essential for Israel’s future. Without it, he warns, the non-Jewish, non-Arab population of Israel will swell to 1 million by 2035.

Regev, a staunch critic of the bill, says that while well-meaning, the measure contains several dangerous provisions. For one, it expands the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction by bringing conversions, until now the province of special conversion courts, under the explicit authority of the Chief Rabbinate.

For another, it requires the consent of the president of the nation’s Rabbinic Court of Appeals for a conversion to be revoked. While that might be an improvement over the current situation, in which lower rabbinic courts can unilaterally void conversions, it also raises the specter that the position could be taken up by a fundamentalist who would take a tougher line against converts.

Moreover, the conversion bill does not guarantee that rabbinates in Israel will recognize conversions performed overseas. While Israeli law recognizes such conversions as valid, in practice Israeli rabbinates often disregard them and bar such converts from marrying Jews — particularly in the case of non-Orthodox conversions.

Rotem dismisses this problem, saying that a convert from the United States always can find some rabbinate in Israel willing to grant him a marriage license — it’s just a matter of “legwork” going from city to city to find one.

Regev says this is ridiculous.

“Instead of allowing people to marry as they see fit, with the starting point being freedom of marriage, there are acrobatics when the chief rabbi of the city makes problems for a convert who wants to marry,” he said.

JTA

 
 

Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

Prosecution was overzealous in Rubashkin case

 

Bork turns Kagan process into fight over Israeli justice

It was an unexpected headline in an otherwise relatively mundane U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process: Bork tries to Bork Barak’s Elena Kagan with Barak card.

Like a ghost from confirmations past, failed Reagan nominee Robert Bork grabbed headlines last week when he spoke out against President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the high court. At the top of his complaint list: As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan once referred to former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak as her “judicial hero.”

Conservative bloggers quickly ran with Bork’s complaint, painting Barak as the prototypical liberal activist judge and insisting that Kagan’s praise of the Israeli justice was grounds for rejecting her nomination. By the weekend, a few Republican lawmakers were giving voice to the concerns, albeit in less absolute terms. Next, at least two GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeffrey Sessions (R-Ala.), floated the issue in their opening statements on the first day of Kagan’s confirmation hearings.

And on Tuesday the issue took center stage, as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put the question directly to Kagan — who then unapologetically affirmed and explained her praise of Barak, saying it was rooted in her Jewishness and admiration for Israel.

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Aharon Barak, formerly Israel’s top justice, recently became an issue in Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation process. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

“I am troubled by the fact that you hold up Barak as a judicial role model,” Grassley said. “He’s been described as creating a degree of judicial power undreamed of by most U.S. justices.”

Grassley quoted Barak as saying that “a judge has a role” in the lawmaking process, and asked Kagan if she agreed. Kagan responded that she did not, but also noted that Barak operated in a fundamentally different system — one without a written constitution.

“Justice Barak’s philosophy is so different from anything that we would use or would want to use in the United States,” she said.

Instead, Kagan added, she admired Barak for creating an independent judiciary in a young state surrounded by enemies.

“As you know, I don’t think it’s a secret I am Jewish,” Kagan said. “The State of Israel has meant a lot to me and my family. And — and I admire Justice Barak for what he’s done for the State of Israel and ensuring an independent judiciary.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, exercised the rarely used prerogative of rebutting Grassley, quoting conservative judges who have praised Barak.

In Israel, Barak has been subject to criticism from the left and the right, both for his expansive notion of judicial powers in upholding democratic values and for deferring to national security considerations in a number of cases involving Palestinians.

“It’s typical of young lawyers going into constitutional law that they have inflated dreams of what constitutional law can do, what courts can do,” Bork said during a June 23 conference call organized by the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life in an effort to rally opposition to Kagan in the U.S. Senate. “That usually wears off as time passes and they get experience. But Ms. Kagan has not had time to develop a mature philosophy of judging. I would say her admiration for Barak, the Israeli justice, is a prime example. As I’ve said before, Barak might be the least competent judge on the planet.”

Following Bork’s comments, liberals in the United States rushed to defend Barak and Kagan by noting that the Israeli justice has received praise as well from judicial conservatives, most notably U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. A darling of conservatives, Scalia glowingly introduced Barak in March 2007 when he was honored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (with the Supreme Court’s two Jewish members, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the audience).

In its report on the introduction, the Forward paraphrased Scalia as saying that “no other living jurist has had a greater impact on his own country’s legal system — and perhaps on legal systems throughout the world.” According to the report, Scalia went on “to celebrate his fruitful and long-standing relationship with the Israeli judge, and to affirm a profound respect for the man — one that trumped their fundamental philosophical, legal, and constitutional disagreements.”

Told of Scalia’s remarks, Bork dismissed them as sounding “like politeness offered on a formal occasion.”

At the National Review Online, Ed Whelan argued that Scalia’s comments about Barak could not be compared to Kagan’s use of the phrase “my judicial hero.”

In an e-mail to JTA, David Twersky, a veteran journalist and analyst for Jewish organizations, recalled that at a New York Sun editorial dinner at the Harvard Club he asked Scalia about Barak.

“To my great surprise, he had nothing but good things to say and said he would never second-guess Barak,” Twersky said. “So I can tell you from personal experience that Bork is wrong.”

Twersky recalled Scalia as saying, “I mean they don’t even have a constitution over there.”

The Israel-lacks-a-constitution theme has been echoed in recent days by Barak’s defenders, who argue that the different legal traditions in Israel and the United States make it difficult to read too much into Kagan’s praise of Barak.

“Kagan wasn’t saying that she would decide every U.S. issue the same way Barak would decide the same matter in Israel,” Aaron Zelinsky wrote in a column for the Huffington Post. Instead, added Zelinsky, an American who once clerked for Barak, Kagan “respected what he stood for and had accomplished, in particular the furtherance of ‘democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and justice.’”

The Orthox Union has taken issue with Barak’s record, accusing him of improperly attempting to “impose his ideological vision” on matters when Israel’s Jewish and democratic values are seemingly in conflict. But even as it reiterated those criticisms, the organization on its Washington blog dismissed Bork’s attack on Kagan, like oter Jewish groups, suggesting her praise was merely “social convention.”

“Israel gets pulled into enough disputes around the world these days, and its Supreme Court continues to spark debates too,” the OU blog declared. “Can’t Judge Bork and the rest of Kagan’s opponents find something else — and less bizarre — to attack her with?”

Both the OU and the Reform movement waded into the confirmation process, though they stopped short of taking an actual position on the nominee.

In a letter to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the OU said it found Kagan’s record “encouraging.” It noted her repudiation in confirmation hearings of her 1987 memo, when she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, rejecting any government funding for faith-based charities providing social services.

The OU also noted memos she wrote as a domestic adviser to President Clinton backing religious freedoms in the workplace.

The Reform movement, meantime, forwarded to the Judiciary Committee members what it considered to be the most compelling questions it solicited from its membership on the website AskElanaKagan.com.

“What limits does the Establishment Clause place on government funding that flows to faith-based organizations?” was one question.

“Do states have a right to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman? What should be the Federal role concerning marriage?” was another.

Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, issued a statement rejecting Bork’s criticism of Kagan and promised that the NCJW would continue to push its members to take action in support of her nomination.

Kagan’s Jewishness also took center stage later in the day. Graham, probing Kagan on threats to the United States, asked her if she was unnerved by the Christmas Day bomber.

“Where were you on Christmas Day?” Graham asked.

“Like all Jews,” she responded, “I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

“I could almost see this one coming,” Leahy quipped.

Then Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) jumped in: “Those are the only restaurants that are open!”

JTA

Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

 
 
 
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