Next month, hundreds of rabbis and community leaders in Portland, Ore., will gather with counterparts from other faiths for skill-building workshops related to the social-justice priorities of their congregations.
“We’ll be looking at how to confront hunger in our backyard,” said Bob Horenstein, community relations director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.
The Portland workshops are part of a nationwide effort, spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, that has galvanized Jewish community groups around the issue of poverty, a problem that is deepening in the nation and in the Jewish community as the economy continues its downward turn.
But the initiative has also revived questions about whether Jewish groups are willing to confront big public policy issues relating to poverty — including Bush administration policies some Jewish activists believe have vastly exacerbated income inequality in the country.
“There is a timidity, a certain nervousness that develops when you start talking about major public policy issues,” said Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs. “When we address poverty, it can’t just be about the delivery of services, as important as that is. It has to be about change. And that change has to do with the nation’s direction relating to economic policy, the tax structure, the distribution of dollars.
“I applaud JCPA’s raising up of the poverty issue,” Ramsey continued. “It’s significant. But this isn’t about Band-Aids. We have to be willing to take the next step, to talk about the structural pieces — changing the tax structure and recapturing dollars that were lost.”
While Jewish communal officials have perhaps been reluctant to have that big-picture discussion, fearing that it is too politically partisan, the JCPA effort is working on the grass roots. Further down the West Coast from Portland, the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley will hold an educational forum to rally the public toward pushing for more government aid for the 38 million people believed to be living at or below the poverty level in the United States.
The San Jose-based federation, cooperating with Catholic Charities and the Half in Ten Campaign to reduce poverty in the next decade, is also planning an open house at the Second Harvest food bank to discuss the food needs of the area’s needy and to sort and distribute donated food items.
“We want people to put their bodies in motion on this issue,” said Diane Fisher, director of the federation’s community relations committee.
In the Midwest and on the East Coast, there will be plenty of programs too, in a rush of activity culminating in JCPA’s yearlong initiative intended to re-energize the organized Jewish community in the war against domestic poverty and ensure that it becomes a top issue on the domestic agendas of the two major political parties as they emerge from their conventions.
A network of 14 national and 125 local agencies, JCPA is focusing on developing a public policy agenda consistent with Jewish values. As such, confronting poverty had long been on its agenda.
But when Steven Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi, took the helm of the organization in 2005 he decided a more concrete emphasis was needed. “I wanted to really galvanize the Jewish community,” he said. “My dream is to have some meaningful impact on fighting poverty in the United States and enhance the activism of Jews. By taking this leadership role in partnership with other religious groups, we will all benefit from the closeness of working together on a common cause.”
Among the interfaith partners are the interdenominational National Council of Churches, Catholic Charities, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Islamic Relief and the Islamic Society of North America.
Michael Kinnamon, secretary general of the National Council of Churches, said the initiative was reviving the group’s anti-poverty efforts that had fallen dormant.
“In 2000 the governing board approved as a priority for the decade a mobilization to overcome poverty,” said Kinnamon. “But in the face of some financial setbacks we have probably reduced our level of activity.
“Now, we are restoring it working with our Jewish partners.”
He added that the Council was seeking donors to fund a full-time anti-poverty mobilization staff person. “We are grateful for the prodding of Steve Gutow and Rabbi David Saperstein [director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center] and others who emphasized the importance of this and called us back to our own instincts.”
The anti-poverty initiative was launched in Washington nearly a year ago when Rabbi Gutow and several members of Congress announced they would take the “food stamp challenge.” In order to better understand the plight of the poor, they said, they were limiting their grocery spending to $21, the amount given by the government to eligible beneficiaries.
Next month, from Sept. 10-16, the emphasis will be on interfaith cooperation and community activism.
“Until now, the explicit focus of the campaign has been on the Jewish community and getting it active and engaged,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the JCPA. “That week will be exclusively focused on interfaith efforts.”
Susskind said the Democrats were planning to devote an evening of their convention to economic issues, including the recession and the effects of poverty, but that there was no word whether the Republicans would do the same.
“I do think we succeeded” in generating awareness, he said. “With a number of other groups we met with the platform committee members and urged them to include in the platform language” about poverty issues.
The weeklong interfaith campaign kicks off on Tuesday, Sept. 9 with a national conference call open to anyone in the country to find out what programs and resources are available in their area. The public will be encouraged to take the food stamp challenge and to contact elected officials.
It will be a busy week for Eric Schockman, president of Mazon, A Jewish Response to Hunger, a partner in the initiative who will be traveling to events in five locations on the West Coast. Board members of Mazon will also be traveling to events around the country.
“We’re going into a national election at a time when poverty has not risen to the heights of the agenda that it deserves to be,” said Schockman. “Having these events, we’re looking to steer the discussion further so that elected officials in all states pay greater attention to eradicating poverty.”
But it remains to be seen whether increasing social services will take hold as an issue at a time when middle-class voters are seeking quick-fix solutions to the recession rather than long-term remedies to economic disparity. Or whether JCPA’s focus on small-bore pieces of legislation, rather than the nation’s overall economic policy, will make a dent in the poverty crisis.
“Anything to do with the economy may have legs as an issue,” said the Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Jews like to talk about social issues and this could be a way to force the candidates to pay attention. But the two critical issues in the race are the economy overall and the war. There isn’t room for too much else.’
Avi Poster, co-chair of JCPA’s equal opportunity social justice task force and lay chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Nashville, Tenn., said he is optimistic that the anti-poverty push will reap political dividends.
“Drawing attention to matters of poverty in times of economic downturn can only influence our policy,” said Poster. “I’m very hopeful about our being able to influence folks at the national level and more encouraged that we’ll be able to do the same at the local level.”
He added that in the eyes of the public, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are linked to the recession. “The war without question has an impact on the economy, and any downturn increases unemployment and the cost of necessities, and so poverty increases.”
JCPA officials in Washington are taking something of a smaller-picture view. Susskind said the group’s legislative approach “is not to attack the nation’s overall economic policy — that’s not our role. But we’re focusing on really concrete pieces of legislation — the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, for instance — that can change people’s lives. It’s important to talk about the big-picture economic situation, but what we’re saying is, here are some legislative actions you can take now to tackle this in meaningful pieces of legislation to get passed.”
While cities like Nashville and Dayton, Ohio, are planning a number of initiatives, the program will be somewhat lower key in New York, where the majority of Jewish poor in the U.S. live, and where such programs are not new. William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty said he is discussing a single event with UJA-Federation of New York.
“Our efforts are ongoing,” said Rapfogel. “It’s wonderful that people are raising consciousness about the issue, but to tailor something specifically for this [in New York] is not necessary.”
He added it was especially important on a national scale to show that Jews are far from immune to poverty.
“It’s important to address all poverty, not just Jewish poverty, but it’s also important to make people understand that this is our problem too,” said Rapfogel.
Among the presidential candidates, Rapfogel said, North Carolina Democrat John Edwards had spoken out in most detail about issues facing the poor before ending his campaign, and little has been said since.
“People are talking about poverty but not really addressing the root causes,” said Rapfogel.
A key responsibility of government, Rapfogel suggested, is making sure that those who lift themselves up from poverty can sustain their success. Too often, he said, those who no longer qualify for benefits such as welfare or housing subsidies end up struggling and can fall back off their feet. Slowly phasing out these benefits [instead of cutting them all at once] could boost independence in the long term, he suggested.
“An investment in benefits for 18 months or two years is far better than letting them fall back into poverty,” said Rapfogel.