5772: No there there?

Richard Foltin in Washington Jewish Week

Washington Jewish Week

By Adam Kredo

October 5, 2011

Nothing will happen in 5772. Nothing momentous. Nothing worthwhile. And certainly nothing of consequence - at least not on the political front, according to multiple Jewish communal officials, who predicted that, as the 2012 election season heats up, the slow-moving gears of government will grind to a halt.

"It's challenging going into an election year because officials are very careful about what they're seen as supporting," said Josh Protas, vice president and director of the Jewish Council for Public Affair's Washington office. "They're cautious, and in a polarized political climate, they're even more so."

Protas' forecast for the year ahead: It will be "a year of playing politics and not of governing."

That gloomy outlook was seconded by Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee's director of national and legislative affairs.

"Things do grind to a halt" as elections approach, explained Foltin. "Things are unpredicable and everything becomes a campaign issue."

But that doesn't mean that local Jewish groups will stop pressuring lawmakers to act on a range of critical initiatives, including a few that have very little chance of passing.

"There's no replacement for the hard day-to-day work of advocacy," said Foltin, explaining that he and his colleagues will continue "pounding the hallways" on Capitol Hill to remind members that their Jewish constituents are fed up with legislative gridlock.

The JCPA, for instance, will continue to fight for comprehensive immigration and education reform, as well as the reauthorization of a food stamp program that helps feed poverty-stricken families.

"Jobs and the economy are fundamentally important right now, but there are many other issues that are priorities, that need to be addressed and that impact our country," said Protas. "Ignoring reform of our school system is just pushing the problems further down the road. Unfortunately, though, the political reality is that it won't be addressed anytime soon."

Congress' inability to comprise also means that the country's broken immigration system won't be fixed any time soon, officials said.

"It's hard to see how that moves forward," Foltin lamented.

Budgetary issues and the foundering economy, though, are bound to dominate the political conversation, both in Congress and on the campaign trail.

Fiscally, it's going to be a "very, very challenging year" for just about everyone, said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Added Foltin: It'll be "a year in which the oxygen has been taken out by budget issues."

As President Barack Obama and members of Congress struggle to contain the country's ballooning deficit, many programs seen as critical to the Jewish community will likely be put on the chopping block.

The AJC, for example, is worried that foreign aid programs (which constitute about 1 percent of the federal budget) could take a massive hit.

"We're quite concerned about where things are going," said Foltin, explaining that while aid to Israel is likely to be preserved, other nations could see their aid money evaporate. The diplomatic consequences of this, Foltin said, would be disastrous and only hurt American interests abroad.

Other Jewish groups are focusing on the harm that budget cuts could cause at home.

The Jewish Federations of North America - typically an Obama administration ally - has hammered the president for proposing to increase tax revenue by reducing the amount of money individuals can write off on their taxes for charitable contributions.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, noted that, while they might be painful, major changes will take place during the next year.

"We're entering a year in which there's a recognition that business as usual is not going to continue, that we don't have the resources at hand to do everything we want to do," Saperstein explained. "No matter who wins in the elections, these realities are forcing people to think in new ways and to clarify what their vision is for the future."

As advocacy groups like the JCPA, the RAC and JFNA battle to preserve critical social services, the local JCRC will continue its fight to free Potomac resident Alan Gross from a jail cell in Cuba.

"We have a particular responsibility because [Gross] is from our community," said the JCRC's Halber. "If we don't take up his cause no one else will."

Securing Gross' freedom, however, is by no means the JCRC's sole priority. As the new year unfolds, it will work to educate local officials about Israel and advocate for robust funding from state and county governments, among other things.

Preventing Israel from becoming a partisan wedge issue, Halber noted, will be a principal concern during the contentious campaign season.

"The best way to protect Israel," he said, "is to ensure it's a bipartisan issue."

The JCPA also will be active in the elections, waging campaigns to educate Jewish voters about the various issues and candidates.

"The Jewish community in general can be a balanced presence in a climate that is incredibly polarized," said Protas.

The wheels of political change also will be churning within the Reform and Conservative movements, added Saperstein.

As synagogue attendance shrinks - and the revenue from dues decreases - the Reform and Conservative movements are struggling to improve the quality and efficiency of their services, Saperstein noted.

"Every synagogue, every one of the streams, and each of the seminaries are facing extreme change and strain that are forcing them to prioritize," Saperstein said. "They're working in a way they haven't had to" in past years, when the economy was more stable.

"Enormous management challenges" are likely to "play out this year, and they are based not just on the bottom line, but in how [the movements] do their work", train their rabbis and deliver services to member shuls, he said.

Though the religious movements have needed to change their ways for quite some time, Saperstein said that officials and top lay leaders have recently taken serious steps to enact widespread reform.

Date: 10/5/2011

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