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March 13, 2009

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PAGE 2A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 13, 2009 Downturn blunting Jewish fight over Obama budget proposal By James D. Besser New York Jewish Week The budget proposal Presi- dent Barack Obama submitted to Congress two weeks ago, a call to dramatically change U. S. spending priorities in the face of the worst economic downturn in generations, will touch off political trench warfare in Congress--and possibly new conflict between Jewish organizations thatwel- come the plan and influential major donors who could get hit with big tax increases. "There's a lot of enthusiasm about the shift in priorities to needs like health care and education, but some of our big donors are not going to be happy," said an official with a major Jewish group who spoke freely on condition of anonymity. "Some of them see this as class warfare against the rich." But the gap between con- servative big donors and rank-and-file members, which loomed large in fights over big tax cuts during the George W. Bush years, could be narrowed some by the dire shape of the U. S. andworld economies and the growing threat to Jewish social service providers as de- mand rises and funding sinks. "During a severe recession you don't get a lot of political trac- tion arguing about protecting the interests of the wealthy," said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "So opponents will have a real problem. In 1936, Franklin Roosevelt's opponents ac- cused him of a soak-the-rich strategy. He said, well, yes, so what? We know what hap- pened to FDR." Jewish groups responsible for channeling funding to lo- cal health and social service agencies are enthusiastic about the main thrust of the budget outline--which still has to be fleshed out with details before Congress sinks its teeth into it. "The economic situation has changed a lot of calcula- tions," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy of United Jewish Communities (UJC). "This budget is a very dramatic change in budget priorities for the nation--and it's what the American people voted for." Even as it fights one ele- ment of the plan--the call to limit tax breaks for chari- table contributions by higher- income Americans--UJC will be backing most of it, he said. One group doesn't plan to go with the Jewish flow: Jewish Republicans. They say they will fight what they see as a reckless budget that will just deepen the nation's economic woes. Raising taxes on more af- fluent Americans--defined by the Obama administration as those making more than $250,000 a year--"puts an undue burden on taxpayers, which is exactly the wrong thing to do in a severe reces- sion," said Matt Brooks, execu- tive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But Brooks conceded that the depths of the currentcrisis may be muting opposition to the president's plan in the Jewish community. "I know that privately, people have expressed real concerns," he said. "But a lot of people want to give the president the benefit of the doubt right now. Others don't want to use up their political capital now, when it's still very early in the administration. There's a lot of thrust and parry going on now." Not surprisingly, Jewish progressives are thrilled by Obama's budget proposals. "As far as we're concerned, it's a great budget," said Sam- mie Moshenberg, Washington director for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). "We are very pleased that it includes placeholders for health care reform and that there are substantial investments in education. Even without all the details, it shows a real shift in priori- ties that, in this time of great economic need, is critical." The 10-year budget plan proposes effective tax in- creases for those earning more than $250,000 per year by allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire, but allowing the cuts to continue for those earning less. That money would help cre - ate a "health reform reserve" that would help bankroll health care proposals that have yet to be formulated. The budget also proposes pouring more money into prevention and the quest for more cost- effective treatments. Robert Reich, a Labor sec- retary under President Bill Clinton, wrote that the budget is "audacious--not because it includes several big, auda- cious initiatives (universally affordable health care, and a cap-and-trade system for coping with global warming, for starters) but also because it represents the biggest redis- tribution of income from the wealthy to the middle class and poor this nation has seen in more than 40 years." It is that redistribution that is certain to cause fierce resistance from congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate, where the Democrats do not have enough votes to stop GOP filibusters without help from the dwindling num- ber of Republican moderates. It is also likely to generate resistance from some of the wealthy Jewish donors who comprise the financial back- bone of Jewish philanthropy. Some major players in Jewish organizations "will not be happy" with the tax and spending proposals, said Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna. Sarnasaid that in some cas- es these affluent individuals were able to keep the organiza- tions they supported from op- posing earlier tax cuts--"but I'd be very surprised if they will have a huge impact on the organizations this time. The truth is, Jewish organizations are reflecting a much bigger trend in the country, which has seen us move away from the policies of Ronald Reagan and the idea that low taxes and less government is the be-all and the end-all. Now there is a sense that we need more programs, more oversight, and we probably need more taxes to support that." Andwith the nation reeling from financial scandals, off- the-charts Wall Street greed and shortsighted policies by critical financial institutions, "frankly, I don't think these people want the news bandied about that they are opposing the president's policies for selfish reasons, not at a time like this," Sarna said. "The situation has changed," said Kean Uni- versity political scientist Gilbert Kahn. "The Jewish community has to recognize that there will be a dramatic drop off in philanthropic giving that the government can replace through some of these initiatives. Otherwise the capacity of our systemwill be greatly diminished." Even well-off donors who take conservative positions on tax-and-spending issues and who are unhappy about possible increases in their taxes may end up supporting the dramatic budget proposals because critical functions of the organizations they sup- port are at stake at a time of soaring demand and sagging philanthropy--and because, for the first time in years, they are watching their own wealth evaporate because of the recession, Kahn said. UJC and other groups Will actively work on behalf of major portions of the admin- istration proposal when Con- gress begins its own budget deliberations. "People on the ground can't help but see that their communities really need help, and that only the government, through a shift in priorities, can address those needs and make sure that any economic recovery we have is a shared recovery," said NCJW's Sam- mie Moshenberg. Hadar Susskind, Washing- ton director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said the budget is "not perfect--we would like to see an increase in funding for child nutrition, for example. And we are concerned about the charitable deduction piece." But on the whole, he said, "the community is reacting incredibly positively." JCPAactivistswho swarmed over Capitol Hill last Tuesday as part of the JCPA plenum included support for the increase in health and social service funding as part of their congressional talking points. Orthodox female rabbi? False alarm A new progressive Jewish group hopes to tap the grass- roots network it created to support Obama's candidacy among Jewish voters to build support for the big spending shift. The Jewish Grassroots Action Network (JGAN) is preparing a flier to distribute to participants across the country that it hopes will stimulate local activity on behalf of the administration budget proposal. The flier "outlines the Jewish principles behind the various programs in the budget package along the lines of the Jewish philosophical, halachic, and historical reasons that these issues are important for us as Jews," said Yocheved Seidman, a co-founder of the group. Why is the budget battle a priority for the fledgling group? "The times really are quite horrible, "she said. "The Jew- ish community was hit hard by the Madoff scandal, and then by the economy. It's affecting all of us. When we're talking about the budget, we're talk- ing tachlis." Analysts say that while the congressional battle will be fierce, Obama is likely to get much of what he called for in the budget outline. "The country is terrified," said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "At the same time, President Obama's party has solid majorities in both Houses of Congress. So he has a lot of leeway to press for what is a substantial shift in spending policies. It marks Democratic thinking that New Deal-like entitlement programs really are possible now." Ben Harris Sara Hurwitz speaks March 1, 2009 at a women's prayer conference in New York City. By Ben Harris NEWYORK (JTA)--Whatdo you call an Orthodox woman who learns like a rabbi, teaches like a rabbi and has a job de- scription like a rabbi? Apparently anything but rabbi. RabbiAviWeiss, the founder of the liberal rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, will host a ceremony later this month for Sara Hurwitz, who currently holds the title "madricha ruchanit," or spiri- tual mentor, at Weiss' syna- gogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale n New York City. Invitations for the event, which marks Hurwitz's completion of the same course of train- ing and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students, say it is a"conferral ceremony" at which Hurwitz will receive "a new title reflective of her religious and spiritual role." Liberal and feminist Ortho- dox circles have been buzzing that the r-word was being con- sidered, with several sources telling JTAthat in recentweeks they had discussed the option with Weiss, as well as several other possibilities, including morateinu ("ourteacher') and two feminizedversions of rabbi (rabba and rabbanit). Weiss, who was travel- ing this week, could not be reached. But he sent word through an assistant at the synagogue that the title rabbi was no longer on the table. Whatever she ends up being called, Hurwitz says she hopes her title will come to reflect a role as a spiritual lader indis- tinguishable from that of men. "I hope to reclaim and redefine my new title, so that it comes to have the identical connotation that the word rabbi does," Hurwitz told JTA. Hurwitz's conferral comes as women continue to make important inroads in Jewish leadership positions, both in Orthodoxy and the more liberal denominations. Both the Reform and Con- servative rabbinical associa- tions are installing women in top leadership posts. The Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis recently named EllenWeinberg Dreyfus as its new president; the Con- servative movement's Rabbini- cal Assembly is set to install Julie Schonfeld as its executive vice president. Schonfeld will be the first woman to serve as the chief executive of an American rabbinical group. "I think women are coming into their own and achieving prominence of various kinds," said Anne Lapidus Lerner, the founding director of the Jewish women's studies program at the Conservative movement's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the organizer of a well-attended conference March I on Jewish women's prayer. Still, in the Orthodoxworld, change has been halting, with more stringent interpretations of Jewish law leading to persis- tent and substantial barriers to women's ritual participation and leadership. To be sure, changes have occurred in recent decades, starting with the spread of women's prayer groups and the expansion of opportunities forwomen to pursue advanced religious studies at Orthodox institutions. In recent years, a handful of prominent mainstream Modern Orthodoxsynagogues have pushed the envelope even further by hiring women for roles like Hurwitz's, in which they carry out certain func- tions that historically were the sole domain of male rab- bis, from offering guidance in spiritual or Jewish legal matters to teaching classes and delivering lectures. All of the institutions, however, have stopped short of using the term rabbi, The relative slow pace of change helps explain the exu- berance with which Orthodox feminist leaders greeted the prospect of Hurwitz being ordained. At the prayer confer- ence, warm applause greeted Hurwitz's announcement that she might be getting the title rabbi "but with a slightly distinct sound." "I think this is a historic moment," Robin Bodner, ex- ecutive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told JTA. "We are very excited." Hurwitz has been at the Hebrew Institute for nearly six years and completed an eight-year course of intensive study--two at the Drisha Institute, a pioneering insti- tution for advanced women's Torah study in New York, and six under the private guidance of Weiss. Her curriculum was modeled after that of the male rabbinical students at Chovevei Torah, and Hurwitz has taken and passed the same rabbinical ordination exams. Joshua Maroof, a Maryland rabbi and one of Hurwitz's teachers, says he is religiously right of center and describes himself as sitting opposite an "ideological gulf" from Weiss, who has staked out liberal positions on a number of hot- button issues. Maroof says, however, that not only would he support Hurwitz's ordina- tion as a rabbi, but so would many Orthodox rabbis, who he notes privately recognize there is no legal problem with a woman assuming the title. In contemporary times, rabbi denotes a teacher and legal decisor, Maroof says, not an officiant at religious functions. "Most Orthodox rabbis are aware that there's no prohibi- tion onwoman rabbis,"Maroof told JTA. "I think there are many Orthodox rabbis who think this would be a great thing, and they're hoping that somebody else would have the courage to do it, as long as it's not them." Indeed, the issue of female rabbis is a touchy one, even for Orthodox figures who are supportive of efforts to open up greater leadership opportuni- ties for women. Rabbi Shmuel Hain, who runs an advanced women's Talmud study program at Yeshiva University's Stern College, declined to comment. Even Weiss, who has shown little hesitation to challenge the Orthodox establishment in the past, did not return calls seek- ing comment; he is said to find himself in a delicate situation. His public pronouncements already have earned him the opprobrium of many Orthodox leaders, with some rejecting his inclusion under the Or- thodox umbrella. Meanwhile, graduates of his rabbinical school have not been accepted for membership in the Rab- binical Council of America, the largestassociation of Orthodox rabbis, and are said to worry that their career prospects may be further harmedifWeiss takes what some view as the radical step of extending the title of rabbi to a woman. But for Hurwitz, as for other women in similar roles, the issue is less the title than the opportunities that may come with more formal designations. "I think it's a natural pro- gression within the Orthodox world," she said. "I think there are talented women in this position in Orthodox shuls, and not in shuls. And finding more formalized roles for these women is a natural evolution" that began with increasing opportunities for high-level Judaic study. "The next step," Hurwitz said, "is to flex their leadership skills in Orthodox institu- tions within the realm of the halachah."