A Senator at Odds With His Constituents — And, Some Say, His Faith

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 09, 2009, issue of December 18, 2009.
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On a recent Saturday afternoon, after completing his Sabbath morning prayers, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut braved a four-mile, snowy walk to the Capitol building from his Georgetown synagogue.

“I have a responsibility to my constituents, really to my conscience, to be here on something as important as health care reform,” Lieberman told the congressional newspaper The Hill, describing his wish to combine his Jewish beliefs with his duties as a lawmaker.

By walking to a special Saturday Senate debate on health care reform, Lieberman was complying with the traditional religious ban against driving during the Sabbath. But Lieberman’s many critics in the Jewish community claim that the Connecticut independent is missing the broader Jewish concern.

“Health care reform is the key moral issue facing the country right now,” said one of those critics, Rabbi Charles Arian of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, Conn. “I will be personally disappointed if it stops dead in its tracks because Senator Lieberman invokes a filibuster.”

Lieberman has vowed to vote against ending a Republican filibuster of the health care reform bill that the Senate is now debating if it includes a government-run insurance program. Due to the Senate’s current balance of forces, that would effectively kill a historic effort to reform the country’s ramshackle health insurance system, which now excludes millions of people from obtaining health coverage.

Democrats are confident that they can pass the bill itself, which requires only a simple 51-vote majority. But with Senate Republicans united in opposition to the measure, the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to end debate and bring the bill to a vote require support from every non-Republican.

Lieberman’s threat is being met with harsh criticism within the Jewish community in Connecticut, where public-opinion surveys show that strong general majorities support a government-sponsored insurance option.

Widely seen as the key domestic cause for American Jews right now, health care reform has several national Jewish groups actively lobbying for it. Among them is Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization for the nation’s local Jewish philanthropic federations, which are deeply involved in funding health care. But national Jewish organizations are not, by and large, focusing on Lieberman.

For some activists in Lieberman’s own community, however, the willingness of one of the most prominent Jewish lawmakers to bring down the legislation is especially painful.

Arian stressed that he does not expect Lieberman to represent the views of only the Jewish community — “just as I wouldn’t want a bishop to tell a Catholic congressman how to vote.” But he said it was Lieberman who has often “put himself out there” as representing religious values.

A similar sentiment was the driving force for another Connecticut rabbi who has gone public with his opposition to Lieberman’s approach. Rabbi Ron Fish from Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Norwalk, decided to write an open letter to the senator. “For him to say that the public option is weighing on his conscience is a misuse of the term ‘conscience,’” Fish said.

Seventy clergy from different faiths have signed Fish’s letter, which states that “anyone who argues that faith and religious tradition should direct our actions, such a person must stand for universal healthcare in America.” Fish and other co-signers joined some 500 other Connecticut residents for a November 15 prayer vigil outside Lieberman’s apartment building in Stamford. “Because he invokes his Jewish identity and Jewish values so frequently, we, as a community, should speak to what he is saying,” Fish said.

Others in the community tried a quieter approach. Several local rabbis have been collecting signatures on a private letter to Lieberman stating their appreciation of the senator’s concerns but urging him to reconsider his all-or-nothing position. “Maybe he is looking for a way out of the corner,” said one local rabbi, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing the outreach attempt. Organizers of the initiative are hoping to get 25 of the 50 pulpit rabbis in Connecticut to sign the letter.

Some of the more liberal rabbis in the community have refused to sign on to the private letter, arguing that it is too moderate in its language. Meanwhile, other leaders of the Connecticut Jewish community have been quietly trying to arrange a meeting with the senator. Though they are his constituents, as of yet he has not responded. These activists also declined to go on record for fear of jeopardizing their effort.

“There is a good cop, bad cop routine,” one rabbi said. “On the one hand, there are demonstrations outside his home; on the other, there are people trying to reach out behind the scenes.”

Most active on this issue are Reform and Conservative local leaders. Orthodox rabbis are generally refraining from joining in the criticism. But what appear scarce in Connecticut are any Jewish leaders who voice support for his stand. Lieberman’s rabbi, Joseph Ehrenkranz, rabbi emeritus of congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, did not return calls requesting an interview for this article.

Lieberman’s office also did not respond to several requests from the Forward for interviews or comments.

The Connecticut senator, caucusing with the Democrats, has been adamant in his refusal to compromise on the public-option issue, even as pressure has mounted from both Democratic leadership and the White House. He has argued that the public option was never part of the original health care reform and that it was added by liberals who see it as a step toward a single-payer system.

Lieberman was also noncommittal on a tentative compromise reached November 8 that would eliminate the public option in favor of a non-profit insurance program.

Lieberman rejects an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which concludes that adding the public option to the health care bill would be deficit-neutral. He believes that eventually the government will have “unlimited liability” to debt incurred by the public insurer, thus defeating attempts to deal with the growing national debt.

Synagogues and religious leaders in Connecticut have been leading the pressure campaign on Lieberman on their own, lacking public support from secular Jewish communal bodies. “We support health care reform, but stay away from the details of legislation,” explained Laura Zimmerman, director of the Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council. “We don’t have a consensus in the community on the public option.”

National Jewish organizations have also steered clear of the public-option debate, which they view as an argument over the details of the bill, not over the principle of reforming health care.

“There is no Jewish aspect for public option,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “but there is a Jewish aspect for making health care affordable and available.”

Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women and a strong supporter of public option, said that her group is not targeting Lieberman specifically. “I don’t think we’d be more effective with him because we are a Jewish organization,” she said.

But Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said his group is focusing on battles where it can make a difference, and winning over Joe Lieberman is one of them. “Senator Lieberman is looking at the same Jewish texts that we are, and reaching opposite conclusions,” Pelavin said. The Connecticut Independent Democrat, he said, can be one of the toughest obstacles on the way to passing the legislation: “I’ve spent a lot of time in talks with Senator Lieberman, and he is not an easy person to sway.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.

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