Government Shutdown Brings Time Off (Good!), Cuts and No Pay (Bad!) for Jews

Yoga and Bagels Amid the Angst in Capital

Shutdown Bites: An empty Rotunda is seen at the U.S. Capitol due to a suspension of all tours due to the federal government shutdown.
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Shutdown Bites: An empty Rotunda is seen at the U.S. Capitol due to a suspension of all tours due to the federal government shutdown.

By Ron Kampeas

Published October 07, 2013.
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(JTA) — Meals on Wheels may disappear, Iran sanctions are at risk and yoga is filling in the gaps. This is what the federal government shutdown looks like in Jewish Washington.

While national Jewish organizations are sorting through the essential services that the impasse may cut, regional Jewish service providers in the Washington area are dealing with the tens of thousands of furloughed workers in their midst.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, in Rockville, Md., is adding exercise and yoga classes for furloughed government workers, its director, Michael Feinstein, told JTA.

The plan, he noted, is a twofer: “The classes are being taught by furloughed federal employees, so they will make some extra money. And they are geared for stress reduction.”

Here was the message delivered in an email blast from across the Potomac, from the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

“For our members who have been furloughed, now might be a good time to focus on your wellness goals,” director Jeff Dannick said. “Come work out in the fitness center, shoot hoops in the gym, swim laps, or enjoy a fitness class.”

Non-JCC members get a free pass if they show a government ID and a furlough letter, he said.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom, a synagogue in Falls Church, Va., with 1,500 families – many, if not most, attached to government service – said her staff spent a day brainstorming about what services they could provide.

They ranged from bagel brunches, yoga classes and recruiting the temporarily unemployed into the temple’s community service programs.

Schwartzman said the synagogue has dealt with government shutdowns, but they were two-three day blips. This one, some fear, could last for weeks.

“There was never this looming feeling it was going to go on as it feels like it might,” the rabbi said. “For most of our members, a loss of three days of work and three days of salary might not make a huge impact. But for some a few weeks will have a huge impact.”

Demands by the majority Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives to attach government funding to defunding or delaying President Obama’s signature health care legislation, known as Obamacare, helped lead to the government shutdown, which went into effect on Oct. 1.

Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate have refused to negotiate while accusing the Republicans of taking the government hostage. In its first days, workers throughout the region seemed to be enjoying their time off. Sixth and I, a historic synagogue in downtown Washington, invited federal workers to use its wireless Internet to keep up to date.

Schwartzman said she has only heard from one congregant concerned about finances. Others, for the time being, were embracing the free time.

“One couple is enjoying getting a lot of things done for their kid’s bar mitzvah coming up,” she said.

One Jewish Democratic Capitol Hill staffer tweeted a dashboard photo of an empty Interstate 66 – the artery connecting Virginians to Washington – during the morning rush hour.

“Yeah, the #GOPshutdown stinks, but at least there’s no traffic,” the staffer said.

The capital’s signature Jewish-themed monument, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, shuttered its doors and used the shutdown for a fundraising pitch.

“The founders of our Museum likely never envisioned a time of budget sequestration cuts and shutdown, but they did foresee the need for a museum supported by a unique public-private partnership,” it said. “Although the government ensures our permanence and federal funds keep the Museum building open and free to the public, our educational programs rely on contributions from members and donors like you.”

An Oct. 9 commemoration of the Danish rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, which was to have featured prominent Danish Americans and a member of the Danish royal family, was postponed because of the shutdown.

Obama administration officials and their allies on the Hill, mindful of the bipartisan breadth of support for Israel, emphasized how the shutdown was affecting the alliance.

“The State Department’s ability to provide military assistance to Israel and other allies in the time frame that is expected and customary could be hindered depending on the length of the shutdown,” spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Wednesday.

Wendy Sherman, the third-ranked State Department official and one of those closest to the pro-Israel community, said in Senate testimony that sanctions on Iran are among the first affected by the shutdown.

“Government shutdown empties offices enforcing sanctions on Iran,” she said.

Staffers for national Jewish organizations say they already feel the absence of federal workers in their day-to-day dealings with government.

“At the federal level, the multi-family housing offices are skeletal,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, which runs a network of homes for the elderly across the country. “There’s no one for us to talk to if you need an answer to a question.”

Some programs were in good shape for the short run, Goldberg said, because they had received funding just before Oct. 1, technically the first day of the new fiscal year. But cuts would soon be felt in Meals on Wheels and home health aids.

William Daroff, the director of the Jewish Federations of North America, said many of the domestic issues with which his organization is concerned are being ignored while Congress grapples with the budget impasse. Among them is funding to secure the facilities of nonprofit buildings and special funding for elderly Holocaust survivors.

“There’s no oxygen to spare for any other agenda,” Daroff said.

Goldberg noted that basic care programs such as Social Security and federal medical care coverage for seniors and the poor remained relatively unaffected by the shutdown. But that could change should Congress and the White House fail to resolve a separate dispute by Oct. 17.

At that point, the government risks going into default unless Congress extends its debt allowance. Social Security checks could stop within weeks of that point; it is unclear what would happen to Medicare and Medicaid.

“That could be a game changer,” Goldberg said. “We’re urging people to tell their members of Congress that a debt ceiling stalemate is not something the country can do.”


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