Communal Bodies Split Over Federal Budget Talks

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 04, 2004, issue of June 04, 2004.
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Two closely linked Jewish representative bodies have staked out opposing stances on the federal budget resolution adopted last week by the House of Representatives, reflecting what observers say is a growing tension between the two arms of the federated Jewish philanthropic system.

The two organizations are United Jewish Communities, a national service agency representing the nation’s 170 local federations of Jewish charities, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates the work of the local federations’ community-relations councils and a dozen national Jewish public-policy organizations.

The public affairs council, known as the JCPA, reacted to the House budget resolution with a critical statement, scoring the lawmakers for wide-ranging cuts that it says will hurt low-income Americans.

By contrast, UJC issued no public statements on the budget, but its vice president for public policy, Chuck Konigsberg, said his organization was happy with those parts of the budget that are of immediate interest to the Jewish federations.

This divided response points to a simmering tension between UJC and the JCPA over the proper way for Jewish organizations to confront Washington policy-making. The debate is complicated by the fact that the bulk of the JCPA’s funding is channeled through UJC.

The heightened tensions of the current election year have recently led to hushed discussions about possible cuts in the JCPA’s financing, according to two sources close to the talks.

At a meeting last week of executives from the largest local federations, several participants bemoaned the “continuing need on the part of the JCPA to make public pronouncements about issues that are not on the federation agenda,” said one source close to the federations.

The staff executive of the JCPA, Hannah Rosenthal, said her organization has faced detractors in the past, but this time around the polarized political mood in the nation and within the Jewish community has given the discussions a vehemence she has not seen before.

Still, she said, “I’m sure we will be able to get through it.”

The divisions between UJC and the JCPA were on clear display in the debate over the federal budget. UJC focused largely on proposed cuts to Medicaid, the joint federal-state health care program for low-income Americans that serves as the single-largest source of funding for Jewish social service agencies. Earlier in the federal budget process, the Senate proposed cutting $11 billion from Medicaid, while the House proposed a smaller $2.2 billion cut. In the final budget resolution passed by the House, all the Medicaid cuts were restored.

This was a cause for rejoicing at the UJC offices, which had identified Medicaid at the beginning of the year as one of five major domestic issues on which it would focus its lobbying efforts. Other issues included homeland security and senior transportation.

“We focus our attention where we best feel we can serve federations,” said Konigsberg.

In the JCPA’s public statement on the budget, by contrast, the Medicaid issue was given lower priority, appearing only in the middle of the document. Much of the statement was devoted to programs that suffered serious cuts in the budget resolution, including a food assistance program for women and children, known as WIC.

The JCPA was joined by one of its constituent agencies, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which issued its own separate statement blasting Congress for accepting a budget that “would saddle future generations with enormous deficits and cut funding for the very programs most needed by low-income Americans.”

The JCPA, formed in 1944 as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, has a long history of activism in liberal causes, including civil rights and immigration reform, which once commanded a consensus among Jewish organizations. The council is governed by majority vote among its 123 local community councils and 13 national member agencies.

UJC was formed in 1999 through a merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, both of which traditionally have focused narrowly on the needs of their constituent charities. Critics say fund-raisers and major donors dominate the new body.

In the past, federation executives have taken issue with the JCPA’s willingness to make strong pronouncements about issues of social that no longer have an obvious relevance to the Jewish organizational community. In 1999, the New York and Chicago federations wrote separate letters to the JCPA, complaining that it was “out of touch” with Jewish concerns.

Those letters led UJC and the JCPA in 2000 to form a joint task force, which proposed fundamental changes in the relationship between the two organizations.

Four years later, many of the proposed changes have not been implemented. The JCPA has not adopted a lower profile on national policy debates, as the 2000 report recommended. Nor has it scaled back its annual meeting, or plenum, at which resolutions on a broad range of national policy issues are adopted in freewheeling and sometimes stormy voting sessions.

The latest disputes were fired up after the plenum this past February, when the JCPA members approved a resolution condemning Bush administration tax cuts. The resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of voters at the plenum, but immediately afterward, insiders say, the Chicago federation began questioning whether the JCPA should be leading the Jewish community into such divisive debates.

In recent years, beyond funding the JCPA, the federations in Chicago and New York have scaled back their involvement in policy debates at the JCPA. The New York Jewish Community Relations Council, representing Jewish organizations in the nation’s largest Jewish community, no longer sends representatives to the annual JCPA plenum.

Rosenthal said the JCPA is currently at work to change its voting system and to provide a greater voice for the largest federations in the decision-making process.

The talk that came after the plenum died down quickly, but it rose again during recent meetings of UJC’s National Funding Council, a committee that oversees the local federations’ donations to national Jewish agencies.

The National Funding Council is supposed to vet the budgets of agencies such as the JCPA and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and recommend local allocation levels. However, the growing pains of the newly formed UJC, coupled with the recent economic downturn, have hurt the funding council’s ability to provide promised grants, straining ties in all directions.

Rosenthal said the polarized political climate of the election year has put a policy organization like hers at the center of the funding storms.

“The political environment is insisting that all these issues we take on be viewed in a political, partisan way,” Rosenthal said, “and that’s really unfortunate, because what we’re talking about are fundamental Jewish values.”

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