Conservatives Cut Social Action Officer

By Ori Nir

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — As the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly steps up its social action, the movement’s association of synagogues has axed its social-action officer to save money.

The two unrelated developments represent a temporary shift in the gentle contest between the Conservative movement’s congregational arm and its rabbinical union over social action and involvement in public affairs.

“We have been speaking out for years in terms of the necessity of a stronger voice on the American political scene, in Washington,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “We are trying to concentrate our efforts to see if we can have a greater impact movement-wide” on social action and social justice issues.

Washington representatives of Jewish organizations were shocked to learn last week that Sarrae Crane, who for years directed social action and headed the Department of Israel Affairs at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has been dismissed and that nobody has been appointed to replace her.

“The Conservative movement has always had a modest social action program, but its involvement has always been important,” said the Washington representative of one of the major Jewish groups, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Having the USCJ weigh in is important, and Sarrae made it happen.”

Unlike the Reform movement or the Orthodox Union, the Conservative movement, America’s second-largest synagogue movement, never established a Washington office, and its involvement in public affairs has been limited. But other groups often seek its inclusion in coalitions on social issues.

Crane, unlike other public-policy directors of Jewish organizations, worked from New York, but he frequently came to Washington and participated in activities to promote the liberal line that the USCJ takes on most domestic issues.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, said that his organization’s decision to let Crane go should not be read as an indication that it is less interested in social action. “We are very committed to social action,” he said in a phone interview from Israel, “but because of financial necessities there are some areas that may not be critical to our work, which we will have to put on hold.” Epstein said that there is no acute financial crisis, but that there are “difficulties,” which require making “priority choices.” For the time being, he said, Mark Waldman, the director of the USCJ’s Seaboard Region, which covers Washington, Maryland, Virginia and northeast North Carolina, would handle Crane’s responsibilities. In the “not-so-far future,” Epstein said, the UCSJ is “hoping to have a full-time Washington representative.”

Epstein denied that the development will cause a reduction in the USCJ’s involvement in public affairs. But Washington representatives of other Jewish groups said that this is bound to happen.

Crane did not return phone calls in request for a comment.

Crane’s dismissal comes as the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is stepping up its involvement in political affairs. “We are more outspoken and more driven,” said Rabbi Lee Paskind, chairman of the Assembly’s social committee and the leader of Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Lakewood, N.J. The R.A.’s drive, he said, is a response to the Bush administration’s social policies. “The current policies are pretty strong in the direction of tax cuts for the betterment of the wealthy, and really moving away from concern about the poorest Americans. We believe that there is both a biblical and rabbinic mandate to be concerned about the poor.”

That was the main message that a group of 18 Conservative rabbis brought to Capitol Hill last week, on the R.A.’s eighth annual advocacy day. Members who participated in past lobbying days said that this year’s agenda was the most pointed and the most critical of administration policies. Domestically, as well as focusing on the tax cuts and their effect on government-delivered social programs, R.A. members warned members of Congress and their staffers that the Bush administration’s use of the “Patriot Act” was violating Americans’ civil rights.

In particular, the rabbis expressed concern over the sweeping powers that the act gives the government to detain people and to spy on them, to search their property and seize their records without probable cause. Members of the R.A. called on legislators and their staffers not to extend some of the more controversial articles of the act, which are to “sunset” at the end of next year, four years after the Patriot Act was signed into law by President Bush.

The RA’s social action agenda is similar to that of the Reform movement. Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Washington advocacy arm, the Religious Action Center, kicked off the R.A.’s advocacy day with a detailed orientation last Thursday. He told his Conservative colleagues that the Bush administration’s use of sweeping powers under the Patriot Act and its cutting of social programs are part of the administration’s “effort to roll back fundamental rights” of Americans, an effort that is eroding historic civil rights achievements that were obtained — to a large extent — thanks to organized civil action by the Jewish community.

Several members of the Conservative rabbis’ delegation to Washington said that next year, regardless of who inhabits the White House, they would urge a much broader participation of R.A. members in the group’s advocacy day. “Next year we should have 300 people here,” said veteran Rabbi Marion Shulevitz of New York, arguing that Conservative rabbis must fill the void left by their movement’s modest involvement in public affairs.

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