By E.J. Kessler

Published January 02, 2004, issue of January 02, 2004.
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Candidate Contribution: The most recently declared presidential candidate — President Bush — surprised a New York area Jewish charity last week with a hefty contribution.

Bush’s check was discovered in the mail Friday by the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, William Rapfogel, who was opening envelopes with contributions for the group’s 30th-anniversary fundraiser; Friday was the last day a contribution could be received in time to guarantee the donor a listing in the commemorative book that Met Council is issuing for the event.

Rapfogel almost overlooked Bush’s envelope because it was from an accountant with a Texas address and addressed to Rapfogel personally. Opening it, Rapfogel found a letter and a check for what he said was a “four-figure sum.” The letter said the contribution was from President and Mrs. Laura Bush. The check was drawn from the account of George W. Bush and listed a Texas address.

“I was truly shocked to see President Bush’s check,” said Rapfogel, who mentioned that Bush also had sent him a letter recently praising “the wonderful work that you and your team are doing.”

“His words of support are always encouraging, but no one ever expects to open an envelope and find a check from the president of the United States,” Rapfogel said. “It’s an honor to be included among the charities he believes in.”

The president has cited the charity, which delivers services to poor people and runs housing for low-income seniors, in two speeches on the efficacy of faith-based charities. The charity’s 30th-anniversary event, scheduled for January 15, honors philanthropists James and Meryl Tisch and a top New York Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

* * *

Campaign-Trail Conversion: ’Tis the season for God-talk, and at least two Democratic presidential candidates have been trumpeting their connections to religion.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, whom The New Republic recently declared unelectable because of his strident secularity, has been using the holidays to declare his fealty to Jesus. Dean, a Congregationalist whose wife and children are Jewish, said last week that he will talk about God and Christ on the campaign trail in Southern states, according to the Boston Globe.

Dean told the Globe that Jesus is a “model” for him.

“Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind,” the Globe quoted him as saying. “He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything…. He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years.”

Meanwhile, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, never shy about declaring his faith publicly, has been letting his tzitzit hang out again on the campaign trail.

The Hartford Courant, following Lieberman and his wife as they served meals at a food pantry on Christmas Eve, noted that he compared the struggle of Iraqis today to Chanukah because the Shi’ite Muslims of Iraq now “are free again to worship God as they choose.” Lieberman went on to quote the prophet Amos and the Christian Bible’s Matthew.

The Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, reported that Lieberman quoted Joshua’s farewell oration to the children of Israel while the senator was speaking in early December to a crowd of Hispanic fundamentalist Christians in the Bronx. “[H]e invokes the name of God without a hint of self-consciousness,” the newspaper noted, adding that “lines of scripture tumble off his tongue.”

Lieberman also has been quoted recently as saying that separation of church and state guarantees “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” and he reacted to the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture with a religiosity that contrasted sharply with the secular words of his fellow candidates.

“Hallelujah, praise the Lord,” he said in a statement. “This is something that I have been advocating and praying for more than 12 years.”

Lieberman’s frank evocations of faith in the past have gotten him in hot water with the Jewish community, which surveys show is the least-observant faith group in the nation. During the 2000 campaign, the then-vice presidential candidate was chewed out for playing the God card by several Jewish communal leaders, including the one known colloquially as “the pope,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.

Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera denied that Lieberman was trying to make electoral hay with his homiletic musings or trying to distinguish himself from Dean, the frequent target of his foreign-policy jibes.

“Family and faith are, have always been and will always be important to Senator Lieberman,” Cabrera explained to the Forward in an e-mail. “This has nothing to do with presidential politics or positioning. It goes to the heart of who he is.”

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