WASHINGTON — In her final speech as executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hannah Rosenthal called on the organization’s members to voice “a lot more outrage” in the face of the Bush administration’s significant cuts to social-service programs.
“This is a time that begs that we speak out on injustices,” said Rosenthal, who is stepping down this month from her post as head of America’s chief public-policy umbrella organization. “This is a time that calls for voices to fill the disgraceful silence of complacency. This is a time that calls for more advocacy. Not a time to pull punches.”
The remarks reflected Rosenthal’s efforts to make poverty- and budget-related issues a top priority for JCPA, an umbrella organization that brings together 13 national Jewish organizations and 127 local Jewish communities to coordinate positions on a wide range of issues.
A longtime Democratic Party activist and a passionate social liberal,
Rosenthal, 54, assumed her post in the summer of 2000, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders were negotiating a final settlement and America enjoyed its largest budget surplus ever. Previously she had served as an official in the Clinton administration’s Department of Health & Human Services.
“It really seemed like the perfect time to come and work with the organized Jewish community to move a social justice agenda,” Rosenthal told the Forward.
But soon after she went to work, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed into an unprecedented whirlpool of violence and, following President Bush’s first round of tax cuts, the federal budget surplus turned into a whopping deficit.
“So the reality I ended up dealing with was very different from the one I was hoping to deal with,” Rosenthal said.
This new reality resulted in the Jewish community “hyper-focusing” on Israel advocacy — to the extent that Jewish organizations almost lost sight of the deepening poverty in America and in the Jewish community, she said.
“We were hearing from some communities of a 100% increase in poverty,” Rosenthal said. “So a couple of years ago I said that we can walk and chew gum at the same time: We can be strong advocates for Israel, as well as work with community partners to reduce poverty.”
Rosenthal waged a public awareness and lobbying campaign against poverty, mainly directed at the Bush administration’s restructuring of social programs. She did so in the face of opposition from conservative Jewish donors, and despite the unease expressed by several JCPA-member agencies.
“Our Jewish values demand that we speak truth to power,” Rosenthal said. “No matter who is in power, we are commanded to approach power and speak for those who do not have a voice.”
Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco-area Jewish Community Relations Council, said that Rosenthal’s strength was her ability to revitalize a Jewish agency that has always set modest goals for itself.
While passionately insisting on JCPA’s pursuit of a social-justice agenda, Kahn said, Rosenthal was skillful in empowering the umbrella group “without any of its components feeling disempowered in the process.”