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Jewish Domestic Agenda Begins With the Economy, Doesn’t End There

Washington — Jewish communal activists are preparing to push a domestic agenda in the new Obama administration that seeks funding for health care and energy independence, support for toughened hate crimes legislation and stem-cell research, and some sort of compromise on government-funded faith-based initiatives.

While veteran activists know that their goals might have to give way to practical choices, the sense of optimism is undeniable. “One of the pleasures of working in a city that has one party dominating the White House, Senate and the House is that they all agree on political and ideological issues,” said William Daroff, United Jewish Communities’ vice president for public policy. “They all believe that the government has a role to play in providing social services.”

For many who are used to working the levers of government, the first and most pressing issue on the agenda is one already taken on by President Obama and Congress: the new stimulus plan. Although Jewish groups are avoiding a call for endorsing the legislation in full, they are passionately supporting the idea of pouring government money into the stalled economy, and they are trying to get the stimulus plan to correct some of the funding disparities created in recent years.

Communal activists are asking the administration and Congress to include funding for Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, which provide states with government funds to help cover their medical costs. Those costs have risen significantly in recent years, as more people are without health insurance, so states are asking for additional federal help that could reach $100 billion.

Any increase of FMAP funds will also bring relief to the Jewish federations that are major suppliers of health care services for the elderly and needy — which is why the federations’ umbrella organization, UJC, is lobbying so hard for this expenditure.

Also pitching for benefits in the stimulus plan is the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, asking that the bill include an increase in funding for food stamps and an extension of unemployment insurance. The group, which represents hundreds of local Jewish communities and national organizations, is also pushing for an ambitious energy bill that will raise car emissions limits and encourage the development of alternative sources of energy.

For the Jewish community, energy independence has become a major concern. This is because of its environmental aspects and its importance in securing American and Israeli interests. “You can look at the situation in Iran and in Sudan,” said Hadar Susskind, the JCPA’s Washington director. “These two countries are emboldened and empowered because of the petro-dollars pouring into their bank accounts.”

But while funding priorities related to the stimulus package are commanding the most attention, activists hope that the new Democratic administration will show its hand on several other issues on the communal agenda. Federal funding for stem-cell research is one such test case. Former President George W. Bush issued administrative orders significantly limiting the ability to use those funds for research that utilizes stem cells taken from embryos. Scientists widely see stem-cell research as the new frontier of medicine, one that could provide cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and for spinal injuries.

For Obama, this can be a quick fix. He pledged during his election campaign to allow federal funding for such research, and he does not need to go through Congress to reverse Bush’s regulation. The pledge was certainly echoed in his inaugural address when he promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” Doing so in his first weeks in office would send a powerful message to many in the Jewish community and beyond who had advocated for this change. Hadassah, for example, has called on its members to pursue the issue and has launched a “take a stand” campaign in which its members are being urged to speak out in favor of advancing stem-cell research.

But what seemed to be a slam-dunk for liberal supporters of Obama is not yet in hand. A Jewish communal activist said that the new president “might wait on this one,” and that Obama could delay action on the regulations in order to send a conciliatory message to conservatives who favor the ban. Another test case could be new legislation regarding hate crimes. The Jewish community has been pushing for the approval of a new law that would strengthen the ability of local law enforcement authorities to deal with these crimes. The legislation passed both chambers in the previous Congress, but it never made it to the desk of then-president Bush. He and conservative Republicans opposed the bill, since it broadened the definition of hate crimes to include bias based on sexual orientation. Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, said that the bill now has “excellent chances” of passing, as it has the backing of Obama and Eric Holder, who has been nominated to be the new attorney general. The legislation is a “top priority for the Jewish and civil rights communities,” Lieberman said.

But a congressional source said that the leadership in Congress is reluctant to push early for a bill that may seem too divisive or that might undermine the new spirit of bipartisanship that Obama is trying to build.

Another issue being watched closely by the Jewish community is the way Obama decides to regulate the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Established during the Bush presidency, the office seeks to level the playing field for faith-based institutions competing for federal funds to provide social services. Obama pledged to keep the office working and to broaden its reach.

The initiative is generally supported by Jewish groups, and several of these have called on Obama to enact a new regulation to ensure equality in hiring by faith groups receiving federal funds, and to prevent the groups from engaging in proselytizing. This would require only an administrative order, but some in the Jewish community, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, oppose it.

“I hope they can deal in a pragmatic way with this issue of hiring people of the same faith,” said Nathan Diament, the group’s director of public policy. Diament, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama, was among the few Jewish religious leaders who attended Obama’s family church service before the president took the oath of office.

In the short term, these are the issues — along with his policies on the Middle East, of course — that will test Obama in the eyes of the Jewish community. But communal activists looking at the longer term see even larger issues that will determine Obama’s impact on Jewish life: comprehensive immigration reform, a guarantee of health care for all and an overhaul of Social Security. Even optimists within the community don’t expect these three massive undertakings to be completed in the near future.

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