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Rabbi Presses the President On Rise in American Poverty

President Bush got an earful from one of the 16 rabbis he invited to the White House Monday.

Made up mostly of Orthodox clergymen, the group focused on issues related to Israel and the war on terrorism, according to several participants. Two rabbis urged Bush to consider clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. But, during a sudden lull in the conversation, the president turned to the rabbi sitting two seats to his left, Amy Schwartzman, and asked what concerns she had brought to the meeting.

The religious leader of Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Falls Church, Va., Schwartzman had come armed with note cards and statistics on a subject far removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the war on terrorism: the increasing number of Americans living in poverty.

“Since you came into office, the number of people in poverty has increased by 3 million,” Schwartzman recalled saying to the president. “My religious faith, as well as yours, compels us to reach out to people on the fringes of our society, the poor in particular, and we clearly need to be more responsive to this segment of our nation.”

Just days earlier, the U.S. Census Bureau kicked off a national stir with its announcement that the poverty rate rose in 2002 for the second straight year, after five annual declines. The rate jumped from 11.3% in 2000 to 11.7% in 2001 and to 12.1% last year. In real terms, about 1.7 million more people last year fell below the poverty line — defined by the census as $18,556 for a family of four and $9,359 for an individual under 85.

The census bureau’s announcement drew a quick response from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the synagogue movement’s public-policy arm in Washington.

“Congress has a moral responsibility to ensure that welfare programs provide real jobs, real job training and a real safety net,” said the center’s associate director, Mark Pelavin, in a statement. Pelavin called for increased child care and job-training funding, declaring: “Jewish tradition teaches us to ‘speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy’ (Proverbs 31:19).”

While the Reform movement appeared to take the lead on the poverty issue — both after the census bureau’s announcement and at the meeting with Bush — Orthodox leaders and other observers said that concern over economic issues is growing in many segments of the Jewish community.

“They have no alternative,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy-coordinating body representing 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local community-relations councils in North America. “We are hearing from diverse communities all over that local needs are growing and the pot of money is shrinking.”

For most of the last three years, Rosenthal said, economic concerns have taken a back seat in many Jewish organizational circles to other issues, primarily ones related to Israel.

Concern over Israel and fears of terrorism have “pushed out the other issues,” Rosenthal said. “I think now that we are seeing more and more of what is happening in our communities and neighborhoods, there is about to become the same sense of urgency” about poverty, unemployment and other economic issues.

The public-affairs council and other Jewish groups are lobbying Congress and the administration to increase allocations for job training and child care under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which was enacted as part of the celebrated welfare reform legislation passed by the Clinton administration in 1996. The Senate is weighing a bill that would reauthorize the 1996 law but would increase work requirements and cut child-care funding for welfare recipients. The House of Representatives passed a similar measure in February, which included deeper cuts and even more stringent work rules.

Schwartzman, the Reform rabbi, broached the issue of welfare reform during her exchange with Bush at the meeting, which sources said was organized by the White House liaison to the Jewish community, Tevi Troy.

When pressed by Schwartzman on the rise in poverty, Bush responded that the key to reversing the trend was job creation. Schwartzman, the only woman in the group of rabbis, recalled the president saying: “We have to get these people jobs. I know I have a jobs-training program for jobs that don’t exist.”

At that point, Schwartzman said, she interrupted the leader of the free world and criticized his welfare bill for not including sufficient child care for single mothers in search of work or job training. “You are creating a situation where a huge number of poor who are single parents have no vehicle for child care,” Schwartzman recalled saying.

At that point, according to Schwartzman, Bush turned to his deputy assistant for domestic policy, Jay Lefkowitz: “Jay, haven’t we put more into child care over the last 3 years?”

Schwartzman countered that half the states have waiting lists for federally funded child care programs. “That was the end of it,” Schwartzman recalled.

A day after her visit to the White House, Schwartzman said that she had no doubt that the president was sincerely concerned about the rise in poverty. “He was not hesitant to admit that poverty is a real issue facing America and one far from being solved,” the rabbi said.

Schwartzman told the Forward that she had been attempting to send both a moral and political message to the president. “The biggest constituency people vie for is white, suburban women,” Schwartzman said. “I am a white, suburban, working woman, with two small children. I lead a congregation with 1,300 families, with a high number of two-parent working families. I’m hoping my saying all that to the president might perk up his ears about the constituency I represent, that we care about what he does for the poor.”

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