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Wide-Ranging Interests

When it comes to the question of what constitutes “Jewish art” or “Jewish music,” there is not and likely never will be a definitive and satisfying answer. Is any art by a Jewish artist “Jewish art”? Was Felix Mendelssohn a “Jewish composer”? Mahler?

Similarly, there is no final answer to what it is that makes an issue of public policy a “Jewish issue.” Some months back, there was a brief flap over the question of whether there could or should be a Jewish response to President Bush’s tax policy. The question was never resolved, nor can it be. Some Jews believe that only matters that are explicitly Jewish in nature — say, for an obvious example, the American government’s policies on the Middle East — should be considered appropriate matters for Jewish communal attention. Others of us believe, for a variety of reasons, that virtually all issues of public policy are of concern to the Jewish community; at the least, they help determine the allocation of resources in our society, help define our working definition of “justice” and affect the peace of the society of which we are a part.

No agency or institution can adequately capture the range of Jewish interests nor authoritatively speak for all of us. But we do have one agency that stands above all others in the scope of its concerns and the authenticity of its communal voice. That agency is the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of 122 local Jewish community relations councils (or other local agencies) and 13 national organizations. Each year, the JCPA holds a convention — “the Plenum,” it’s called — and a review of the agenda for this year’s Plenum, in Boston from February 21 to February 24, provides something of a guide to the best working definition we have these days of “Jewish interests.”

The Plenum, attended by some 400 delegates from around the country, also plays host to Hillel’s Spitzer Forum on Public Policy, which draws some 300 Jewish college student leaders, to a conference of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and this year, for the first time, to an institute for the leaders of affiliates of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

Needless to say, Israel is a major concern at the Plenum, and the subject of one plenary session and eight of the 31 workshops or forums, ranging in subject matter from “Israel Advocacy in Transition: New Partners, New Priorities, New Problems” to “Smog in Sacred Places: The Environmental Crisis in Israel.” (I look forward to a Jewish convention schedule in which the word “crisis” does not appear — but this area really is a crisis.) There are several devoted to Muslim-Jewish relations, to antisemitism in Europe and kindred matters, and there are a raft devoted to domestic policy. One plenary session is entitled “Confronting Poverty: Acting on Our Commitments,” another “Brown v. Board of Education: Lessons and Legacy” (this being the 50th anniversary of the key desegregation case), one called “Liberty and Security in an Age of Terrorism” and still another “American Jews and Elections 2004.”

There are also workshops on immigration reform, on civil rights and civil liberties, on global AIDS, on government funding of religiously affiliated institutions, on advocating for Medicaid and other vital services and a bunch on the forthcoming elections — the elections and the environment, the debate on public education, a federal marriage amendment and civil unions, the state of the economy.

Basically, there are three broad divisions — Israel, civil rights and liberties, and poverty in America — plus a bunch that don’t fit neatly into any of these. There is also a whole evening devoted to debating and voting on resolutions, which in part mirror the workshop and forum discussions and in part go beyond them (resolutions having been proposed, among others, on cloning research, on the Jews of Venezuela, on affordable housing and on international family planning). That evening is regarded by many people as the single most interesting — and, in some ways, revealing — annual debate in Jewish life. It is typically exceedingly thoughtful, well informed and respectful of the genuine differences that are inevitable in so diverse a community as ours. And it is the resolutions that are accepted that provide a guide to local Jewish community relations councils — especially to those that are, as very many of them are, sparely staffed and budgeted.

Those who suppose that the American Jewish community is drifting, perhaps even lurching, rightward would be surprised — one hopes pleasantly surprised — by the stuff of the JCPA Plenum. Virtually no one who participates will ask the tedious question of why Jews are and ought to be concerned with poverty (and not just Jewish poverty). They understand, quite well, that this nation’s policies are virtually always the product of coalition politics and that if we, as a community, turn a blind eye to issues of direct and urgent concern to others, we forego the opportunity to call on those others on matters of direct and urgent concern to us. But beyond such evident self-interest, there is also the near-axiomatic assumption of this broadly representative body that poverty is in and of itself very much a concern of our community, whether because we ourselves were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt or because we are responsible citizens of this grand democracy, or simply because our neighbors are hurting and we may be in a position to lend them a hand.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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