September 26, 2008

Supporting Stimulus Package Is Pro-Growth

In his September 19 column, “Our Economic Echo Chamber,” Noam Neusner unfairly attacks the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, United Jewish Communities and our Jewish community federations for supporting an economic stimulus package now before Congress. The truth is that many in America — and many in the Jewish community — would benefit greatly from this stimulus package.

Neusner incorrectly states that the stimulus package is not pro-growth. Even in today’s era of partisanship in Washington, Republican and Democratic economists agree that food stamps, unemployment insurance and direct aid to state governments are among the most effective methods to help stimulate the economy — far more effective than tax rebates.

The JCPA is made up of representatives from all four major Jewish religious streams, 14 national Jewish organizations, 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils in 40 states and a countless number of supporters across the country who are dedicated to helping the nation’s most vulnerable.

Unlike Neusner’s voice, our is not a partisan one. It is a consensus voice in the community that speaks up in defense of those who cannot speak for themselves, whether they are families in Sderot, refugees in Darfur or hungry children here in America.


Among other faults with which I take issue in my friend Noam Neusner’s column is his claim that federal aid for Jewish social service providers is somehow a “dirty secret.”

It is no secret that Jewish hospitals, Jewish nursing homes, Jewish family service agencies and other Jewish social service agencies receive governmental funding. By leveraging the federal funding we receive each year with contributions from hundreds of thousands of donors, we are able to provide, among other services, food for the hungry, shelter for those without a home, relocation for Jews being persecuted, and assistance to communities rebuilding after disasters (such as our current efforts following Hurricane Ike). We also provide job training, services for the elderly and for children, counseling and many other needed services for our nation’s most vulnerable.

This partnership between the government and the federation system is a prime example of exactly what Neusner’s former boss, President George W. Bush, called “the armies of compassion” — faith-based charities working with the government to make the world a better place — working together to promote tikkun olam.

Jewish social service agencies help people in need of assistance — regardless of their faith — and are often the only agencies that are equipped to help the most vulnerable in our society. We are, on a daily basis, fulfilling the twin commandments that go back to the days of Abraham, of caring for the neediest among us and caring for our neighbors as we would care for ourselves.


Noam Neusner is among the smartest people I know, and he always makes a good argument. But his attack on the Jewish Council on Public Affairs in these pages is flat out unfair.

Neusner would have us think that the JCPA was run by a few ideologues. It is, in fact, a consensus-driven agency bringing together, among others, the synagogue arms of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform organizations. The views that the JCPA advances are carefully crafted in consultation with its national member groups and with local Jewish community relations councils across the country. Neusner even goes so far as to argue that we need a “counterbalancing voice in the Jewish community” to speak on behalf of the “taxpayer” — as if the tens of thousands of American Jews who belong to organizations and communities that participate in the JCPA process are not, themselves, taxpayers.

Neusner is right that there is not unanimity in the Jewish community on economic issues (or any other issue for that matter!). But it is interesting that his entire critique of the JCPA (and, by extension, its member agencies) is sociological, with no reference to Jewish values. Neusner knows that our community has always brought both its interests and its values to the public policy arena. Our values, our texts, our historical experience all demand that we be concerned for the neediest amongst us, for those who need a helping hand. We can debate which policies are best to do that, but it would be an abdication of our responsibility if we allowed ourselves to do as Neusner seems to suggest, and walk away from a concern about the larger society in which we live.


My Father’s Code Name Was ‘Jacoby’

Rafael Medoff’s article about Leonard Bernstein and the Irgun was fascinating (“When Leonard Bernstein ‘Dug’ the Irgun,” September 12).

I can provide the identity of the “Irgun fighter who identified himself only as ‘Jacoby’” at Bernstein’s Bergson Group benefit. That man was my father, Maks L. Birnbach, who died last November, and who, with 43 members of his family, had fled Frankfurt, Germany, in 1933 and settled in Palestine. A little more than a dozen years later, he had joined the Irgun, and was sent by Menachem Begin to the United States to give speeches here — even though he did not speak English very well at that time. (Begin said he would sound more “authentic.”)

My father was given the code name “Colonel Jacoby” because Jacoby was a common enough name, and the Irgun was an illegal organization at that time. My father, however, was not always good at staying undercover. For example, I believe it was at the Waldorf Astoria concert Medoff writes about that my father wore cufflinks with his initials, M.B., on them, only to have the actor John Garfield, who sat next to him on the dais, lean over and whisper conspiratorially, “I know who you really are — Menachem Begin.” (My father, tall and with dark hair, looked nothing like Begin.)

My father told an interesting story that shortly after his arrival in New York City, he had met New York Mayor William O’Dwyer, who told him they had a common enemy — the British, who had ruled Palestine — and that my father should call the mayor if he ever needed help. My father — who had lived across the street in Tel Aviv from the city’s mayor but had never spoken to him — was amazed. A short time later, a cache of guns that were to be sent over to Palestine on the Altalena had been confiscated when a New York police officer found them in a hotel elevator. The other people helping my father were upset and didn’t know what to do. So my father said he could call the mayor; the others, which included New Yorkers, were skeptical — given that my father had just arrived in the country. My father placed the call to the mayor’s office and was told to call Paul O’Dwyer, the mayor’s brother, a lawyer and political activist. Very quickly, the guns were released and made it to the Altalena, though not to their intended destination. (My father told us of sitting in a hotel room in New York listening to the Altalena’s progress on shortwave radio when it was attacked under David Ben-Gurion’s orders.)

Peter Bergson, head of the Bergson Group, was instrumental in building popular support in this country for the State of Israel. My father was always proud of the supporting role he had played.


Dems Haven’t Always Respected Privacy

Your September 12 editorial “Preaching Abstinence” takes note of calls to respect the privacy of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s family, and then argues: “Families, even public families, should be left to sort out their private lives in privacy. Democrats come to this privacy notion easily; they’ve been trying to make that point for years.”

Unfortunately, that statement is untrue. It saddens me to say, as a lifelong Democrat, that the paragon of virtue and family values John Edwards, who ran as Senator John Kerry’s running mate four years ago, relished the opportunity to bring up the sexual preferences of the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney in a televised debate.

Many of us do not agree with Sarah Palin’s attitude toward teen sex, which in this era we see as impractical. This does not grant us the right, however, to gloat over the outcome of her young daughter’s romance, which apparently will lead to an early marriage. Her beliefs are her own, and the only concern we have any right to consider is whether they impinge upon legislation.


September 26, 2008

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September 26, 2008

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