Local and national Jewish organizations have taken the highly unusual step of actively lobbying for the $800-plus billion economic recovery package that is making its way through Congress. And well they should.
Whether we have been touched personally by the economic crisis or not — and many Jews have, in one way or another — we, like all Americans, have a tremendous stake in how this crisis is addressed.
The Jewish community also has a parochial interest in seeing a stimulus plan passed. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and many of its local social-service agencies have long partnered with the federal and state government to provide funding for a host of critical social services for those most in need.
Despite the general tendency to stay out of partisan politics, Philadelphia Jewish agencies joined their national counterparts last week to lobby on Capitol Hill for the plan. They focused specifically on provisions that bolstered Medicaid funding and what's known as the Social Services Block Grant, which helps support job training, food and other basic needs for the disadvantaged.
As William Daroff, director of the United Jewish Communities' Washington office, put it: "The recession is having a devastating impact on the demand for social services, and its simultaneous devastating impact on the supply of funds flowing into our agencies (personal philanthropy, endowment/foundation funds, and government) is a perfect storm of a crisis. We as a country need to get out of this recession."
There are those who criticize the recovery plan as a "spending bill" with too many provisions that do nothing to create jobs and get the economy back on track. But as President Obama himself pointed out, a stimulus bill by its very nature is a spending bill.
Still, there is no doubt that in addition to the obvious goal of jump-starting a sick economy and putting Americans back to work, Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress have tailored the spending proposals to adhere to their social and economic policy goals.
Obama said that he didn't come into office "ginned up" to spend billions of dollars. At the same time, however, the economic crisis he inherited affords him an opportunity to focus on the policies he was elected to pursue, including job creation, bolstering struggling communities and energy efficiency.
This comports with the agenda of many Jews. While many were wary about his foreign-policy approach — and some still are — it was his domestic priorities that inspired many in our community to back his quest for the presidency.
As Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in reference to the House version of the recovery plan: "Jewish values and Jewish interests are deeply bound up with the policy selections of what will be funded."
The compromise plan now being hammered out between House and Senate leaders will likely not be perfect. Despite the deep partisanship that has already overtaken this most critical debate, it is incumbent upon our lawmakers to focus on those provisions that will create the most jobs and turn the economy around.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) should be commended for working with Democrats to come up with a compromise plan and for being one of only three Republican lawmakers in the Senate or the House brave enough to vote for the bill. But he has also made clear that he expects the final version to resemble the Senate version more than the House.
Obama himself left room for compromise when he suggested that he would be open to any plan as long as it created 4 million jobs. He also exhibited a certain humility on Monday when he said: "I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis."
Let us hope that doesn't happen.