The Bush administration is dramatically expanding funding for faith-based groups as part of its hurricane relief efforts, and some Jewish groups are warning that it could blow a big hole in the church-state wall.
"It's like the levees; once the church-state wall is breached, it's very hard to rebuild," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which is criticizing the stepped-up faith based push as an effort to push an ideological agenda, not disaster recovery.
But other Jewish groups are wary of appearing like obstacles to the massive recovery effort.
"Everybody understands that helping people right now is a priority. Nobody wants to be seen as putting up roadblocks," said an official with one major Jewish group. "The problem is, there are some in the administration who clearly want to take advantage of this to advance their causes."
Last week the Washington Post reported that the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is funneling money to religious groups, including churches and other houses of worship, that are providing a variety of services to displaced Gulf Coast residents.
According to news reports, the FEMA action came after pressure from conservative leaders in Congress.
Pelavin said his group is "concerned. This move by FEMA is unfortunately part of a bigger picture we're seeing, where under the cover of hurricane relief, the administration is moving forward to advance proposals that wouldn't otherwise have any traction."
That bigger picture, he said, includes the waving of Davis-Bacon Minimum-wage requirements in post-hurricane rebuilding efforts, reflecting a longstanding priority of conservative groups, and last week's decision to include religious school students in an ambitious system of vouchers intended to compensate schools for taking in children displaced by the storms.
Other groups took a more nuanced stance.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that his group won't oppose the FEMA funding for religious charities, but expressed concern about its long-term impact.
"These are extraordinary circumstances," he said. "It's an emergency, so it's something we won't oppose. But it's something we will watch and assess and, when necessary, speak out on."
Several Jewish leaders expressed concern that federal agencies, under pressure from congressional conservatives, are creating political "facts on the ground" that may be offered up as precedents the next time Congress or the administration consider a major faith-based program.
"We have concerns that it may be overdone and these actions may be cited as precedents in the future," Foxman said, adding that his group will also examine whether the administration's new faith-based push is coming at the expense of non-religious relief organizations.
Some Democrats lashed out at the new faith-based push.
Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the partisan Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), said, "A lot of Republicans see the hurricanes as an opportunity to take conservative proposals off the shelf and slip them into the relief effort."
The new faith-based push, he said, may be part of an administration effort to quell the growing rebellion within the party over spending.
"Many Republicans fear the conservatives are bolting over spending and the deficit," he said. "Policy sweeteners -- including the faith-based agenda -- may be an effort by the administration to defuse that rebellion."
But Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union, said FEMA is not doing anything it hasn't done in previous emergencies.
"It's always been the case that religious groups have delivered disaster relief in various forms, in partnership with FEMA," he said. "The Salvation Army is a religious organization, and they've been doing this forever."
The statutes and regulations governing FEMA, he said, allow for participation by religious groups "on a nondiscriminatory basis. If you're a Jewish organization providing shelter in a time of emergency, you can't just take in Jews. That's built into the system."
He said Jewish groups criticizing the FEMA policies are not being practical.
"It's really a question of just how absolutist and unyielding and unpragmatic groups are going to be," he said. "And it's a question of whether they are capable of realizing that different situations require different responses."
Also on the church-state front, Jewish groups reacted predictably to the late September addition of faith-based provisions to a bill reauthorizing the Head Start preschool program.
Religious groups, including churches and synagogues, have long participated in the popular federally funded preschool program, but have had to comply with nondiscrimination hiring guidelines. The House-passed amendment, offered by Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) and approved by the full House, eliminates that requirement.
According to Orthodox groups, that just levels a playing field that discriminates against religious service providers.
"It will allow a number of religious entities to participate in Head Start programs when, in the past, they were reluctant because of the limitation it put on a number of things, including hiring," said Abba Cohen, Washington representative for Agudath Israel of America.
Forcing Head Start-funded programs run by Jewish groups to hire without regard to religion, he said, would alter the religious character of these programs -- which is why many Orthodox groups shunned Head Start in the past.
"This will bring more Head Start programs into the community," he said. "It's a matter of equity; it will make Head Start more accessible."
But advocates of church-state separation cried foul, saying that allowing overt hiring discrimination in Head Start would be a dangerous precedent.
Religious groups can discriminate in hiring when using their own funds, said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee -- but it sets a dangerous precedent when those policies are backed by federal funding.
He said the amendment is particularly dangerous because "it represents a willingness to change longstanding civil rights safeguards."
The debate turned what had been a bill with broad bipartisan support into a partisan hot potato; the faith-based amendment passed by a 220-196 margin, with only 10 Democrats supporting the controversial proposal, and now even some Head Start advocacy groups say they will lobby against the measure if the Senate includes the faith-based provision.
Opponents hope to block the amendment in the Senate. Michael Lieberman, ADL's Washington counsel, said "for us, it will be the most substantial, most meaningful religious liberty confrontation in Congress since the Istook [school prayer] amendment fight in 1999."
Lieberman said opponents have "a fair chance" of defeating the faith-based amendment in the Senate.
Jewish Groups in Darfur Push
Jewish groups, working with other religious and social justice organizations, continue to demand much stronger U.S. and international efforts to end the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan before it's too late.
The Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of 134 faith-based and human rights groups, met recently with top administration officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, and with members of Congress.
The group issued a letter to President Bush urging that Darfur be put much higher on the nation's list of foreign policy priorities.
The coalition also offered some specific recommendations, including pressing China and other nations to support strong international action to end the crisis and pressing for a U.N. Security Council resolution expanding the mandate of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), and for U.S. financial and logistical support for that mission.
The group is also calling for regular State Department reports on the situation in Sudan and the effectiveness of U.S. efforts.
Most major Jewish groups have signed on to the coalition; Jewish participants range from the Orthodox Union to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The political coalition behind the effort is just as broad; it includes Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans), an ardent conservative, and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a liberal.
That broad coalition is necessary "to keep the pressure up and to show the administration that there really is a big constituency out there that wants the U.S. to play an assertive role in stopping the killing," said Martin Raffel, assistant director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), who attended last week's Darfur meetings.
Standing for Israel -- With Evangelicals
For years, his efforts were scorned by the leaders of mainstream Jewish groups, but today, with his ability to distribute $ 25 million annually in contributions from Christian donors, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein says he has been "vindicated."
Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, was in Washington last week for the second "Stand for Israel" conference, a gathering of evangelical supporters of Israel and Jewish activists.
Eckstein's Fellowship, with more than 400,000 Christian donors, supports projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union.
"Just last week, we were asked to help secure the bus station in Beersheba after recent incidents; we were able to give $1 million," he said in an interview.
The Stand for Israel group is the pro-Israel advocacy arm of Eckstein's expanding empire.
Delegates to this week's conference, he said, were scheduled to hear from top leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, and members of Congress, including Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- who will be honored for his pro-Israel effort along with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Despite growing Christian contributions to Israeli causes, Eckstein conceded that mainstream Jewish leaders remain dubious about building bridges to the pro-Israel evangelicals.
"More and more Jews get it," he said. "But the leadership -- they just haven't adjusted to the new realities."
Those realities include an evangelical president and top congressional leadership, and the continuing criticism of Israel by mainline Protestant denominations, he said.
"We see no real change in emphasis [in major Jewish groups] based on all these things that are happening," he said. "But at the grass-roots, we have a number of young Jewish leaders who see it, who understand it. But if I were to measure it in terms of the major organizations -- it's not there, unless they want to tap into the money."
He said that the fact most evangelical supporters of Israel opposed the recent Gaza withdrawal -- 75 percent, according to a poll sponsored by his group -- also angered Jewish leaders here. That's a little ironic, since Eckstein said that he supported the disengagement.
Eckstein said he is ready to move in some new directions.
"We're taking this show on the road," he said. "What we've done in the United States -- rallying evangelical support for Israel -- we will now do in Latin America, in the Far East, in Australia."
And Eckstein, who has in the past complained about the lack of support from top Jewish leaders, now claimed indifference.
"I've set my direction, I'm going to go my own way," he said. "If the American Jewish community comes along, great; if not, that's fine, too."