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Eyeing the edge of the fiscal cliff

The Jewish Advocate
December 27, 2012
Alexandra Lapkin

As the end of the year approaches, the fiscal cliff debate in Washington, D.C. seems to have come to a stalemate.

While politicians are arguing over a solution, Americans, whose livelihood depends on social services provided by taxation, are in jeopardy.

“People who are struggling and who are out of work can’t pay more taxes, someone making $250,000, they can pay a little more, these tax cuts were supposed to be temporary,” said Alan van Capelle, President and CEO of Bend the Arc. “It’s time to make them temporary and not permanent.”

Bend the Arc, the largest national Jewish social justice organization dedicated to domestic policy issues, decided that it did not want to sit on the sidelines while elected officials bickered over tax reform. Over the last few months, as the debate has raged on Capitol Hill, representatives of Bend the Arc have been advocating for Rabbis to sign a petition that calls for support of President Barack Obama’s proposal to let Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy expire by the end of the year. As a result, more than 300 Rabbis signed the petition.

“We felt strongly that it was important for there to be a strong and powerful national Jewish voice that discussed the perils of the fiscal cliff,” said van Capelle. “We have become very good as a community about asking for money; we have not become very good about trying to talk about where this money comes from.”

The fact that tax reform struck a chord with so many prominent Jewish leaders proved that it is an issue American Jews care about deeply. According to van Capelle, “In the run-up to the election, when American Jews were polled about what they thought their biggest issues were, 65 percent of Jews said the largest issue for them was the economy and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. So we think this is something Jews care about, the growing inequity in our country.”

In addition to the petition, Bend the Arc decided to take an active role in tax reform by sparking a conversation in Jewish communities with a series of house parties held throughout the country this month. Those events allowed Jews to learn about the tax negotiations, discuss how it relates to Jewish values and texts, and call and email their members of Congress.

There have been several house parties in the Boston area. One was held at the home of Lesley Fleischman and Jake Heller in Cambridge on Dec. 20.

“I care about taxation and support government programs like health care for the elderly and other benefits,” Heller said during a telephone interview. “If we don’t get taxes to pay for these programs, we’ll need to cut some of them. If we have to raise taxes, we have to do it in a just and fair way.”

Heller and Fleischman decided to host the party because they thought it would be a good opportunity to unite their friends’ voices and get the attention of politicians. Heller, who is 28, invited friends in their 20s and early 30s, which is the age demographic of most Bend the Arc activists.

Heller, Fleischman and their friends are what van Capelle refers to as the “rank-and-file Jewish activists.” Unlike the rabbis who signed the petition, they may not have much clout on an individual level, but they’re just as crucial to Bend the Arc’s strategy.

“We believe it’s equally as important to build an army of social justice Jewish activists around the country, in communities big and small, who are not just sending letters to their Congress members, but who are actually organizing,” said van Capelle.

Bend the Arc’s mission, beyond tax reform, is to change the notion in the United States that the Jewish community only cares about U.S. foreign policy with Israel, and is moving to the right in growing numbers. Even though polling and data point to the contrary, he said, the media and politicians give in to these misconceptions about the Jews in America. Bend the Arc set out to reinstate the image of a strong Jewish presence in domestic issues by setting its sights on immigration, housing, and labor protections for domestic workers.

“It is important to remember that Jews were leaders in, not just the participants of, the abolitionist movement, the suffrage movement, the anti-sweatshop movement, the creation of the labor movement and the civil rights movement,” said van Capelle. “And not since Heschel marched with King have we seen a visible Jewish presence on a domestic issue.”

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