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Jewish communal responsibility for the most vulnerable

Washington Jewish Week
December 19, 2012
Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block

When it comes to budgets, our political leaders have spent the past several decades trying to "have our cake and eat it too." On the left, various interest groups mobilize to maximize funding for programs, such as Medicaid, food stamps and social security, while on the right, tax cuts have become the solution to every economic downturn - and raising taxes is unmentionable, even during wartime. As the "fiscal cliff" deadline looms, cuts to a number of longstanding programs that serve as a social safety net appear inevitable. The question on the table facing our leaders at this moment is whether those cuts will devastate those programs in order to protect tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, or whether we can agree that the burdens of deficit reduction should be shared.

The American Jewish community has a longstanding and proud history of working to develop a vibrant civil society and standing up for those on the margins. We proudly teach our children of the ways that the Jewish communities banded together to help absorb Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe. They not only created community agencies that helped those in the Jewish community, our parents and grandparents vigorously fought for creating a society that enabled all of those on the margins to have the opportunity to contribute fully to this country, and in doing so, many rose to the middle and upper classes.

These efforts took a variety of forms - from support for a strong public school system, to civil rights laws that ban discrimination on the basis of race and religion, to support for unions that fight worker exploitation. As many in the American Jewish community rose not only out of poverty, but to be among the most fortunate and powerful Jewish communities in history, our communal institutions still proudly raise our voices to protect the most vulnerable in society. Nearly every week, I receive an action alert in my in-box from one Jewish organization or another that asks me to raise my voice not only to work to protect the Jewish people and the Jewish state, but also to protect, in the words of Deuteronomy, the ger, yatom v'almanah - the stranger, orphan and widow.

When Jewish organizations use their political power to protect food stamps or a host of programs designed to help the most vulnerable members of society - Jewish and non-Jewish - it makes me feel proud to be part of this community and this tradition. But, when it comes to taxes, it becomes less comfortable. We rely on the high earners in our community to support so many of our institutions. While there is a range of political opinion among these high earners on allowing the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to expire, calling outright for folks to pay higher taxes might seem impolite at best, and foolhardy at worst. The message many receive, either explicitly or internally is, "Supporting programs is fine, but don't mess with taxes." The result all too often is silence, and the idea of the government increasing revenue has dropped off the Jewish community agenda for decades.

But a movement is afoot to reclaim not only the prophetic voice of our community, but to support a common-sense approach that is a good first step in repairing a broken budget and tax system. Three hundred rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum have called for the expiration of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans - those who earn over $250,000 - and have a responsibility to support those in need.

What do rabbis know about taxes? Simply this: That the Jewish community has been a good advocate for getting government dollars to programs we care about, but when it's a one-sided conversation, in which we ask for money and don't ever have a conversation about how those services are going to get paid for, we are not demonstrating leadership. When we work to craft a moral budget, one that protects our social safety net, strengthens our public education system, and increases job growth, while asking for the support of the most fortunate among us, we are being true to the lessons of our history, and the principles of our tradition.

Jason Kimelman-Block is senior director of leadership initiatives and rabbi-in-residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

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