JCPA Plenum 2009

[Archived from March 20, 2009]

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

There are many issues that are of concern to the Jewish community, and there are many different opinions on how to deal with them in the context of Jewish values.

Each year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) Plenum draws representatives of Community Relations Councils (CRC) from across North America to consider some of the most important issues of the day, reach a consensus and set the agenda.

The large gathering also provides many opportunities to study issues in detail, learn about Jewish ethics, values and teachings and how to apply them, to bring important issues to Capitol Hill and to connect with others who have similar interests.

This year, the Louisville delegation to the JCPA Plenum, held in Washington, D.C., February 28-March 3, included Fred Whittaker, the winner of the Jewish Community Federation’s Julie E. Linker Community Relations Young Leadership Award; Ron and Marie Abrams, past treasurer and president of the national JCPA respectively; and Peter Anik, the Federation’s CRC director.

Whittaker is the teacher at St. Francis of Assisi who, along with his students, spearheaded the push to mandate Holocaust education in schools across Kentucky that resulted in the passage of the Ernie Marx Resolution supporting Holocaust education, signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear last May.

As Whittaker participated his first Plenum, “seeing things through Catholic eyes,” he came back to Louisville with a unique perspective. “I was deeply impressed by this wonderful organization and its attempt to build consensus on wide variety of issues.”

He particularly enjoyed that there is “such an interest in attaching biblical and religious insights to issues social issues that are pertinent to our time. I was also deeply impressed by the very deep amount of knowledge that every single representative had on so many different issues and … by the deep commitment that all the members had to not just their communities and the faith but to the marginalized of all religious faiths.”

“The Jewish community is one of the very few communities in the United States, if not the world, that has not allowed itself to become fatigued and indifferent to the plight of individuals who are suffering the genocide in Darfur,” he observed. “I attended several sessions that were informative and insightful concerning that conflict, and each session came with a huge abundance of suggestions for individuals and communities if they wished to get more involved.”

For Whittaker and the Abrams, Attorney General Eric Holder’s address was a highlight. “It was really a big deal to have the Attorney General of the United State come and talk to us about issues that are on people’s minds in terms of how the Justice Department will deal with a number of different issues,” Marie said.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported, the main theme of Holder’s 15-minute talk was that the conflict between fighting terrorism and protecting “our tradition of civil liberties” is not a “zero-sum battle.” Such an idea is not only “misguided,” he said, but “has done us more harm than good.”

“After the speech Holder held an hour-long, off-the-record meeting with about a dozen top JCPA leaders on legal topics from torture to church-state issues.

“It was a deep, substantive discussion,” said JCPA Washington Director Hadar Susskind, adding that the attorney general saw the meeting as the “first step in building an open and engaged relationship with the Jewish community.”

Another highlight for the Abrams was the presentation of the Albert D. Chernin Award to Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe, a renowned attorney who has brought many individual rights cases to the Supreme Court. He spoke about the challenges involved in balancing individual rights with national security.

Marie chaired a forum on U.S. Relations with the Muslim World that presented the pros and cons of President Barak Obama’s pledge to reach out to the Muslim community. The panelists were Tom Dine of Search for Common Ground and Dr. Michael Ledeen of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Dine is also the former head of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and of Radio Free Europe.

“Dine was very much in favor of pursuing peace initiatives with Muslims,” Ron said, “and pursuing relations with the Muslim world, including talking to Iran.” Ledeen took a much more conservative line, he continued, asserting that “you don’t talk to these people. You don’t talk to terrorists.” Ledeen went so far as to say that the seeds of terrorism can be found in the Koran.

“Ledeen said there is not much purpose in talking to Muslims,” Marie added. Whereas Dine not only called for improved relations with the Muslim world, but “praised the work of individual CRC’s, like our own, which have relations with people in the Muslim community.”

Ron also attended a session on Israel advocacy and how to respond to accusations that Israel is the aggressor.

Many other topics were addressed including the economy, poverty, hunger, universal health care, gay marriage and more.

An important part of every JCPA Plenum are the visits to Capitol Hill. “We met privately with U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler” and one of his staffers, Whittaker said. “Marie was wonderfully articulate and concerned about a wide variety of Jewish issues.”

Chandler’s staffer was new to the job, Whittaker explained. “Marie really wished to let her know that the Jewish community is deeply involved, concerned and informed about a wide variety of justice and political issues” and about Israel and that country’s safety.

Whittaker was also impressed by the resolutions process, which sets the Jewish social action agenda for the coming year. One area he mentioned was “the connection the Jewish community is trying to make with helping to shape energy policy. There seems to be a very clear understanding that stewardship and faith doesn’t stop with people. There’s a connection to earth also.”

He was also moved by the  “plank that was passed concerning making sure our representatives are not indifferent to the plight of the Darfurians. “I really felt privileged to be among those people who truly fight the indifference that has claimed so many others, and I was proud to be in the ring.

Other resolutions approved at the Plenum dealt with “Strengthening the
Assets of Low Income Households,” “Challenges in Coalition Building,” Criminal Justice Reform,” “Freedom of Expression/Defamation of Religion,” “Supporting Comprehensive Early Childhood Care and Education Programs for All,” “Muslim Jewish Relations,” “Alleviating Hunger and Food Insufficiency among Children, the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities and Other At-Risk Individuals in the U.S. and Internationally,” and “Reform of the Federal Poverty Measure.”

“There’s such a deep connection to such a wide variety of issues,” Whittaker observed. “The Jewish community clearly is a community concerned with social justice, charity and service to others on many different levels.

“I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to bear witness to this event of faith and social activism,” Whittaker said. “It has inspired me to be more deeply connected within my community. I also have deep gratitude for the trust that was given to me by the Jewish community to attend this event. It’s surely my intention to bear witness to the great works of mercy and justice that the Jewish community is so passionately involved with.”

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