Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Sivan 5761 - June 20, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Agudath Israel Makes Case for Faith-Based Initiative at Senate Hearing
by B. Isaac

An Agudath Israel of America leader presented testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the controversial "faith- based" initiative under which religious organizations would be eligible for federal funding to help administer social service programs for the needy.

Recounting his own organization's long history of administering a number of government-funded social service initiatives, Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs, set forth the principles that account for the success of those and other religiously operated programs.

Rabbi Zwiebel offered four observations based on Agudath Israel's experience.

First, the Agudath Israel leader observed that effectiveness is closely tied to motivation. Religious providers possess the special "dedication and devotion" that make a difference in the quality of their work. "I daresay," he asserted, "that a large measure of our effectiveness is attributable to the religious vision that animates our service."

A second element for success relates to the credibility a social service provider has in the community it serves. Zwiebel observed that a social service provider "that has its roots in the community, that understands the unique characteristics and sensitivities of the community, that is respected by the community. will start with a significant leg up in being able effectively to assess and address the needs of the community."

Acknowledging that other community-based groups can possess this attribute, "there is no denying that religious institutions are often the very institutions that retain the greatest level of trust and credibility at the grassroots level," the Orthodox leader said.

Another factor, Zwiebel continued, that accounts for "faith- based" attractiveness is the spiritual dimension religious providers are able to offer to those that seek it.

Many clients of Agudath Israel's social service programs, he pointed out, have had problems in their lives, and are looking for religious comfort and counsel as part of an overall effort to put their lives in order.

"While we are meticulous in ensuring that the social services we provide are entirely non-sectarian," he noted, "we do try to accommodate those of our clients who are looking for religious counseling -- by working with them after hours, by referring them to a rabbi or a Jewish education program, by facilitating their desire to come closer to their faith and their G-d.

"So long as no government funds are used for religious activities, so long as no beneficiary is compelled to participate in religious activities, so long as the funded social services are entirely separable from religious activities, neither law nor logic can justify the exclusion of faith-based service providers."

Finally, recalling the readiness of Agudath Israel, along with the Salvation Army and the New York Archdiocese, to forgo New York City funding when Mayor Edward I. Koch sought to require faith-based service providers to adopt employment policies they deemed religiously objectionable, the Agudath Israel leader addressed the need to respect the religious integrity of religious groups enlisted to administer social service programs.

Citing provisions in federal law, Zwiebel noted Congress' long held view, expressed in a variety of contexts, that receipt of federal funds does not require religious entities to abandon their religious identities.

Orthodox Jewish groups maintain that religious organizations are discriminated against under current law and should be given a fair chance.

"Government ought to establish grant criteria that have nothing to do with whether prospective grantees are religious or secular, but simply whether they have the capacity to perform the service," Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Many secular Jewish groups still fear that an expanded partnership between the government and faith-based institutions could break down the constitutional wall separating church and state, infringe on religious liberties and imply toleration of employment discrimination.

The major piece of charitable choice legislation in the House, the Community Solutions Act of 2001, already contains some safeguards against religious coercion, but the Justice Department recommended revisions.

The bill states explicitly that if a beneficiary of a program objects to the religious character of the organization, the government must provide an accessible, and nonreligious, alternative.

While apparently willing to make minor modifications, the White House is not backtracking from its initiative, which calls for direct government funding of churches and synagogues for their work in areas such as drug treatment and homeless services.


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