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
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
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
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
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.