47 local Jewish activists take welfare concerns to Sacramento

It was 7:30 a.m., but the 47 delegates on the bus to Sacramento were perky.

Some had risen at 5 a.m. to meet the bus in San Francisco; others embarked at 7:20 in Marin. Dressed in business suits and carrying briefcases and binders, they greeted each other with hugs and jokes as they stowed jackets and settled in for the ride.

These Jewish activists were bound for the state capital to address welfare reform, joining some 120 other delegates from throughout California.

"I've given up a day of work because this is more important," Eve Bernstein said as the bus rumbled out of Marin.

"Right now, my concern is for legal immigrants who are elderly and disabled, and who can't pass the citizenship test. The benefits they'll lose, and the costs to their communities, are huge."

The Feb. 26 event, the first large-scale Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California visit to Sacramento since 1985, signaled a return to a more dynamic form of Jewish political lobbying.

On the Bay Area bus, co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, many of the occupants were under age 40 and had never lobbied before.

"I think I can handle it," joked 38-year-old corporate lawyer Michael Charlson, "or I wouldn't be in my line of work."

The day's activities were to include speeches by prominent politicians, a lunch and a late-afternoon appearance by Gov. Pete Wilson. But the delegates on the bus were less concerned with Sacramento's glitz than with the imminent loss of welfare benefits by legal immigrants and refugees.

In afternoon lobbying visits to individual legislators, delegates would argue against funding cutbacks for these individuals.

Bernstein, who volunteers as chair of the program and planning committee at Jewish Family and Children's Services, was particularly concerned about the approximately 30,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who have settled in San Francisco's Richmond District in recent years. Many of these emigres are elderly and infirm; few speak fluent English.

Like other legal immigrants, they stand to lose their Supplemental Security Income on Aug. 23 unless they can pass a citizenship exam.

"JFCS has been receiving hundreds of calls a week from people worried about loss of benefits," said Bernstein. "We have to have some kind of social safety net for these people."

Her seatmate Joanna Schwartz echoed the concern. As associate director of JCF's planning and allocations committee, Schwartz was instrumental in organizing the trip. "We've pulled together leadership from all over the state, and we're committed to promoting lives of dignity for refugees and legal immigrants," she said.

Schwartz's boss Richard Sipser was seated next to Annette Dobbs, who served as JCF president from 1988 to 1990. As a senior citizen, Dobbs was particularly pleased to see many younger lobbyists on the trip.

"My major concern was that young Jewish people wouldn't become involved in this issue," she said. "Seeing the [young] people here gives me a lot of satisfaction."

"I don't know — is 33 young?" laughed mission chairman Sam Lauter. As part of the day's activities Lauter, who works in PG&E's government and community affairs department, was slated to receive the JPAC chair's gavel from Howard Welinsky.

"Politics is my passion and my hobby. It's a commitment of time that I'm willing to make," he said.

Recruiting for the trip was easy, said Lauter.

"Everyone was highly motivated by the issue of welfare reform. The fact that we have people coming from all over the state shows that they really believe in the process of democracy."

The can-do optimism apparent on the bus ride prevailed throughout the day. At the delegates' afternoon reception under the state Capitol's elegant rotunda, Mark Schickman, chair of San Francisco's JCRC, confirmed that the response to the mission had been outstanding.

"We've really invigorated a whole new group of people," he said.

One of the day's aims had been to encourage senators and Assembly members to become co-authors of AB72, a bill introduced last December by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles). The legislation would allocate $1.6 million toward naturalizing aged, blind and disabled refugees.

Fifteen legislators signed as a result of lobbyists' visits.

On the bus returning to San Francisco, the energy level was high. Delegates chatted energetically about speakers they'd heard, comparing notes on various legislators.

"I used to be very chauvinistic," chuckled 75-year-old Roy Calder, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. "But after hearing wonderful speakers like state education chief Delaine Eastin and state Controller Kathleen Connell, I've changed my mind."

South Bay attorney Charlson was encouraged by the day's activities.

"It's nice to see that the legislature's taking time to hear us," he said. "Now, it remains to be seen whether the Jewish community's concerns on welfare are going to result in anything concrete."

Janice Wood, who teaches citizenship exam preparation at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said the mission had benefited from its tight focus on welfare reform and AB72. "I'll be following the progress of AB72, since I have such a personal involvement with it," she added.

"One of the assemblymen, Don Perata (D-Oakland), told our lobbying group that the best thing to do is focus on a particular issue," she said.

"That's what we did today."