Jewish groups pass over service summit, citing Passover

An estimated 2,000 luminaries and representatives from more than 100 cities across the United States will convene in Philadelphia April 27 to 29 for what is being billed as the Summit on National Service, a massive volunteer effort designed to improve the lives of children.

President Clinton will participate. So will former President George Bush, former first lady Nancy Reagan, a slew of celebrities and a host of corporate giants.

The organized Jewish community, however, will not be represented — at least not during the final two days of the gathering.

Dr. Conrad L. Giles, president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and Martin S. Kraar, CJF executive vice president, have sent a letter to Clinton noting with "deep regret" that the summit will be held during the last two days of Passover, which are days of observance for the Jewish community.

"Mr. President, the scheduling of such an important national event that is intended to encourage participation of all communities in voluntary activities on our holy days precludes our participation," the letter read.

Howard E. Charish, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, sent a similar correspondence to the Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell.

"I am aware that the scheduling for the summit was done nationally and that neither you nor Philadelphia had anything to do with date selection," Charish wrote.

"Nevertheless, I want to express to you our dismay that we will not be able to participate on those days."

"We're a historically strong community of volunteers, and we subscribe to the goals of the summit," Charish said recently. "That's why it's so disappointing that we can't take part in the planned activities."

A source in the Jewish community indicated that summit organizers did, indeed, ask one or more Jews about the feasibility of the dates and "basically, the organizers were given the wrong advice."

That account was confirmed by two other Jewish community sources, although event organizers offered neither confirmed nor denied it.

"It's a disturbing set of circumstances," said Rabbi Sanford Hahn, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. Sometimes, he said, people who are not part of the active, committed Jewish fold — Jews as well as non-Jews — aren't as sensitive as they might be.

"Here's a major event coming to Philadelphia, having to do with volunteerism, and we cannot officially participate."

Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relational Council of Greater Philadelphia, said some individuals told him that the conflict should not be regarded as significant, since a relatively small number of Jews observe the final two days of Pesach.

"Basing a decision solely on how many Jews choose to observe a holy day is not a standard acceptable to the JCRC," Siegel said.

"The problem here isn't about level of observance; it's that the choice of dates, however inadvertent, prevents Jewish organizations and many Jewish individuals from participating."

However, event organizers have stressed that for at least three years following the summit, concentrated efforts will be made to secure commitments from organizations and individuals to advance the goals of the project.

According to Charish, the Jewish community expects to be heavily involved in those efforts.

Summit organizers have asked participants to come up with a tangible commitment to new actions that will increase the access young people have in five different areas:

*An ongoing relationship with a caring adult — a mentor, tutor or coach.

*Structured activities, along with access to safe places to gather to learn, work and play, during nonschool hours.

*A healthy start.

*A marketable skill through effective education.

*An opportunity to give back through effective citizen service.

"The real content here is the ongoing pledges of service," Charish said.

"This is an opportunity for the volunteer sector and the corporate community to work with — not instead of — government on behalf of our youth."

Beth Margolis-Rupp, director of institutional service for Gratz College's Jewish Community High School, said her students would not take part in summit activities during the final two days of Pesach.

But, she added, "if it were nothing more than a three-day event, its impact would be limited. The summit has to be about improving things for the future. My students are anxious to become involved and to make a difference."

Diana Aviv, director of the CJF's Washington office, said she is hoping to arrange a mid-April meeting between CJF representatives and Clinton.

"First of all, we want to convey our concern [about the scheduling conflict] and see how we can make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again," Aviv said.

"We also want to reiterate the Jewish community's desire to be part of what we believe is a most worthwhile endeavor."