With war raging, dont neglect battles at home, say Reform rabbis

WASHINGTON — As Rabbi David Saperstein sees it, the war on Iraq is only one issue on a long list of America's serious problems.

The leader of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for more than 30 years, Saperstein thinks that even as the country's political compass is pointed toward the Middle East, the liberal Jewish community here should not lose sight of the battles being fought at home.

"When the war in Iraq is diverting so much of our resources and attention in America, it becomes so important that organizations like ours keep a simultaneous focus on the core issues," he said.

Included in that list, he said, is maintaining the separation of church and state and abortion rights, protecting the environment and expanding the "social safety net that is supposed to help the neediest Americans."

So it was not surprising that these issues topped the agenda of this week's gathering of several hundred Reform activists from around the country. They came to the capital for the organization's biennial Consultation on Conscience conference.

Saperstein's anxiety about the state of domestic affairs was echoed by several prominent political figures, including Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — who addressed the three-day gathering.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, speaking at the rededication of the newly renovated RAC facility on Sunday, criticized the Bush administration's policies on tax reform, judicial nominations and civil liberties.

"Will the Justice Department, now housed in a building named for my brother, once filled with lawyers who stayed up nights to work towards equitable housing laws and preserve civil rights, now be used to deny those very rights?" asked the Massachusetts Democrat. "The attorney general has used fear of terrorism as a pretext to trample on our liberties."

Kennedy called the economic stimulus plan proposed by the White House an "outrage."

"It cannot be peace time for the well-off and war time for everyone else," he said.

He called on the Jewish community to speak out on these issues and fight for "liberty and justice here at home."

The president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, continued the theme, blasting what he views as a growing chasm between rich and poor, made deeper, he said, by White House policies.

"This administration is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less taxes," Yoffie charged Sunday night.

He also voiced concern that with conflict raging in Iraq, U.S. Jews could lose sight of the importance of human rights at home.

"My concern is that with the guns of war blazing, we will forget Guantanamo, we will forget that it's wrong to confine people without even telling them the charges against them, we will forget the balance that is required between security and liberty," Yoffie said, to repeated applause.

"If we win the war and lose the Constitution, we will have lost everything."

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, also spoke at the rededication of the RAC, which was founded in 1961.

"At the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we believe that colored people come in all colors," said Mfume, pointing to the RAC's history of fighting against racism and sexism, and the fight to protect the rights of "gays, immigrants and unions."

He spoke about the legacy of Kivie Kaplan, the founder of the RAC and a longtime president of the NAACP, whose name will now grace the street outside the center.

While the group did discuss the war in Iraq and social justice issues in Israel, it mostly veered away from the Middle East, both at the conference and in lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "not as urgent an issue'' as crises in poverty, education and health care, said Stephen Cotton, a member of New York's Central Synagogue, echoing the sentiment of many at the conference.