Bush meets with educators, promotes school vouchers

washington | In a meeting with Jewish educators, President Bush offered his support for school vouchers and expressed support for assistance to Jewish day schools.

The president met Dec. 6 with 13 Jewish educators and day-school leaders, and focused the talk on his support for school vouchers and other education initiatives.

Later in the day he hosted the White House’s annual Chanukah party, attended by several hundred Jewish leaders. The event was held before the holiday this year because Bush won’t be available later in the month.

Bush’s annual Chanukah meeting with representatives of the Jewish community has been controversial in past years because of who was invited and who was snubbed. He had brought congregational rabbis, political leaders and heads of major Jewish organizations to the table, but was accused of neglecting Jewish leaders who opposed some of his policy initiatives.

This year, meeting participants and White House officials said the choice of participants reflected a desire to highlight education issues. Bush’s focus on school vouchers and faith-based initiatives — issues that have long been counted as administrative priorities but have received scant attention in recent years — suggests he may be trying to bring those issues back to the forefront, and may be seeking support from the Jewish community.

Because of the background of the participants, selected by the White House, other controversial issues in the Jewish community — such as the nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court — were not broached.

“He didn’t say anything that extraordinary that anyone would be surprised about,” said one participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He certainly wasn’t challenged, but he was asked questions that dealt with educational issues.”

Many Jewish organizations have opposed school vouchers and charitable choice, believing federal funds for religious programs violate the separation of church and state. Day-school leaders could be a more receptive crowd, however, because they stress the value of religious education and because vouchers would help their schools’ bottom lines.

“He was aware of the political challenges,” said Rabbi J.B. Borenstein, executive director of the Torah Academy of Minneapolis. “The church-state issues came up, but he said it was not a church-state issue because it was the parents who would decide; no one would be forced.”

Participants told Bush they’ve struggled to receive aid and resources they’re entitled to from public schools, and were looking for ways to streamline the processes.

Bush seemed to enjoy the exchange, participants said, and one leader even remarked that Bush could be a good teacher after he left the White House.

“As educators who dedicate themselves to teaching the faith and to teaching, they are fulfilling the true lesson of Chanukah every day of the year,” Bush said at a Chanukah candle-lighting event. “Just as the Maccabees reclaimed their holy temple, these teachers help ensure that Jewish traditions are passed from generation to generation.”

Rabbi Steve Ballaban, head of the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta, said Bush got emotional when Ballaban spoke of being the son of a slave laborer.

“I was impressed by how deeply moved the president was by my father’s story and how deeply the president feels the American dream,” Ballaban said.

Many of the educators said they were awed by the invitation, and overwhelmed by the audience with the president.

“If anyone had told my grandparents 90 years ago at Ellis Island that their grandson would have been sitting around a table with the president, they would have exploded with joy,” said Dr. Kalman Stein, principal of the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J.

Attendees said they got to see a different side of the president.

“I think he wanted educators to see the real him and to hear things directly through him and not through the press,” said Metuka Benjamin, director of education at the Stephen S. Wise Temple School System in Los Angeles.

Another participant was Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, head of the New Orleans Torah Academy. Bush pledged his support for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and praised Jewish schools that took in students after Hurricane Katrina.