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Jewish Community Studies

Strengthening the Ties between the American Jewish Community and the States

Daniel J. Elazar

The enactment of comprehensive welfare reform by the U.S. Congress in summer of 1996 and the signing of the measure by President Clinton marked the apogee to date in the sea change in state federal relations that has been building in the United States at least since the Reagan presidency at the beginning of the 1980s and which became intense after the republican victory in the 1994 Congressional elections. For the first time, in sixty years, it is realistic to believe that the tide has turned from Washington towards strengthening the states, at least in the domestic sphere of the American governmental system. Moreover, with the racial issue no longer rooted in issues of state rights, for the first time in American history issues of state empowerment van be considered on their own merits.

In fact, states and their leaders have been consistently if irregularly gaining status, power and influence since the Yom Kippur War induced the Arab oil embargo and the rediscovery by state governors that they were not simply Washington branch office administrators but had significant policy making powers in their own right. At first their own power gains were more a matter of filling vacuums, left by Washington, but in the past fifteen years, significant segments of the leadership in Washington have assisted them and their states in regaining or asserting state powers. Indeed the states have been the primary initiators of domestic governmental change during all of that period, although they usually went unrecognized did by the broader public in what they saw. Thus the formal devolution of 1994 to 1996 came in the wake of what has been an almost hidden devolution for half a generation.

During the past decade or more, the organized Jewish community has taken notice of this development. In response to it, Jewish Federations and/or Community Relations Councils in eighteen states have established state government affairs offices. Never the less, many in the Jewish community paid little attention to this change until the Republican victories of 1994. Strongly liberal throughout the modern epoch, since the New Deal Jewish liberalism has been marked by overwhelming support for the Democratic party and, concomitantly for an increased role for the federal government. Because of that ideological commitment to liberalism, many Jews and their organizations or institutions have been very slow to recognize either the reality or the utility of the changes taking place in the federal state relationship. Yet, today, in order to pursue their humanitarian and liberal social goals, Jewish institutions and organizations must learn how to be more effective in working with the states as they have learned how to work with the federal government so effectively in the past.

The lack of connection between so much of American Jewry and the states was further reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of American Jews arriving after 1880 settled in the nations's major cities at a time when urban areas were struggling against the rural dominated state legislatures to assert and gain satisfaction for their needs. Jewish political attitudes toward the states were formed in that period of struggle when the states in which most Jews were located were slowly being transformed from rural to urban dominated civil societies and polities. While the days of that struggle have long since passed, the attitudes formed then have been slower to change.

Today, most American Jews are no longer urban but suburban or exurban. And while they may identify with great cities where their forefathers settled and from which their parents moved, they are not part of those cities any longer. As Americans discovered after the reappointment decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1960's, the shift in balance generated by legislative apportionment strictly according to population, did not empower the big cities, but further weakened them by empowering the suburbs who were more likely to look to their states for governmental services as rural areas did, than to look to the federal government as did the cities.

In this respect the Jewish community has come to more closely resemble the American population as a whole. At their highest point, cities of over half a million population or more never reached 20% of the total population of the United States, and now are below 10%. Most Americans, while they are located in metropolitan areas, it is true, live in political jurisdictions of 50,000 population or less.

As already indicated, in some two-fifths of the states Jewish community federations have taken substantial steps to build relations within their states. In a few states with very small Jewish populations, Jewish federations have even more recognized themselves on a state-wide basis. This is just the beginning. Now the issue is how will the Jewish community work with the states in this new era, while the need to do so has now become intense, immediate, and undeniable.

What is needed are programs that will help Jewish communal leadership in their efforts to connect with their states in new and more effective ways. As it happens, some institutional connections capable of providing that effort have developed over the last number of years by the organized Jewish community, often unnoticed of little recognized beyond an inner circle. Chief among those institutions ate the state governmental affairs offices of the Federations and Community Relations Councils (CRCs). Some other Jewish bodies also have developed state ties.

State public affairs offices have been established by federations and CRCs in eighteen states. The Minnesota office also serves the Jewish communities of North and South Dakota in their states. The Baltimore Jewish Council and the Greater Washington Community Council share responsibility as the leading partners in the coalition in Maryland. Each of these offices reflects a coalition of federations and CRCs in the particular state but in most, the one or two largest federations are the driving forces and major funders of the office. The Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federation and its Director, Diana Aviv, play a coordinative role linking the offices through regular reports, contacts, and a bi-weekly conference involving Aviv and the state office directors. In 1997 the Center for Jewish Community Studies of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs conducted a survey of those offices and their work as part of their Jewish Community and the States project sponsored by it, the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University, and the National Association of Jewish State Legislators. Questionnaires were circulated in preparation for the first conference-workshop of the project which was held February 2nd and 3rd 1997 in Philadelphia.

Of the Jewish organizations working with the state public affairs office throughout different states include Agudah Israel (Ohio and Oregon), AIPAC (OR), American Jewish Committee (FL, MA, NJ, NY, OH, TX), American Jewish Congress (CO, FL, MA, MI, NJ, OR, TX), Anti Defamation League (CO, FL, MA, MI, NY, OH, TX), Hadassah (MI, OH, OR), ORT (MI), United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (OH). In addition MA and OR lists synagogues, congregational social action committees, and havurot as being working with their offices. PA works with other religious and social service agencies.

In most cases the state offices are immediately responsible to a separate board to a committee of the largest federation in the coalition. In some cases there is a joint committee representing all of the federations and the state office has its own board of directors. In general, federations and CRCs either separately or in coalitions set the agenda for the state public affairs office in their state.

Hate crimes which seem to be a much bigger concern to the state legislators than to the Jewish professionals, even those with the CRCs. In general, the legislators seem to have a broader view of the Jewish agenda. This reflects their broader conceptions of their state and state politics as state legislators serving all the constitutes not just Jews among constitutes. This is reflected in the legislators perception of Jews awareness of state issues about which there seem to be equally great differences. Most Jewish state legislators respondents suggest that the Jews are not very aware of state politics. One said "it seems that some people are very involved in the community and some are very involved with state politics (but not both)." Another said "some are extremely aware and involved, most are not involved." The legislators were somewhat more optimistic about Jewish communities, agencies, and organizations, whom the majority see as beginning to be aware or already aware.

The legislators are in closer agreement with the Jewish public affairs professionals with regard to how to motivate the Jewish community to become more active, with the common view being there should be more personal contact between the Jewish and other lawmakers with the Jewish community. They saw that as being most helpful in ways in which a partnership between NAJSL, the Federations, CJCS, and CSF would be helpful.

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