Divesting from countries that support terror, and sustaining social service programs in this tough economy, top the priority list of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition for this year.
The PJC, a group of 30 volunteers representing 10 Jewish federations from all over the state, has been representing the Jewish community before state legislators since 1981, said Hank Butler, executive director of the PJC.
The group is comprised of three representatives from each of the state’s 10 federations: Altoona, Erie, Harrisburg, Lehigh Valley, Northeastern Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Reading, Wilkes-Barre and York.
“We’ve been focused on advocating for the Jewish community in Harrisburg,” Butler said. “There are a lot of faith-based groups, but most have clergy as their directors. We’re based on volunteers.”
While the 30 board members represent the views of the 10 federations, and are a decision-making body, Butler is the “point person on the ground with the legislature,” said Matt Handel, PJC chair from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The organization surveys the federations each year to set its agenda.
“We send out surveys to the federations,” Butler said. “We then compile the data from the surveys, and bring the data to the board of directors for approval.”
The board of directors then helps develop the agenda.
“When you look at our legislative agenda, it’s useful to have a board of 30 people of various backgrounds. There are some core things we do agree on,” Handel said. “There are core issues that cut across Judaism, especially social services. … Because we represent thousands of Jews that live in Pennsylvania, we focus on those areas where there’s broad agreement.”
Maintaining funding for social services, and divestment from countries that support terror, are clearly issues where there is broad agreement among Jews, Handel said.
With Pennsylvania budget cuts of about 10 to 15 percent for social service line items, the PJC is focused on “trying to hold the bleeding” this year, according to Butler.
This is a particularly challenging undertaking, Handel said, as with the sluggish economy, there are two competing forces at work: an increased demand for social services, and from the perspective of the state, pressure to balance the budget.
“This leads to a significant debate on where to cut,” Handel said. “That’s where our priorities shift to the core work of our federations.”
Handel said the federations felt the need to concentrate this year on senior citizens and children.
“We are pushing heavily toward better services for senior citizens, and [preservation of the] Education Improvement Tax Credits (EITC),” Butler said.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s EITC Program provides tax credits to eligible businesses that contribute to private educational services. Jewish day schools and nursery schools rely heavily on these contributions, according to Mayda Roth, PJC vice chair from the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh has been a huge beneficiary,” Roth said.
Local schools benefiting from the Pittsburgh Jewish Educational Improvement Foundation and Pittsburgh Jewish Pre-Kindergarten Educational Improvement Foundation, which are supported by funding from the EITC program, include Beth Shalom Congregation, Beth El Nursery School, Community Day School, Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Schools.
The benefits from the EITC program extend statewide.
“Nine out of 10 of the federations significantly benefits from this program,” Butler said.
In terms of senior services, the PJC is focusing on legislation to help seniors to age in place, Butler said.
In addition to social services, divestment from countries that support terror continues to be a priority, Butler said.
The PJC counts as a success the recent unanimous passage of House Bill 1821, legislation that prohibits Pennsylvania’s public pension funds from investing in foreign companies with significant business ties to Iran and Sudan. The PJC was instrumental in negotiating with the pension boards and teachers’ unions in getting the bill passed in the House.
The next step, said Butler, is getting the bill passed in the Senate.
“We have a game plan in place,” he said. “We have language that we think will be palatable to everyone. We hope to have it pass the Senate by the end of the year.”
This is the second legislative session for which the PJC has had a formal agenda. By creating a written agenda, setting forth the group’s top priorities, the PJC is able to remain focused. With over 6,000 bills considered by the Legislature each year, that focus becomes important.
“I travel to all the Jewish communities [in the state], and bring the agenda,” Butler said. “We have discussions and arguments to see if we’re on the same page.”
The PJC also works closely with Jewish legislators, helping them to understand the position of the Jewish community on a variety of issues, Roth added.
Over the next two years, the group hopes to increase the involvement of the Jewish community in general, according to Handel. By increasing its database of recipients of its Action Alerts, it hopes to raise the number of people calling and writing their representatives about issues of significance to the Jewish community.
“This is a very powerful tool.” Handel said. “It’s one we’ve used well, and we would love to increase it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1263.)