A Time for Compassion
It didn't take long.
In the weeks after September 11, the national psyche was understandably concentrated on Osama bin Laden and the fight against al-Qaeda. The concern was reflected in Washington as well. The President and his cabinet were waging war abroad and seeking to protect the American homeland. On Capitol Hill, bipartisan consensus emerged regarding measures relating to anti-terrorism and airline security.
But it was a matter of time before the White House and Congress would begin to look inward once again. The call went out to bring domestic issues back to the fore. Not surprisingly, chief among them was the economy.
There is no question that in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, and with a recession in full swing, the economy has taken a downward turn. Fiscal growth, unemployment and other key indicators show that American families have been - and continue to be - hard-hit by the financial losses our country has suffered.
The Jewish community has not escaped the economic blow. Loss of business, loss of jobs and loss of financial security have combined to create crisis-conditions in Jewish homes. And, by inevitable extension, economic hardship has intensified in Jewish charitable and educational institutions - many of which were severely strapped to begin with.
The disappointment over the failure of the "economic stimulus" effort was palpable in Washington. It was not the inability to pass a bill per se that was so disheartening. After all, there is nothing magical about finalizing legislation before the end of the year. Initiatives can always be taken up again when Congress reconvenes.
What was so saddening, though, was the sense many in the capital felt that along with getting back to "legislation as usual" we were also getting back to "politics as usual."
Were we dealing - the unspoken but not unpondered questions went - with a White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, beginning to sense that we are entering an election year? Had the realities of a popular President, slim majorities in both House and Senate, and a struggling economy, beginning to dictate legislative business?
It would surely not be the first time that priorities were determined by their election value. But somehow we thought that the world had changed.
And then there was Congress' failure to pass the "Armies of Compassion" bill that President Bush has been strongly promoting. A bipartisan effort led by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the legislation was overshadowed by other initiatives and never came up for consideration.
This legislation, which will hopefully come up early in the next session, is similar in certain respects to the initiative that passed the House a number of months ago. It uses the tax code and other mechanisms to provide incentives - for individuals and businesses - for charitable giving. Simply put, the bill will help charities - including our Jewish institutions - and the needy they serve.
And charities need help, now more than ever. If September 11 demonstrated anything, it was that when communities are faced with crisis, charities will step up and help address the needs of the poor and hungry, the displaced and homeless, the unemployed, the sick and the suffering - the needs of all whose lives have been shattered.
Of course, this has always been the case. September 11 simply brought this work into greater focus. Charities, including the many wonderful ones within the Jewish community, have long been taken for granted. But a mere moment's reflection will remind us of the essential role charities have always played - and continue to play - in our society and in our community in helping address people's most basic needs. And this is especially true in an era where budget cutbacks have caused government to withdraw from its social welfare role in many areas and to cut back on many vital services.
Charities need special help now. For while the burdens placed on their shoulders have gotten heavier, the support they have enjoyed has significantly slackened. Indeed, there have been numerous reports in the news lately of a decline in contributions to nonprofit charitable organizations and about how these groups are struggling to continue their critical work. Difficult times for contributors have inevitably resulted in difficult times for charities.
The "Armies of Compassion" bill recognizes the unique role charities play in addressing societal ills. It also recognizes that nonprofits carry on their work efficiently, effectively and with a true sense of moral conscience. Let us all hope that, now that Congress is back in session, it sets itself to its own work with the very same qualities.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Abba Cohen is director and counsel of Agudath Israel of America's Washington Office]