Synagogues, Jewish groups seek the line between legal, illegal political talk
By Jennifer Jacobson
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (JTA) — Every election year Rabbi David Saperstein gets asked the same questions:
Can a synagogue host candidate forums and debates?
Yes, says the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
Can a Jewish nonprofit distribute voter registration and absentee ballot forms?
Can either institution endorse or oppose a political candidate or party?
The center sends these guidelines each election year to federations, synagogues and other nonprofits.
But the phone calls and e-mails kept coming, so Saperstein organized a conference call in mid-October with rabbis and lay leaders on what’s kosher and what’s not when it comes to synagogue and state.
About 200 people from synagogues around the country participated.
The volume, Saperstein said, “speaks to the confusion that’s out there and the intent and commitment to getting it right.”
Since the 2004 election, the Internal Revenue Service has increased its enforcement of restrictions for nonprofits, including religious organizations. The 501c3 tax-exempt status such organizations enjoy bans fund-raising or organizing for political candidates or parties.
High-profile IRS investigations of several churches since the 2004 election have unnerved Jewish leaders.
“We don’t want any of our rabbis and synagogues to get into trouble,” Saperstein said.
Ellen Aprill, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles who addressed the callers, outlined the golden rule for 501c3s: do not participate in activities for or against a candidate for elective office.
“That is an absolute prohibition,” she said.
Nonprofits may, however, take positions on issues, such as the war in Iraq and immigration reform, she said.
One rabbi asked whether an organization might criticize the administration at election time. “The answer is, you’re safest in talking about the issues without saying the administration’s stand,” she said.
Restrictions on the participation of religious groups in electoral activities are nothing new, legal experts say, but the scrutiny has intensified.
“This is a commissioner much more interested in enforcement,” Aprill said of IRS head Mark Everson. His predecessor, Charles Rossetti, focused more on IRS services and interactions with customers, she said.
Also, the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which limits individual contributions to political campaigns, means tax-exempt organizations are getting more cash, Aprill said. That has prompted IRS questions about whether charities use that money during political campaigns.
The IRS does not announce the subjects of its investigations, but Saperstein said if a synagogue or Jewish nonprofit had allegedly violated campaign restrictions, “in all likelihood, we would have heard.”
Yet as the election draws near, Jewish Democratic officials increasingly have accused Republican candidates and some of their Jewish constituents of wrongdoing.
A focus of the dispute has been Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who faces a tough re-election bid against Democratic challenger Bob Casey.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, lashed out at Santorum after he hosted three nonprofits at a Jewish Leadership Summit in July.
“In a true sign of political deviousness, Santorum has roped the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs into this recent political charade,” he wrote in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. “And in doing so, he and Republicans are playing games with the tax-deductible status of Jewish not-for-profit organizations.”
Santorum’s office said the meeting was one of many the senator has organized for constituent groups; similar to gatherings for blacks, women and Hispanics in non-election years that drew no criticism.
JTA attended the meeting, and there were no explicit endorsements of Santorum’s re-election; speakers kept mostly to their assigned topics.
The timing is key, said David Goldenberg, deputy executive director of the NJDC. His group advises Jewish organizations to just stay out of election year politics.
“Don’t try to walk this gray line,” he said. “It’s just not a smart policy.”
Participants at the event said no line was crossed. Nathan Diament, the O.U. director of public policy, noted that the event was not held at a synagogue, but in the Senate.
Santorum said the Orthodox Union routinely listens to both sides. It held a forum recently at a New Jersey synagogue for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who’s running against Tom Kean, a Republican. A couple of months earlier, the union had held a similar event for Kean. “That’s the way you have to do it,” Diament said.
It’s clear that at times a coincidence of interests — in Santorum’s case, between a profoundly conservative politician and ardently traditional Jews — at least leads to a blurring.
Last week JTA obtained an e-mail that Barbara Ledeen, staff director of the Senate Republican leadership, had sent to Pennsylvania representatives of Chabad-Lubavitch, or shluchim. The e-mail, dated Oct. 23, included a letter written by Rabbi Shea Hecht of Brooklyn.
“At this moment, we need to show our support for Rick Santorum,” Hecht wrote. “This goes beyond politics.”
Hecht referred to donations to Casey from MoveOn.org, a grass-roots group that had briefly hosted anonymous anti-Semitic postings on its Web site. MoveOn’s leaders removed the postings almost as soon as they appeared, but the issue has resonated with conservative Jews.
“Please help yourselves and me by getting this message out,” Hecht said.
A few hours after she sent the first e-mail, Ledeen recalled it.
“It is not an official communication from the Chabad of Pennsylvania and has not come from them,” she wrote. “Our office has maintained and continues to maintain a correct and official relationship with the American Friends of Lubavitch. I apologize for any confusion.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch, also disapproved of the e-mail. “People do all types of things in their personal capacity,” he said, “but that email certainly did not emanate from anywhere official within Lubavitch.”
Another prominent Philadelphia Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Kaminetsky, allowed the Santorum campaign to distribute his Kol Koreh — a routine halachic call on observant Jews to vote. The e-mail went out a week after Santorum and Kaminetsky met.
Democrats once again charged that Santorum was skirting close to the line.
Santorum’s spokeswoman, Virginia Davis, said such friendships were natural.
“Sen. Santorum has worked for years with many Jewish groups both in his capacity as a senator from Pennsylvania and as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference,” she said in an e-mail. “His outreach within the Jewish community is well documented and well known.”