ORTHODOX JEWISH LEADER COLLOQUIES WITH SEN. OBAMA ABOUT SUPPORT FOR PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS;
ON CALL WITH AMERICAN RABBIS, OBAMA ALSO ACKNOWLEDGES RIGHTS OF FAITH-BASED ORGANIZATIONS
Yesterday, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama held a conference call with hundreds of American rabbis in advance of upcoming Jewish high holidays. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb – executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the “Orthodox Union”) – was invited to ask Senator Obama a question on behalf of the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Weinreb stated that at the interfaith gathering convened last month to kick off the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the title of Rabbi Weinreb’s keynote address was “Our Sacred Responsibility to Our Neighbor” and that in the address he spoke of our responsibility to ensure our neighbors are educated and can be productive members of society. Rabbi Weinreb then noted that Senator Obama proposed laudable ideas for improving education in the United States including reforming “No Child Left Behind,” service scholarships for college, and more but that he and the Orthodox Union’s constituency are concerned that Sen. Obama’s proposals don’t seem to contain a component which will assist the tens of thousands of non-public “faith-based” K-12 schools educate their students better. Programs in a number of states – like Pennsylvania, Florida and the Senator’s home state of Illinois – are designed to deliver government supported services to students in nonpublic schools, or to generate greater financial resources for K-12 schools – both public and non-public operate successfully, through tax credits and other options. Rabbi Weinreb asked “Do you, Senator Obama, agree that we need new initiatives which will support all K-12 schools and students and what would those be?”
Senator Obama responded that one area that is a priority in his education program is early childhood programs aimed at ensuring that children don’t start out behind. Obama stated the funding would likely go through public school districts but “it is possible that we could have institutions such as private, faith-based organizations providing that early childhood education.” The Senator also noted his familiarity with how critical faith based schools are – citing in his hometown of Chicago, the Crown Hebrew Academy, a leading Orthodox Jewish day school in the city. Senator Obama continued that although he “opposes vouchers” he is open to faith based schools providing after school programming, mentoring, tutoring and summer programs, including literacy and math enrichment. Some of these programs are already funded under NCLB and the Senator said such funding would continue under an Obama administration.
Nathan Diament, Director of Public Policy at the Orthodox Union stated: “We appreciate Senator Obama’s acknowledgment of the important role parochial and other nonpublic schools play in American society and are encouraged by Senator Obama’s agreement that they would be eligible for funding pre-school, early childhood and supplementary programs, something that is long established as constitutional and a cost effective way of providing services to those in need, as evidenced by the dozens of Federal and state programs that use public tax money in private and faith based institutions.”
In response to a later question (by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkranz of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic Federation), Senator Obama stated that faith and the language of faith has a real, and needed place in our public discourse, noting that both the Rev. Martin Luther King and President Lincoln used the language of the Bible to move people to do good. The Senator noted that the “First Amendment is twofold” in protecting America from becoming a theocracy but also in ensuring that religious institutions do not – and need not “modify their views in order to get government funding.”
Mr. Diament stated “Senator Obama’s defense of religious organizations to maintain their principled beliefs – even if those beliefs differ from the public opinion – and not forfeit either their right to be heard in the public debates of our time or surrender those beliefs in order to qualify for government funding is important and noteworthy.”