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Interfaith coalition asks candidates: What about the poor?
September 25th, 2008
A national interfaith coalition, “Fighting Poverty With Faith,” wants to turn candidates’ attention from the middle class to the poor.
Rabbi Steve Gutow
“In the next few months” of the election season, participants will “keep asking the candidates” — national and local — “what are you going to do in your first 100 days” in office to help the impoverished, said Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The JCPA is the umbrella organization for 14 national Jewish organizations and some 125 local Jewish community relations councils, including the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations.
The participants want to tell candidates “it’s not just about ‘What are you going to do about the middle class?’ which is what candidates like to talk about; but ‘What are you going to do about the poor who are suffering the most and will suffer the most?’”
“Most of the candidates, when they realize that we care this much, they’re more likely” to take action, said Gutow in an interview with The Chronicle last week. “To have us all together in a room is a lot for a Congress member or a city council member to see and ignore.”
Gutow spoke in Milwaukee on Sept. 17 at an interfaith event hosted by a Milwaukee coalition of religious organizations — including the MJCCR, Tikkun Ha-Ir of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis — that has signed onto a national effort called Fighting Poverty With Faith.
He also met with members of the MJCCR and officials of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, “to help the community understand who we are and to find ways in which I and the organization I represent can be of service to you.”
Gutow chairs the national Fighting Poverty With Faith initiative, which the JCPA organized with Catholic Charities USA. He said that religious groups and leaders in more than 90 communities throughout the country — 50 of them with “Jewish components” — are engaged in this effort.
The religious groups include Evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants and Muslims as well as Catholics and Jews, Gutow said. In fact, the effort is “more interfaith work than has probably been done ever, certainly in a long time” in the country, he said.
Different communities will organize or join different activities in this effort. Milwaukee activities include: questioning candidates about issues of poverty at local forums, the “Week of Action” Sept. 9-16; and participation in the Crop Walk on Oct. 12, an anti-hunger event sponsored by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.
Fighting poverty is just one of the issues at the top of the JCPA’s agenda. Gutow said that others included trying to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; energy independence; global climate change; the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan; and immigration reform.
Though the JCPA and its affiliated organizations are non-profit, and therefore not able to endorse candidates or parties, Gutow said that even in an election year, “we can take a stand” in ways that are non-partisan.
“To believe in comprehensive immigration reform, you don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican,” he said. “You just have to believe in that.”
Moreover, “different Congress members from different parties will support different plans” for immigration reform. “It’s not like there’s one plan that fits all Democrats and one plan that fits all Republicans.”
For Gutow, this work is the result of a personal epiphany. He started as a Texas lawyer deeply involved in social justice and political work. He then moved to Washington, D.C., to be the first executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Then he visited Cambodia as a tourist. He saw the famous Angkor Wat temple and the infamous Khmer Rouge “killing fields” and torture prisons.
And he had there “a kind of an epiphany that I should live my life open-heartedly,” he said during an interview at The Chronicle’s office. “I came to the conclusion that only being open-hearted was what mattered; that politics and religion and philosophy were not all that important.”
As a result, he is now Rabbi Steve Gutow, having earned ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in 2003.
And for the past three years he has been executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“I love the job” and “the idea of making the Jewish community more active, more in touch with Jewish values,” Gutow said. Moreover, “it’s a very nurturing job for my own soul.”
Gutow is scheduled to return to the state next week to speak at a major gifts dinner of the Madison Jewish Community Council.
For more information about local Fighting Poverty With Faith efforts, contact the MJCCR, 414-390-5777, or email@example.com.