Shofar to Congress: Wake Up! Work Still Needs to be Done

Shofar to Congress: Wake Up! Work Still Needs to be Done
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It is the end of the hot months of summer and some Americans and Washingtonians, particularly, are in their last days of vacation. In political Washington August means recess - vacation and relaxation or even politicking as our Senators and Representatives return home for the month. But for Jews, the start of this recess coincides with the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month long wake-up call readying ourselves for the holiest days of the year. To prepare ourselves and our souls for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days of repentance, traditional Jews around the world blast the shofar each morning, like an alarm clock, to stir us out of complacency and force us to look at what we have done during the past year and, more urgently, what we have not done. This month, perhaps Congress needs a daily shofar blast as well. With so many problems like hungry families, child nutrition, energy reform, Iran, and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell left undone, Congress needs to wake up and get busy. This is not a vacation time for many Americans and for much of the world.

Waiting for Congress on their return are several critical pieces of legislation including the Department of Defense Authorization (DOD) bill. Among the many provisions of this legislation is the repeal of the unjust Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy. For years, this law has forced Americans to choose between serving their country and hiding their identity - with the result of losing over 13,000 qualified men and women even in the midst of fighting two wars. The discriminatory policy is an anomaly among advanced militaries around the world. In Israel, an example of military readiness, the IDF has welcomed the service of openly gay and lesbian individuals since 1993. The House DOD bill, with a repeal of DADT, has already passed and the Senate cannot let the issue linger.

Congress just passed much needed aid to the states in the form of FMAP (the federal matching program to states for Medicaid). Sadly, some of the FMAP funding involved a cut in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). I have a particular investment in Food stamps through my participation in the JCPA's 2007 Food Stamp challenge when, during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the JCPA led hundreds of Jews and non-Jews in thirty communities to live for a week on the same dollars as an average SNAP recipient. It was trying and eye-opening and the increases that our efforts contributed to should not be accepted lightly. The FMAP increase was important but the source of the increase should not have been food stamp dollars. With 15% of American families facing food insecurity, Congress must restore this funding. Congress has another opportunity to address hunger, child hunger. Each day, 19.4 million kids rely on free or subsidized school lunches - often their only nutritious meal of the day. The Senate has already passed a child nutrition reauthorization bill, but the House version still waits for a final vote. Congress should return ready to pass the robust House bill providing healthy options to more hungry kids. Hunger in America is a painful reality for too many, and it is in our, and our Representatives', power to fix it.

For a time this summer, it seemed another Congressional fix was on the horizon. The tragic oil spill renewed the debate on a comprehensive climate and energy bill. But as the August recess neared, legislative prospects seemed more distant. Congress should address these issues with a comprehensive approach addressing the climate changing impacts of carbon emissions on our environment. While the responsibility to care for our world falls to each of us, there is still much for Congress to do in implementing meaningful standards that will stem the current degradation of our environment and shepherd in new, green technologies. In addition to the benefits of cleaner energy, a comprehensive energy plan will cut off the flow of funds to tyrannical states like Iran and Venezuela

Just think about Iran--that will put an end to a summer vacation all by itself. A global dependence on oil sends Iran $100 million a day in revenue, adding yet another imperative for Congress to act on energy legislation. Ahmadinejad's Iran uses that money to pursue nuclear weapons, a danger to the entire world---not a relaxing idea. In acknowledgement of this challenge, we've already seen a series of strong sanctions passed by our Congress as well as the UN, EU, and other countries. But enactment is not the end. For them to be effective, they must be applied and enforced. Before leaving, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Ranking Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) announced a bipartisan congressional commission to oversee the implementation of the sanctions, and we hope that they in fact carry through with their work. Congressional oversight of the sanctions they passed is a powerful and necessary tool in stopping Iran's leaders from pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Elul, the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides tells us, is a time to wake ourselves from our slumber. Wake up, Congress! This is no vacation time for people who care about the world. In our tradition the gates of heaven are opening. The shofar reminds us that God is looking at what we do and what we do not do. We take stock of ourselves. What have we left unfinished? Where have we failed? Congress needs to ask itself the same exact questions. So much and so many are riding on its willingness to do just that.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.

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