Some Jews protest Democratic policies

On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, a small group of Jewish men and women used the occasion to protest against what they saw as a growing economic divide in the United States and the increasingly centrist policies of the Democratic Party.

The group consisted of about 20 young adults, who assembled in Pershing Square and then joined thousands of other protesters in march toward the Staples Center.

They waved homemade signs with slogans such as "Minimum Wage Does Not Meet Minimum Need" and quotations from biblical passages condemning corruption and greed.

The need for a Jewish voice committed to social justice and supporting the needs of the underprivileged at the convention was seen as essential to all in the group.

"The problems and need for a voice are pretty self-evident," said David Rubenstein, a protester. "To have a Jewish voice [at the protests] felt really important."

That voice was especially noticeable in light of the Sen. Joseph Lieberman's place on the Democratic ticket.

Though happy about this boundary being broken, the protesters still felt that the Democratic Party as a whole no longer represented their values.

"I feel abandoned by the Democratic Party," said Adam Rubin, a protester who teaches Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in Los Angeles.

"What used to be thought of as standard, liberal, Democratic positions are now thought of as far left," he continued. "For example, cutting defense spending and investing in social programs or trying to alleviate poverty is no longer part of the party's agenda.

"Especially in the realm of economics, the Democratic Party has embraced Republican policies of free trade and globalization, policies which have impoverished a great number of people both here and abroad."

Aryeh Cohen, a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and one of the organizers of the demonstration, said Lieberman's nomination won't shut up him and others.

"A landsman is the nominee for vice president, so why are we still kvetching? We are here because we think our Torah has a place in the streets. This is a Jewish issue because the Talmud defines the first obligation of good citizenship as setting up sufficient resources for the poor."

Cohen took issues with the traditional perception that the security of Israel is the thing that matters most to American Jews.

"Israel is not a traditional Jewish issue; it's only been an American Jewish issue for the past 50 years," he said. "Gore, Lieberman, Bush, Cheney — they all support the state of Israel.

"What is truly a traditional Jewish issue, and has been for the past 1,800 years, is the distribution of wealth in our society, and how we care for the poor, how we care for the 40 million people in this country who are uninsured, how we care for people who work full time for a minimum wage and still cannot support their families."

According to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, poverty in Los Angeles is worse than it was in 1990. In the 1990s poor families rose from 36 percent to 43 percent of the population of Los Angeles.

Based on definitions since 1998, a family of four is considered poor if its total income is less than $16,700 and a family of four is considered working poor if it has an income less than $33,300. In addition, nearly 59 percent of Los Angeles' working poor do not have health insurance.

The demonstrators consisted of people who had come in response to an ad placed by the Shtibl Minyan, a traditional egalitarian minyan, and members of the minyan itself. In addition, Daniel Sokatch was on hand to represent the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Shtibl Minyan has been an active political community since it was formed in January. Its programs have included gathering food for the janitors' strike earlier this year, as well as distributing food to the homeless on Purim.

"The protest was a natural outgrowth of the concerns Shtibl has for a more just society," said Sarah Lansill, one of the group's organizers.

"It is said that a society which does not distribute its wealth evenly is like Sodom," added Cohen.

The idea for the protest stemmed from a workshop led by United for a Fair Economy and co-sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and the Shtibl Minyan. Participants examined the growing divide between wealth and poverty in this country.

In explaining why the Shtibl Minyan felt so strongly compelled to speak out, member and protester Philip Shakhnis said, "It is important that issues which truly touch the lives of our immediate community are brought to light.

"We felt obligated to make our voices heard when the country's attention is focused on a high profile forum where these issues, at least in theory, are meant to be aired. Moreover as a Jew, I felt compelled to be there to give voice to the Jewish tradition and how it directs us to create a just society."