The decision whether or not Jewish charitable organizations should accept federal funds was a big one — during the Eisenhower administration.
Today, President Bush's ongoing effort to place federal money in the hands of faith-based charities has focused great attention on the notion of religious groups administering social services.
In what may be a surprise to many, however, Jewish service providers already receive billions of dollars of federal funding — and have for years. Indeed, Jewish organizations have long proven that having the word "Jewish" on your building is no detriment to receiving public funds.
The president's plan opens up the possibility of federal dollars flowing directly to a synagogue, church or other overtly religious institution, a break from the past.
Half a century ago many within the Jewish community worried that accepting federal money would ruin the Jewish character of charitable institutions. However, the leaders of the day figured that more money meant a broader clientele, which meant more Jews.
And that's how it has worked out for Ted Feldman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay. A latecomer to government funds, the East Bay JFCS began receiving public money just seven years ago and is now one of Alameda County's referral services for psychological counseling. The agency's budget has since more than quadrupled, as has the clientele.
"The number of Jewish clients has increased significantly," said Feldman, whose organization receives about $425,000 of its $2.36 million budget from the federal, state and county governments, and has received as much as $1 million in public funding in past years. "We see it as an opportunity to serve the community, and this is a source of funding."
Across the bay, the much larger S.F.-based JFCS receives only about 3 percent of its budget from federal and state sources — but that still translates to nearly $1 million a year. San Francisco's Jewish Vocational Service gets $2.3 million of its $5.5 million overall budget from the federal, state and local governments, utilizing much of it for emigre programs.
Nationally, the 29 JVS agencies in North America receive hundreds of millions of dollars of government funds every year.
The largest sums of federal money allotted to Jewish organizations most certainly go to Jewish hospitals (there are none left in the Bay Area) and senior living facilities. The HUD-subsidized Menorah Park receives 85 percent of its $2.2 million budget from federal funds, according to Executive Director Nurit Robinson.
The largest Jewish senior facility in the area, San Francisco's Jewish Home, receives more than 80 percent of its yearly budget through residents' MediCal and Medicare payments, roughly $26.5 million. MediCal is a state program funded by the federal government, while Medicare is a federal program.
Interestingly, the Jewish Home admits only Jewish residents with rare exceptions, but it is allowed to receive government funds under a California law enabling "any nonprofit, religious, fraternal or charitable organizations…admission policies limiting or giving preference to members of its own adherence." In other states (New York, for one), the Jewish Home's admission practices would not be legal.
JFCS organizations on both sides of the bay and JVS serve the general community, employing and serving people of all faiths.
So how does the president's "Charitable Choice" initiative alter the status quo? After all, religious organizations are already some of the nation's largest providers of social services.
The difference is, following the president's Dec. 12 executive orders, "pervasively religious" organizations are eligible to compete for federal dollars without having to establish a separate nonprofit entity as they had in the past.
And — unlike a prior Senate bill proposed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) — the president's order allows religious charities to employ discriminatory hiring practices, and does not allocate additional funds to cover a possible deluge of religious charities applying for federal dollars.
Gia Danniler, the Jewish Community Relations Council's director of legislative affairs and government relations, said this combination is frightening to most Jews.
Newer and inexperienced groups will be competing for funds with established charities, resulting in an inevitable lessening of allocations to longtime service providers, she said. And Jewish charities may stand to lose quite a bit.
Nationally, more than 59 percent of Jewish social service agencies' funds — more than $1 billion — come from the government, according to a 1995 survey by the then-Council of Jewish Federations. Throw in Jewish hospitals, and the total reaches more than $3.6 billion yearly.
"The social service provider community is split," said Danniler, regarding Charitable Choice.
"If you get more funds, some people are going to support it. If not, why risk tearing down the barrier of church and state separation when there's no upside?"