The Friday morning before last, back when both Reince Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci were both employed by the White House, all anyone could talk about was the scene that unfolded in the U.S. Senate the night before. It was a succession of “yays” and “nays,” building up to the climax when John McCain (R-AZ) gave a “thumbs down” that all but ended the Republican party’s seven-year obsession with repealing Obamacare.
Since the legislation first reached the House of Representatives, some of our own people were front and center on this issue, and some sat it out. In June, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) presented a letter, addressed to the senate and signed by 17 Jewish organizations, urging the senators to vote against the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The list of signees included the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, B’nai Brith International, Hadassah, and religious organizations such as the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.
“We, the undersigned national Jewish organizations and institutions, are united in our belief that government should work to expand, not limit, access to health care,” they wrote.
Why did they decide to join the heated national debate?
“Throughout both Jewish history and in our seminal Jewish texts, the value of health care has always been central,” according to Barbara Weinstein, associate director of RAC. “For example, any Jewish prayer service will include the mishaberach, the prayer for healing of those who are ill, and we know that we have to be partners with God in that healing. And if our health-care system itself isn’t working and not providing coverage to allow people to heal, it’s our responsibility to fix it.”
Weinstein noted that the medieval scholar Maimonides was also a physician, and his words and actions demonstrated that an individual’s health should be of the utmost importance to a community. That there are so many Jewish nursing homes and other medical facilities under Jewish auspices, serving Jews and gentiles alike, proves that health care is of central importance in Judaism, she said.
“The reason we have such a diverse list of Jewish denominations and organizations who signed the letter reflects what a priority this is across the Jewish community,” said Weinstein.
Of course it’s never that simple, or else the entire American Jewish community — and the entire electorate — would have been united in the fight. And for some Jewish organizations, it wasn’t a question of which side they should weigh in on, but whether they had a right to.
When asked why Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization for many charedi Jews in America, stayed out of the discussion, Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath’s New Jersey office, said he was surprised that other Jewish religious chose to speak at all.
“As an organization whose purpose is to promote and protect Jewish life, health care doesn’t fall into that,” said Schnall. “It’s a political debate, an economic debate, not a religious debate. It’s not about whether someone is keeping Shabbos or if you can make an eruv in New Jersey,” a reference to the recent order of the township of Mahwah to have an eruv removed on the grounds that it violates local zoning regulations.
There are times when a religious organization like Agudath will take sides in a political debate, he said, but only when it’s relevant to the vast majority of their constituents. This, he explained, was why Agudath was a staunch supporter of Betsy DeVos when President Trump nominated her to serve as Secretary of Education. Though a controversial choice, in part because of her lack of experience with public schools, DeVos has long been a strong supporter of private schools, an issue dear to the hearts of most Orthodox Jews.
Schnall disagreed with the notion that fighting against the repeal of the ACA was a matter of tikkun olam, fixing the world, noting that voices on both sides of the issue say their approach helps repair the world.
Weinstein acknowledged that the ACA is far from perfect; she said RAC advocates imposing a single-payer system. But she asserted that “every analysis of various proposals, whether repeal or replace, kept finding the same result: that the number of insured would go down and the requirements of coverage in many cases would be diminished. So to us with the goal of universal coverage, it was clear that the proposal by the senate fell far short of that standard.”
Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Newtown, Pa., said that even though the ACA needs to be improved, the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates that 16 million additional Americans would have been uninsured by 2026 under the “skinny” repeal was enough to convince him and other Jewish organizations to oppose the bill.
“As a rabbi and person, our job is to help heal people,” he said. “The way in which we as individuals heal people is to make sure that they receive affordable care to prevent preventable diseases.”
He added that it would have been irresponsible to support this legislation that was written haphazardly and hashed out behind closed doors.
“For the bill that very few Republicans actually read, what was it that they were actually changing?” Gaber asked. “They never gave specifics. So what are those specifics? Now that they are in charge of the House and the Senate and the presidency, what are those specifics?”
Echoing Gaber’s comments was Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair.
“That it was handled privately and without public input, without our own representatives in New Jersey, in particular Rep. [Rodney] Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11), making significant time to hear from his own constituents, I think all of those things spoke to a bad process, and I think they all spoke to a lack of concern about coming up with a good bill.”
In these instances, Tepperman believes, the Jewish people have a responsibility to stand up for their core values.
“Judaism encourages us to speak about what we believe is true, especially what affects other people, and to say something is out of bounds because it is political or being addressed in a political sphere doesn’t makes sense for me,” he said. “We must be courageous enough to use the power or our organizations to benefit Jews and our fellow American citizens when there is a strong majority ready to move forward.
“In other words, we can’t let the quest for unanimity stop us from taking action.”