Gutow speaks on issues community faces

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Rabbi Steve Gutow, national executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), was in St. Louis last week, where he met with local Jewish community leaders associated with the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. For Rabbi Gutow, the visit was a return to the community where he served as the rabbi of the Reconstructionist Minyan for two years before accepting the post as professional head of the JCPA. The JCPA, founded in 1944 as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, is an umbrella organization for 14 national Jewish defense and community relations organizations, and 125 local Jewish Community Relations Councils, including the JCRC of St. Louis, which has been associated with the organization since its founding. Like the JCRC on a local level, the JCPA seeks to build consensus positions on issues of concern to the Jewish community at the national and international levels.

Gutow met last Monday with members of the Jewish Community Relations Council and affiliated organizations at Congregation Shaare Zedek in University City. That same evening, he met with a smaller gathering of members of the local Jewish community at the home of Steve and Linda Skrainka in University City.

In his remarks at the latter gathering, Gutow said that the goal of the JCPA is to “build consensus, and that can be challenging when you are dealing with 14 national and 125 local organizations with a variety of views facing the national, Israeli and world Jewish community.” He indicated that it is important for members of local Jewish communities to become informed and involved about critical issues, “including the environment, the poor, Israel and Iran, all of which require serious attention.”

Regarding the Jewish commitment to help the poor, Gutow cited a reference in the Book of Deuteronomy, “There shall be no poor among you,” and the mitzvah to “love the stranger as yourself.” Gutow said that active involvement on behalf of relieving poverty is “central to the values of the Jewish people.”

Turning to overseas issues, Gutow indicated that he had just returned from a visit to Israel at the same time that a group of St. Louis Jewish community members were there, including Steve and Linda Skrainka, and Dr. Carl and Lynn Lyss, who accompanied Dr. Donald Suggs, publisher of the St. Louis American, a local African-American newspaper, on his first trip to Israel. Gutow participated in a JCPA Leaderhip Mission, which he described as one of the most informative and meaningful of his many visits to the Jewish State.

“We met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with Foreign Ministry people, and with refugees from the Darfur region in the Sudan, including one who had walked from Cairo across the desert on foot, and who had been in an Egyptian jail before his trek. We also met citizens of the Israeli community of Sderot, which has been hit by Qassem rockets fired by terrorists from the Gaza Strip. The woman from Sderot gave a very emtionally intense talk. It was truly a great trip, full of information about the needs facing Israel for our support,” Gutow said.

Gutow said that there was considerable discussion about the forthcoming Middle East peace conference to be hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Annapolis, Md. “There is some hope that President Bush, Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can have some success in the effort to create a Palestinian state to live in peace and security alongside Israel, but many challenges lie in its path. We can only hope that these leaders will find the wisdom to make progress.”

Gutow added that there is considerable concern within Israel over the threats posed by Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons. “It is very important that we work diligently on efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We are trying to create an interfaith coalition to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions, similar to the national and local Save Darfur Coalitions, in which our agencies have been deeply involved.”

On other subjects, Gutow stressed the importance of Jewish groups working to improve the environment, such as projects to replace light bulbs with those less harmful to the environment. “In some communities, there are Conservation Conversation ceremonies, in which synagogue or temple light bulbs are changed to increase awareness of our responsibility in this area. It is also important for Jewish groups to support legislation in this area, like the recent alternative energy bill passed by the U.S. Senate.”

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