Staff Writer, Jewish Press
The Jewish Federation of Omaha annually presents the Community Service Award to a creative community program that has had significant positive impact. Established in 1979, programs from throughout the Jewish community are eligible for nomination and the Federation’s Executive Committee selects the recipient. This year’s Community Service Award will be presented to Beth El Synagogue for their ‘Federal Government Worker Assistance Project’, led by congregant Linda Saltzman, at the Annual Meeting, Monday, June 3 at 7 p.m. in the JCC Theater.
Saltzman, a long time Beth El congregant, was moved to action during the 2018-19 government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history at 35 days. Government shutdowns in the United States occur when there is a failure to pass funding legislation to finance the government for its next fiscal year or a temporary funding measure. During this time, many federal employees were furloughed or expected to work without pay until lawmakers could come up with a funding resolution that would pass congress and earn presidential approval.
Saltzman shares the following. “The Government Workers Assistance Project came about after hearing so many awful stories from furloughed workers who were struggling without a paycheck during the government shutdown in January. I was particularly moved by the unpaid workers who were still on the job, working to ensure the safety of the American public. The circumstances behind the government shutdown were infuriating on their own, but when people missed a paycheck, it seemed unconscionable. Not only that, but the public was prohibited from lending a hand on site.”
Government ethics rules restrict giving and accepting gifts among federal employees and from outside interests. Policies on exchanges of gifts among employees—as well as on acceptance of gifts or hospitality from other sources—are set by government-wide rules found in the Code of Federal Regulations at 5 CFR 2635 201–205 and 301–304.
Beth El Rabbi Steven Abraham said Saltzman is not one to be deterred. “Linda came to me determined to find a way that we, as a community, could help in some way. We had many conversations trying to brainstorm an idea that would be both helpful and follow federal law. A friend of mine in Washington D.C. mentioned that food trucks were giving out free meals to workers who presented their ID. That concept could work in a place like D.C. where federal workers abound, but in Omaha that would be trickier. However, the idea of food assistance was appealing.”
Saltzman explains, “I don’t like the answer ‘No’ and I didn’t like being told there was nothing I could do. There had to be a loophole. After much research and several rounds of phone calls with various agencies, we found one and came up with a plan. By that time, furloughed workers had missed a second paycheck. A blatant injustice was happening, and I was inspired to help.” According to federal government guidance, “Employees are permitted to receive gifts of $20 or less per occasion, not to exceed $50 in a year from one source. This exception does not apply to gift cards, certificates and promotional codes that function as cash, although it does apply to those redeemable only at limited places, for example only at one store or at a group of affiliated stores such as those in a particular shopping center.”
As soon as she got the clearance to do so, Linda sprang into action. “In just three days, Beth El congregants, as well as our community faith partners, showed up in droves to donate to the project. We were amazed and grateful for the quick outpouring of support. The staff at Beth El did an amazing job collecting gift cards and purchasing more with our monetary donations. After three days, we had over $5,000 in gift cards for unpaid TSA workers at Eppley Airfield and the local branch of the FBI. We later heard how much the recipients appreciated our help. It was not just the physical gift; it was the knowledge that people in the community cared about them in difficult times. Through a true team effort, we were able to show that we do not just watch from the sidelines; we spring into action to help those in need. I was proud to be part of such a project.”
Rabbi Abraham took to social media, posting the Beth El relief effort on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the support he received from fellow clergy all over town. “A number of church leaders in the community jumped at the chance to join our effort and encouraged their congregations to donate on the Sunday morning before donations were due Monday. Their overwhelming support and generosity was appreciated and allowed our relief effort to expand to help more people.”
Of Saltzman, Rabbi Abraham shares the following: “Linda is an absolutely fantastic person who cares not only about our synagogue, but about our greater community. This is just one example of her love and passion. She goes above and beyond in anything she does and we are so fortunate to have people like her in our congregation and in the world. As the Rabbi of Beth El, I am honored we are receiving this award because I think it represents the absolute best of who we are as a congregation.”