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‘Too big for its bridges’

Former Fort Lee mayor talks about Gov. Christie and the Port Authority

 
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Gov. Brendan Byrne confers with Burt Ross in this 1970s photo. Inset, Mr. Ross today.

You can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the boy.

In this case, the boy is a grown man — Burt Ross, now of Malibu, Calif. Mr. Ross and his wife, Joan, decamped a mere two years ago, following their children west. But he spent his entire life until then in Bergen County, first in Teaneck, then in Fort Lee, and finally in Englewood. “New Jersey is my homeland,” he said.

While he was here, Mr. Ross — whose gravely accent makes it clear that Brooklyn and Bergen are not very far apart — a Harvard-educated lawyer and developer, was very involved in local politics. In 1972, when he was 28, he became mayor of Fort Lee. He was, he reports, the country’s youngest mayor of a moderately large municipality. From that vantage point — distanced enough to afford him a clear view, and close enough, and infused with enough history, to give vivid context — Mr. Ross has been paying close attention to the unfolding scandal beginning to envelop the large frame of Gov. Chris Christie.

“It’s important to preface anything else I say by pointing out that I am not partisan,” he said in a phone interview. “I am a Democrat, but I am not partisan.” As proof, he pointed to his endorsement, about three years ago, of the Republican Kathy Donovan as Bergen County executive, “running against what was a corrupt machine,” he said. (She won.)

Given his lifelong Jersey ties, and the fact that his voice makes it clear to anyone within earshot that when he is in California he is far from home, Mr. Ross feels the hit to the state’s reputation, and as a Jew, he is bothered by the corruption because, quite simply, it is wrong.

“I have an aversion to corruption,” he said. “People can define corruption however they want to, but when the smell reeks to high heaven, that’s when I feel an obligation to speak out.

“I had been so fond of Gov. Christie, to the point where I welcomed his being in the presidential primaries. I felt that having a strong, moderate voice in the Republican party was extremely healthy.

“I don’t know Mr. Christie personally, but upon reflection, based on everything I’ve heard in the last few weeks — and I have followed it religiously — I was wrong.

“Not only do I think he is not presidential quality, I don’t even think he deserves to be governor.

“I think that he and his administration appear to be morally challenged.”

Running down a list of statements Gov. Christie made at his marathon press conference a few weeks ago, Mr. Ross listed several that “do not wash.” Most of them revolved around the governor’s reputation as a micromanager, which clash with the apparently hands-off style he claimed for himself.

Mr. Ross became particularly enraged at something Gov. Christie was reported to have said a few weeks before the press conference. “The governor said that he was all sauced up, because this little town of Fort Lee had three dedicated lanes,” he said.

“Let’s start off with the fact that for a guy who’s supposed to know nothing about what’s going on there, he knows an awful lot.

“And they are not dedicated lanes! Anybody can take those lanes; practically everybody from Edgewater uses them. In fact, 75 percent of the people who use those lanes are not from Fort Lee.

“But assume for a moment that every single person who used those lanes was from Fort Lee. Who cares?

“After all, they still have to get from Fort Lee to Manhattan. What does he propose? That people in Fort Lee jump off the Palisades and swim across the river?”

As a former mayor who presided over a far smaller empire but still had the responsibility of running a government, “It doesn’t wash that this guy, who has no problem coughing up anger, who can be brutal with women, with teachers, with veterans — all of a sudden he doesn’t care at all what someone does, all of a sudden it makes him sad, not mad?” (In the press conference, the governor talked about going through stages of grief, particularly sadness, at having been lied to.)

“If anyone in my administration did what his people did, I wouldn’t be sad,” Mr. Ross said. “I would be ballistic. They’d have to inject me with Valium.

“At one point, he said that he told his staff that they had an hour to tell him if they knew anything — and if they did, to tell his chief of staff.” That struck Mr. Ross as ridiculous. “You say tell me right now. And don’t tell someone else. Tell me.”

The governor left him feeling betrayed.

“I liked the guy because he gave me Jersey straight talk,” he said. “This is not Jersey straight talk. One of the things we don’t like in Jersey is being conned. We don’t buy that crap.”

When he was mayor of Fort Lee, Mr. Ross said, “I had a wonderful relationship with the Port Authority.” But things have changed entirely, he said; “now the Port Authority has gotten too big for its bridges.”

For one thing, there is no transparency, he said. “The port needs to be more transparent. Governor Cuomo has to stop hiding under a rock. He has not exhibited the slightest leadership.

“And they’re charging $13 to go over the bridge, but they won’t even tell you if they are paying the legal fees for the bozos who were in charge of closing the lanes.

“Can you imagine someone being held up for four hours, and then having to pay $13, and then having this money go to pay those bozos? But the Port Authority isn’t saying yes or no.”

There is a fine but clear line between political hardball and dirty politics, Mr. Ross said, and the actions of Gov. Christie’s aides — if not of the governor himself — seem to have crossed that line. He is particularly exercised by the accusations from Mayor Dawn Zimmerman of Hoboken, who said that funds for Sandy relief were held up because she did not support a developer close to Gov. Christie.

“This is worse than Watergate,” Mr. Ross said.

“In Watergate, you had a very low-level guy in the campaign authorize a break-in, simply to steal some paper. No one was hurt. No one was even inconvenienced. Maybe the Democratic party had to hire somebody to fix the lock, or pick up broken glass. And then the higher-ups got involved in a cover-up.

“Here, you have people in fairly high places, connected to the administration or appointees of the governor, who created and supervised the implementation of the dirty tricks. And then they covered it up — but it wasn’t just a cover-up. It was the higher-ups who did it.

“New Jersey politics isn’t all bad,” Mr. Ross concluded.

“We have the Loretta Weinbergs” — the state senator from Teaneck whom he lauded for her perseverance in uncovering the situation, refusing to be intimated, refusing to give up — “the Tom Keans, the Bill Bradleys. We have some magnificent public servants.

“This does a disservice to the state.”

 
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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Pascrell, Paul face off

Dr. Dierdre Paul, a 49-year-old Montclair State University professor, faces an uphill battle against Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the 77-year-old nine-term Democratic incumbent in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.

In a candidate’s forum Monday night at the Community Baptist Church in Englewood, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP, Dr. Paul said that she has not been a Republican for very long.

In fact, in 2008 she had been the Englewood chair of the Obama campaign. “No one hoped more than me that the president would succeed,” she said. “Even as late as 2012 I tried to maintain that hope and faith in the Democratic party. Instead, it was the African American base masking the same old Democratic policies.

“We have a failed war on poverty, a failed war on drugs,” she continued. “Why does the Democratic establishment feel they only need to show up in election time? People are hurting now.”

Mr. Pascrell opened by saying that his “first objective in Congress is to keep us safe. I solemnly swear to each one of you that I will keep us safe against foreign enemies and any domestic enemies who want to take advantage of us.”

 

RCA responds to scandal

Englewood rabbi to head committee looking into conversion process

Shmuel Goldin, the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, has agreed to chair a new committee the Rabbinical Council of America is convening to review its conversion process.

Rabbi Goldin also is the RCA’s immediate past president.

The committee includes 11 members; six are RCA-member rabbis and five are women. Two of the women are converts, one is a yoetzet halacha — an advisor in Jewish law — and one is a psychotherapist.

The committee has been established in response to the arrest of one of the RCA’s members, Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington, D.C. (Rabbi Freundel’s RCA membership has been suspended in response to the arrest, and he has been suspended from his job, without pay.) The shul arguably is the most prestigious Orthodox synagogue in the nation’s capital, and Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, for videoing some of his conversion candidates with a camera hidden inside a clock radio as they stripped for the mikvah, has been profoundly disturbing, both within the Kesher community and outside it.

 

Hearing, helping each other

Support groups for people with mood disorders to open in Paramus

A person who has a mood disorder has a chronic, manageable condition.

She is not lazy, not immoral, not self-indulgent. She is not suffering from some embarrassing unmentionable syndrome. She is just one of a large number of people whose body chemistry plunges her into the black hole of depression, or is one of the smaller but not insignificant group of people who swing between that hole and a fierce but unsustainable elation that takes them up into the blue sky until they crash again.

There is a stigma attached to having a mood disorder, though, that makes it hard to address, to attack, to subdue, to co-exist with.

Dena Cohen of Teaneck, a writer, editor, and social activist who writes under her maiden name, Dena Croog, knows this territory well. An op ed contributor to this newspaper, she introduced it to our readers on February 13, when her column, “I have bipolar disorder,” was printed and almost immediately went viral.

 
 
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