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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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Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

 

She’s a project-based fellow

Tikvah Wiener tapped by Joshua Venture Group

Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck describes herself as “passionate about project-based learning.”

As head of the English department at the Frisch School in Paramus, where she taught for 13 years, Ms. Wiener brought that innovative educational approach into the high school’s curriculum and extracurricular activities. “It’s a pedagogy where students engage in solving a complex real world problem and they create different products as a result of their learning,” she said.

The products could be a multimedia presentation, or a blog displaying students’ interpretations of Shakespeare. But it also could be a class-wide effort to study the problem of snow removal and offer suggestions for improvement — a project that would include math and science as well as civics and English.

This school year, Ms. Wiener has a new job: She is chief academic officer at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. And she has just received a prestigious — and lucrative — award to help her promote project-based learning in Jewish day schools across the country.

 

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Meetings of very sharp minds

Larry Krule, retiring Jewish Book Council president, talks about literature and Davar

To learn more about the Jewish community in the late 1960s, you could just read “The Chosen” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel was sharply drawn, sociologically on point, and deeply moving. Phillip Roth’s 1969 novel was brash, irreverent, shocking, and controversial.

Both were central to mid-20th-century urban Jewish self-understanding (it’s tempting to say they were seminal, but given the specifics of Portnoy’s complaint, that might not be the best choice of words).

Those two books, among others, had such a strong influence on Lawrence Krule, who read them when they were new and he was young, that eventually they led him to a ten-year presidency of the Jewish Book Council. His term is now ending; he and the council’s president, Carolyn Hessel, are retiring, and both will be honored at a gala dinner on November 18.

 

Remembering Bernie Weinflash

Community mourns visionary leader and founding patron of Shirah chorus

Some people are irreplaceable, said Matthew (Mati) Lazar, founding director and conductor of Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Bernie Weinflash was one of them.”

Mr. Weinflash, founding patron of the choral group now celebrating its 21st year, died on November 9 at 94.

Mr. Weinflash was born on the Lower East Side and was a veteran of World War II. Trained as an accountant and lawyer, he was a stockbroker for Oppenheimer and Co.

Shirah was one of Mr Weinflash’s proudest achievements. In a video of his talk at the choral concert that marked his 90th birthday — “Bernie always spoke at our concerts,” Mr. Lazar said — the founder mused that “by creating Shirah, I will have helped perpetuate Jewish survival.”

 

Here comes the sun

Yeshivat Noam installs solar panels

From the parking lot, all you can see is the yellow warning tape.

But the roof Yeshivat Noam in Paramus holds 1,500 solar panels.

On Friday, the panels were connected to the school’s electric wiring. When they are switched on — that is expected to happen any day now — they will provide about half the school’s electric needs.

And they will make Noam the first area Jewish day school to have gone solar.

 
 
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