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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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French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

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Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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