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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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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘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.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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News from a Jersey girl

CNN’s Dana Bash talks at a benefit for the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School

Dana Bash is CNN’s chief congressional correspondent.

At 43, she has more than a decade of high-visibility work for the network behind her, and she will provide its coverage of the almost ludicrously crowded Republican field, as more than two dozen candidates compete for camera time and voter approval.

Ms. Bash is also a graduate of Pascack Hills High School, a self-proclaimed Jersey girl, and a deeply committed Jew.

Ms. Bash will speak on Sunday, May 3, at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, to benefit the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland. Laurie Nahum and Rick Krieger will be honored that evening for their service to the school as well.

 

A Jewish day school with a difference

Shefa School helps students with language disabilities

It took “a giant leap of faith” for Gila Cohen and her husband to send their son from Teaneck to the Shefa School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for fifth grade.

The school, after all, was just opening its doors.

But her son, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, was struggling at his Bergen County Jewish day school.

“They were helping him but not giving him the skills to read himself. They don’t have time to do that,” Ms. Cohen said.

She in fact had been looking for a non-Jewish school that could help with his disabilities. Then she heard about the Shefa School “and we decided to apply.” The Shefa School promised to be a Jewish school for children with language-based learning disabilities.

 

Press for marriage rights in Israel

North Jersey Board of Rabbis advocates for civil marriage, pluralistic possibilities in the Jewish state

Last week, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, representing local non-Orthodox clergy, voted unanimously to endorse a resolution to “support a pluralistic approach to marriage in Israel.”

Beginning by saying, simply, clearly, and unequivocally, that “We love the State of Israel. We want it to succeed in every way possible,” the rabbis who signed the document put their names to the call for freedom of religion in Israel.

That would include the chance to have a civil rather than a religious wedding ceremony, or to have a Jewish couple’s wedding officiant belong to a stream of Judaism other than Orthodoxy.

“The North Jersey Board of Rabbis is transdenominational, and we have debated informally for a while if we should be taking stands on public issues,” Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, its president, said. “This issue is one that non-Orthodox rabbis have grappled with for a long time.”

 
 
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