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Jews are on both sides of gay marriage debate

As a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey heads for a full Senate vote, Jews could be found among the bill’s supporters and detractors, arguing the merits of both positions according to Jewish law.

Leading up to Monday night’s vote when the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a chief supporter of the bill, found herself in heated discussions with Orthodox protesters in Trenton about the need for Torah to be reinterpreted as society evolves.

At the heart of the argument, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday, is separation of church and state.

“It is about what the state sanctions and not what religion sanctions,” she said. “It is a civil rights issue.”

No rabbi, priest, or religious institution would be forced to perform a gay marriage under the bill, she emphasized. “I just don’t want other people telling me what’s appropriate in my own synagogue or to my rabbi,” she said. “He has that right.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Cong. Avodat Shalom in River Edge praised the bill because of the choice it presents.

“One of the reason I can support this bill is it doesn’t require any clergymember to perform any ceremony they’re uncomfortable with,” said Borovitz, who is also Reform. “My freedom to officiate or not officiate at any ceremony remains intact.”

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg is a sponsor of a bill legalizing gay marriage.

Jews have thrived in America because the First Amendment affords freedom of religion and freedom from religion, Borovitz continued. “It’s imperative that this state not become involved in those religious decisions,” he said.

Guarantees that they would not be bound to perform gay marriages were no consolation for rabbinical opponents of the bill. Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, which is Orthodox, told the Standard that the Bible is not talking just to Jews when it says that “Man shall cling to his wife.” The gay marriage bill is “threatening the very core of society,” he said.

“Wherever you go, marriage has been a sacred institution,” he said, “and to go now and tamper with it is something that is very threatening to the moral fiber of society.”

Sarah and Leah are an Orthodox lesbian couple living in Bergen County who support the idea of legal equality but not gay marriage itself. The couple did not want their real names used.

“It doesn’t mean anything in terms of halacha,” Sarah said. “You have to have a different halachic process to get married.”

She pointed out that Jews can legally marry non-Jews, which is also forbidden under halacha. Judaism, she added, has a definition of marriage separate from the state’s.

“We’ve never felt the need to change our halachic definition based on a legal definition,” she said. If New Jersey passes the gay marriage bill, “that’s not going to force the situation halachically whatsoever.”

A civil marriage would afford the couple equal rights and protect future children they may adopt, Sarah argued.
“Our decision to have a civil marriage wouldn’t cause me to think we’re married in the eyes of God or a Jewish marriage,” she said. “I see it as legal protection.”

Separation of church and state, is what concerns Leah the most. “When the boundary between church and state starts to get fuzzy it’s really dangerous for Jews,” she said. “I don’t hear a lot of convincing arguments about why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed that aren’t really based in religious beliefs.”

A legal marriage, Leah continued, would be mostly about ensuring the couple’s right to keep their family together. In that respect, pursuing marriage equality is part of tikkun olam, the Jewish mission to repair the world, she said.

“This will have no bearing on Orthodox synagogues,” she said. “The people it affects most are children. Children of couples who don’t have equal rights grow up feeling their family isn’t equal under the law.”

Yudin dismissed arguments that the state definition of marriage is separate from the Jewish definition. He will not perform any marriage ceremony without a state-issued marriage license.

“The law of the land is law,” he said. “Jewish law does not speak about a marriage law in the state of New Jersey. But we comply and live in accordance with the laws of the land and therefore do require that Jewish marriages have a civil license, as well.”

Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk before he leaves office. Gov.-elect Chris Christie is opposed to gay marriage, which has led lawmakers who support it to try to rush the bill through. Yudin pointed to Christie’s election as proof that New Jerseyans don’t want gay marriage.

The Assembly has not yet taken action on the bill, which could stall its passage even if the Senate approves it. If the Senate does not pass the bill, however, proponents are prepared to keep working, Weinberg said.

 
 

State steps into day-school debate

Parents continuing to struggle with rising day-school tuition may soon get some help from the state.

Passaic Assemblyman Gary Schaer has been named co-chair of the Non-Public Education Funding Commission, created by Gov. Corzine late last month to investigate how New Jersey can aid private schools without crossing the line separating church and state.

“The work of this commission will be critically important in improving educational opportunities for our students and ensuring a bright future for all children throughout this state,” Corzine said Dec. 22 as he signed the executive order creating the group.

New Jersey has 1,200 non-public schools, educating more than 170,000 students, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of the State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. Of those students, approximately 80 percent attend religious schools.

George Corwell, New Jersey Catholic Conference’s director of education, will co-chair the commission with Schaer (D-36). The 23-member body will also include the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, the state treasurer, and the N.J. attorney general, who will monitor church-state issues.

Responsibilities include reviewing ways to help non-public schools maximize grant funding; exploring how to create incentives for charitable giving to non-public schools; investigating how to better the non-public school learning experience through equipment such as textbooks, technology, and furniture; and finding ways to most effectively use state and federal funds within the boundaries of church and state separation. Corzine gave the commission a June 1 deadline to make its recommendations.

“The commission is important in identifying the areas of funding they feel would be of help,” Pruzansky told The Jewish Standard. “The bottom line is, once they do find those issues, what will the legislature or governor do?”

Currently, the state provides $137 in annual aid per student to private-school students — $72 for nursing aid and $65 for textbooks. Schaer, an Orthodox Jew himself, said the commission could potentially come up with $1,500 to $2,000 per student. Specifically, the state could provide additional aid for busing, nursing, textbooks, and technology.

“That would be a great assist to the children and their families,” he said.

Non-public schools have largely been ignored by the state, according to Pruzansky, but their students represent a significant savings to New Jersey taxpayers. If all of New Jersey’s private-school students switched to public schools, it would cost taxpayers an additional $2.75 billion, he said.

“The fact that these schools exist is saving taxpayers close to $3 billion a year,” he said.

Families that do not use the public-school system still pay for it through property taxes. According to the non-profit Tax Foundation, New Jersey has among the highest property taxes in the country. Day-school parents may also pay tuition bills ranging from $6,000 to $55,000 per student, depending on the school.

“We’ve all been living with this issue for as long as we can,” Schaer said. “This is not simply a Jewish issue, not simply a Catholic issue. It’s an issue about our children — about the state we want to live in.”

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella group that has been searching for solutions to the day-school crisis for the past year, welcomed Corzine’s proclamation.

“I hope the recommendations will be [those] we can implement relatively quickly and easily,” said Howie Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy.

The OU and Agudath Israel recently put their weight behind a proposal to allow corporate tax credits for donations to private schools. Both organizations had also supported the idea of school vouchers, but Beigelman noted that Corzine did not support the proposal because he was wary of the constitutional issues involved.

“It’s an honest view,” Beigelman said. “This commission’s going to be able to look at that, what the state can do, what other states are doing, and where the state can go in the future.”

Beigelman said Gov.-elect Chris Christie is a proponent of school choice and may further press the legislature on funding.

Rabbi Saul Zucker, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s director of day school services, called the commission “a wonderful thing.”

“A solution to the overall crisis is not going to lie exclusively in the government,” he said. “It requires a really multi-faceted approach. The model of a kehillah fund is a wonderful component. How we can utilize government programs is another wonderful component. Different avenues of fund-raising are another wonderful component. You have to bring all these things to bear.”

 
 
 
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