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Charges hurled back and forth after Teaneck’s municipal elections

Accusations of anti-Orthodox and anti-Semitic incitement cast a shadow over last week’s Teaneck municipal elections, and one township council candidate found himself at the center of the storm.

An article in the May issue of the Englewood-based Jewish Voice & Opinion alleged that Joseph Steinberg had a close political relationship with current council member Barbara Ley Toffler, who, the article alleged, has an “anti-observant animus, verging on outright anti-Semitism.” The article quoted an anonymous source who cast Steinberg as Toffler’s surrogate. These allegations, Toffler suggested to The Jewish Standard on Monday, contributed to Steinberg’s failed run.

“Joseph was in a very awkward position,” she said. “You have to make a connection with the different groups in town, but I do think it contributed to him leaving enough of the community very, very unsettled about who he was.”

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Joseph Steinberg ran for Teaneck’s township council and lost, amid allegations that he is anti-Orthodox.

The article pointed to a 2007 column in The New York Times by Peter Applebome called “Our Towns; Proudly Diverse Teaneck Is Forced to Re-examine Its Assumptions.” Applebome quoted Toffler as saying, “People worry that there’s a group that wants this to become an Orthodox community like some of the ones in Rockland County. This has always been an incredibly diverse community, and from my perspective, I don’t want it to become any one thing.”

Jewish Voice editor Susan Rosenbluth wrote in her May issue that Toffler “never apologized for her suggestion that observant Jews were trying to take over Teaneck and turn it into ‘Monsey’….”

In defense of her article, Rosenbluth told the Standard that Steinberg had refused to condemn Toffler’s statement, which she said, would never be tolerated if it had been about the African-American or gay communities.

“Diversity is a wonderful thing, but to say that because Orthodox people are moving into Teaneck that they’re trying to take over is outrageous,” she said.

Toffler told the Standard that she had alluded to the village of Kiryas Joel, a Satmar-run community in Orange County, and not Monsey.

“This whole thing was a nightmare for me,” she said. “I feel terrible for the Steinbergs.”

Steinberg condemned the Jewish Voice article and its impact on his campaign when he spoke with the Standard on Tuesday.

“The whole article had absolutely no merit in any way with regard to me,” he said. “Anybody who knows me and knows Barbara as well would see the same article and dismiss it. The issue with the article is most people in town do not know me. It caused confusion or contempt where there shouldn’t have been any.”

A few days before the May 11 election, Steinberg e-mailed an “Open letter to Teaneck’s Orthodox Community,” denouncing the article’s claims about him and labeling it part of a “smear campaign” that had created a “chillul HaShem,” a blaspheming of God’s name. He wrote that because the article relied on an anonymous source, it fell under the category of lashon hara, deceitful language.

“It was precisely this type of behavior that the Talmud says brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and led to nearly two millennia of exile and persecution,” he wrote. “The damage that has been done to the reputation of our community will last well beyond this election, and those who were involved with the current smear campaign owe an apology not only to me, but to the entire Jewish community.”

Rosenbluth defended her article against that accusation.

“When we’re talking about somebody who is running for public elected office … it is not lashon hara to report the truth,” she said.

Rosenbluth would not reveal the identity of her anonymous source, but said she knows the source personally.

Many people felt that Steinberg was Toffler’s surrogate, Rosenbluth said, and if he had won she would have had an ally on the council. If he lost, she added, Toffler could claim she had supported somebody from the Orthodox community.

“From that perspective I think Mr. Steinberg was naïve,” Rosenbluth said. “And I’m willing to give him his naïveté.”

Tzvee Zahavy, a Teaneck resident who runs Tzvee’s Talmudic Blog, endorsed Steinberg on his site after the article and e-mail appeared. Another blog, Teaneck Talk, reposted the Jewish Voice article as well as an e-mail attacking Steinberg’s financial expertise. That e-mail circulated before Steinberg’s and prompted his response.

“Teaneck politics are junior high school quality,” Zahavy told the Standard. “They are characterized, unfortunately, by some people in our community stooping to rather immature tactics. I think Joseph was above that and, unfortunately, didn’t want to get down to that level. It’s like any other game; you’ve got to play at the level the others are playing, and they’re playing at a very low level in Teaneck politics.”

Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit, whose term on the council ends on June 30 and who did not seek re-election, blamed people on both sides who, he said, “play up the differences between the Orthodox community and the rest of Teaneck.”

“Joseph is the type of person and the type of candidate who is trying to show it’s possible to move past that,” he told the Standard on Tuesday. “Certain people didn’t like that because it goes against what they’re trying to accomplish, which is to show it’s always ‘us versus them.’”

Steinberg placed sixth out of the nine candidates running for the four open seats. Though dismayed by the outcome, a week after the election he spoke about moving forward.

“I hope that the situation created by the negative activities during this election season will serve as a catalyst for positive change,” he said. “As I mentioned throughout the campaign, we must bring an end to the divisiveness in town that continues to waste our collective time, money, and energy.”

Councilman Elie Y. Katz, who won re-election last week, said he hoped people judged the candidates based on who they are and what they could do for the town.

“We’re a community,” he told the Standard, “and the only way to have better working relationships is for everyone to understand each other and try to work together and communicate with each other.”

Feit echoed Katz in a call for unity.

“We all want the same thing and the sooner we start working together,” Feit said, “the better off we’ll be.”

 
 

More than kashrut

Teaneck’s Katz becomes new OU president

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Teaneck councilman Elie Katz, right, presented a proclamation to his father, Simcha Katz, Sunday night congratulating him on becoming the new president of the OU. Josh Lipowsky

When Rabbi Simcha Katz arrived at the Orthodox Union’s New York offices on Monday, the first thing he did was turn on the lights. Newly installed as the organization’s 13th president, Teaneck resident Katz has plans to shine a light on what he sees as the two biggest threats to the Jewish community: Tuition costs and assimilation.

The father of Teaneck councilman and businessman Elie Katz, Simcha Katz was inaugurated as president on Sunday during the OU’s national convention in Woodcliff Lake.

In September, Stephen Savitsky, then the OU’s president, asked Katz about assuming the organization’s leadership. Katz, a retired businessman who had spent the past five years as chair of the OU’s kashrut division and many more years working in the division with its CEO, Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, was reluctant about making the time commitment.

What convinced him, though, was hearing from one of his children who makes more than $200,000 a year about how difficult it is to manage day-school tuition bills.

“I was stunned by the situation we had created for our children,” Katz said. “I thought that the OU might be able to act as a coordinator for various activities to help address this problem.”

Day school tuition is a “bread and butter issue” for the Jewish community, said Katz, who plans to pull together an OU task force to explore revenue and cost-saving options. The community has to be prepared to invest in education, he said, adding that the current system is “breaking the banks of our families.”

Assimilation is the second issue on Katz’s agenda, and one he called a “critical priority.” While the OU has had success in reaching out to unaffiliated high school students through NCSY, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews the organization is not reaching, Katz said.

“We are losing Jews, whether it be on the high school level, when day-school kids go to college and get lost in the university melting pot…. It boils down to resources and organizing the community,” he said.

The OU partners with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to place Orthodox couples on college campuses for outreach to Orthodox students. The Jewish community tends to have a repetition of services, he said, and partnership is key to moving forward.

It is a world leader in kashrut, he said, which is beyond denominations. The OU, he continued, is “a big tent” that is responsible to all Jews.

“We don’t make judgments about people’s personal religious observance,” he said. “We provide services to the Jewish community and if somebody needs our services, we provide it.”

Katz and his family moved to Teaneck in 1973 when Bnai Yeshurun was the only Orthodox synagogue in the township. He soon got involved with the Yeshiva of Hudson County, and spearheaded its transformation into the Yeshiva of North Jersey and its move to Bergen County. The school opened its first branch in New Milford in 1979, with nine children, and is now the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge with more than 900 pupils. He was also involved in the creation of Teaneck’s first mikvah and, because of his experience dealing with the township on the mikvah issue, he became one of the founders of Cong. Keter Torah on Roemer Avenue.

In 1980, Genack became head of the OU’s kashrut division, and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Katz and Genack’s teacher and the man considered the father of modern Orthodoxy, asked Katz to help as a lay leader.

In addition to rabbinic ordination, although he has never served as a rabbi, Katz has advanced degrees in engineering and business and he is a professor of finance at the Zicklin Business School of the City University of New York. Katz and his wife, Pesha, have four children and 16 grandchildren.

 
 

When is a twin (city) not a twin (city)?

When Wikipedia says it is

A 2007 editorial mistake by an unnamed Canadian has been roiling Teaneck township council meetings.

Earlier this year, Teaneck resident Rich Siegel discovered an article on Wikipedia that asserted that Teaneck was a twin city with Beit Yatir, a Jewish village just over the 1967 border in the west bank. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, is one of the most popular sites on the internet.

Siegel, who describes himself as a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, set out to find the origins of this relationship.

“First I wrote the mayor and he ignored me,” Siegel told the Jewish Standard. Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin did not return requests for comment.

“Then I sent certified letters to the mayor and all the members of the town council. It was at some expense, but I wanted to show them I was serious about getting an answer,” Siegel said.

Siegel did hear from Elie Katz, a council member who is a former mayor, who said he had never heard of the twinning. Neither had Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor and former council member whose tenure on the council dated back to 1996.

Siegel spoke at a council meeting in January, demanding that township officials publicly renounce the connection. In February, following a letter he wrote on the topic that appeared in the Suburbanite, five other residents stood up at the council meeting to protest the reported twinning.

“We were able to determine that no one had brought this before the town council. They just decided to set the thing up unilaterally,” said Siegel.

Who “they” were was not clear to him.

However, an investigation of the editing history of the Wikipedia article about Beit Yatir shows that the reference to a twinning with Teaneck was inserted by a Canadian editor who goes by the name “Shuki.” Shuki had added a line that Beit Yatir was twinned with Teaneck in 2007, shortly after creating the article, which he based on one in the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia.

The Hebrew article, however, made no mention of a twinning relationship with Teaneck.

Shuki did not return a request for comment left on his Wikipedia user page. According to that page, he has created 149 Wikipedia articles and is responsible for more than 10,000 editorial changes to the site in his five years of Wikipedia involvement. Most of his articles concern Israeli places and personalities. He has been heavily involved in the disputes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors that make articles on topics as apparently neutral as hummus deeply contentious. In December, he was banned from editing Wikipedia for six months, for allegedly using a false account to vote on the deletion of controversial articles concerning Israelis and Palestinians.

So why did Shuki claim a connection between Beit Yatir and Teaneck?

Most probably because there actually is a link between the two communities: Beit Yatir has long been twinned with Teaneck’s Beth Aaron congregation.

The synagogue has supported Beit Yatir’s summer camp and playgrounds, according to congregation president Larry Shafier. Synagogue members visiting in Israel have gone to Beit Yatir and posted snapshots on the congregation’s website. Beit Yatir residents have written articles for the Beth Aaron newsletter.

As for the Beit Yatir article on Wikipedia: This week it was corrected to read that the twinning was with the congregation.

Could Teaneck decide to officially twin with an Israeli town?

“It would be something to be viewed on a case-by-case basis,” said Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen. “We certainly don’t have a policy for twinning with other municipalities.”

Siegel said he personally would oppose an effort to twin Teaneck with an Israeli city. “I’m an anti-Zionist. I would be personally against a twin town relationship within the Green Line as well.”

Nonetheless, he said, “if it went through proper channels, by a vote of the people of Teaneck or the town council, that would be none of my business. My concern is people acting unilaterally.”

At present, 18 New Jersey municipalities are twinned with foreign partners — if Wikipedia can be believed. And in the case of its listing of New Jersey municipal twinnings, it can’t be. According to the listing, the city of Camden has twinned with Gaza City.

But there are no citations, no references to the twinning discovered online, and, perhaps most compellingly, said David Snyder, the local Jewish official whose job it would be to monitor official ties between Camden and pro-Palestinian groups, that it’s news to him.

“I have never heard of this and cannot imagine it,” said Synder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. “I’ve been in the community for 20 years and that has never come up.”

Other synagogue twinning projects

Beth Aaron’s twinning with Beit Yatir is only one of a number of direct connections between Bergen County and Israel.

At least two other Orthodox congregations have twinned with communities in the west bank.

Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck has twinned with Otniel, a village of 120 families about seven miles northwest of Beit Yatir. The American congregation has bought security equipment for Otniel, and sends shalach manot to each resident on Purim.

The Young Israel of Fort Lee partners with Dolev. “In the early years, we supported them financially and helped them found a day care and kindergarten,” says Rabbi Neil Winkler.

Three additional congregations, two Reform and one Conservative, have twinned with Israeli congregations:

Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes is twinned with Cong. Yozma in Modiin. “In 2006, we brought a Torah to them. Since then, we visit Yozma every other year with our congregational trips,” says Rabbi Elyse Frishman.

Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has a long-standing relationship with the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa, which includes sponsoring scholarships at the Reform community’s school.

The Jewish Community Center of Paramus is an overseas member of Kehilat Yaar Ramot, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem. “We try to support their fund-raising efforts when we can,” says Rabbi Arthur Weiner.

 
 

Safety, revisited

Community meets after Kletzky tragedy

The murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was “a tragedy beyond words,” Teaneck’s Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin told The Jewish Standard. And that is why, “as the citizens of Teaneck were reflecting on how to keep our children safe, we took this opportunity” to call a town-wide meeting, in conjunction with Chai Lifeline and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, Monday night.

Hameeduddin and former Mayor Elie Katz were among the speakers at the gathering, held at Young Israel of Teaneck and attended by more than 250 people.

Rabbi David Fox, a forensic and clinical psychologist and a member of Chai Lifeline’s Project Chai, spoke about helping both adults and children to cope with the tragedy and about parents’ playing a greater role in a child’s life and turning safety into a routine, not just a speech.

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Missing-person posters for 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky were plastered throughout Borough Park, Brooklyn, in the time between his disappearance and the arrest of his suspected murderer on July 13. Local Jewish institutions are examining their safety procedures. Tim Faracy/Creative Commons

Police Chief Robert A. Wilson illustrated the importance of calling the police immediately when a child’s safety is threatened by citing a case some years ago in which a man tried to lure a child into his car on Shabbat. The parents waited until the next day to call the police.

When people don’t report crimes they see, for whatever reason, Wilson told the Standard, it “seriously inhibits our ability to do our job.”

He added, “All the rabbis I’ve spoken to say … you have to take action and take care of your child, despite it being Shabbat…. You’re not bothering us reporting suspicious acts you may see. That’s why we’re here…. We all need to take an active role in protecting our kids.”

Experts, including Debbie Fox, a licensed social worker who has written about child safety, answered the question of what to teach a child to do if lost: First, find a uniformed officer. If not, look for a mother with children, and then a cashier or salesperson in a store.

Sheila Steinbach, director of clinical services at Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said her treatment team is on call and able to conduct individual, family, and group counseling. “We offer workshops on child safety, how to protect your children in public, bullying, cyberbullying, and more.” She said that she will reach out to local school administrators once schools are back in session: “This is definitely going to be an issue in the fall.” The treatment team is also available to work with parents on “how to speak to kids about the tragedy. You really have to do it in a mindful way,” she said.

A sampling of area summer programs showed that safety procedures are in place.

At the Neil Klatskin Day Camp of the JCC on the Palisades, in Tenafly, says camp director Stacey Budkofsky, “All staff members wear camp T-shirts. If an adult is on camp premises who doesn’t belong, that person really stands out.” She added that her staff is vigilant about identifying strangers and will “always approach them and escort them to where they need to go.”

Their vigilance extends to dismissal procedure, she pointed out, noting that the camp operates a strict carpool system. “Each parent gets a card, with a specific number corresponding to a camper, that he or she needs to display when picking up a child,” says Budkofsky. If there is a special situation, such as a camper who needs to leave early, the camper must bring a signed note, and the adult picking up the child must come into the office and present identification, she says.

At Gan Aviv, a nursery school in Bergenfield, visitors must call the office on an intercom to enter the building. Parents are issued key cards, allowing them to come inside to pick up their children, and a computer system matches name to card number, verifying the identity every time a parent walks in. “We have a very strict security system here,” says Karen Adler, owner and director of the school. Visitors need to carry picture identification at all times. “We have had times,” Adler says, “where people have had to go back to get their IDs and come back.”

“We don’t let the children go with anyone,” says Debbie Lesnoy, director of Shomrei Torah Nursery School in Fair Lawn, unless that person is a parent. Staff members check the identification of all visitors to the school, and when a grandfather recently called to arrange to pick up a student, Lesnoy took not only his name, but his address, car make, and license plate number. She verified her information when the car arrived. “I think everyone in the community needs to re-look at our comfort level,” she said.

 
 

Bank offers to make up for Teaneck busing budget cut

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Many parents in Teaneck are protesting the consolidation of private school bus routes. Larry Yudelson

The school busing controversy in Teaneck took some sharp turns this week.

On Monday, 400 parents gathered at the Richard Rodda Community Center to protest the consolidation of private school bus routes announced by the Teaneck Board of Education late last month. The controversial plan would save bus drivers time and the board of education $85,000.

Monday’s meeting was called by a group of concerned parents under the banner of Safe Teaneck. The parents warned that the plan endangered their children. It required children to walk long distances in the early morning, and to wait in unwieldy groups of as many as 20 students at street corners, many of which have no sidewalks. The group of parents of day school students was supported by two of the town’s Orthodox council members, who echoed parents’ concerns that the changes would endanger the children.

Board of education members present at the meeting said they were concerned for the safety of the children, but they did not endorse the complaints.

In a related development on Monday, a Teaneck bank offered to donate $85,000 to the school district to offset the cost of restoring full-service bus routes.

“I feel very close to the community,” said Gilles Gade, chairman of Cross River Bank in Teaneck, explaining why he asked his bank’s board to approve the donation.

Gade, an Orthodox Jew, commutes to Teaneck from his home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.

“As a parent, I feel for the parents in the community,” he said. “The bank was specifically opened to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

Gade was alerted to the issue by the councilmen, Elie Katz and Yitz Stern, he said.

The offer would seem to resolve the issue, but the board of education was not prepared to accept it in advance of a public meeting it planned to hold on Wednesday, after this paper went to press. The public meeting was called to give parents another chance to express their concerns.

“The devil is in the details,” Ardie Walser, president of the board, told The Jewish Standard. “As a board, we have to be bogged down in the details.”

Walser said that students in public school will also suffer under the new school budget, which eliminated “courtesy” busing to students in kindergarten through fourth grade who live less than two miles from their school.

“This is a safety issue,” Stern told Monday’s meeting. “This is not about religion, not about how much property tax people pay.”

But property tax bills came up in heated one-on-one conversations between day school parents and school board members after Monday’s meeting ended. Many day school parents felt that in cutting back on bus services, the school board had broken an unspoken social contract they had with the school board.

“People moved to Teaneck for the busing,” said one mother of four, who asked for anonymity. “When the Realtors showed us the houses, they said, it would cost a little bit less to buy in Bergenfield, but there it will cost you $2,000 a child for busing.” Property taxes in Bergenfield are significantly lower, she said.

The mother said that parents of yeshiva students feel that the board of education was instituting a serious cut to the services to close a very small budget gap. The board of education does not dispute the numbers. It said that the combined savings from both consolidating private school busing and eliminating in-town courtesy busing come to one-third of one percent of the district’s $87 million budget for the coming year.

 
 
 
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