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N.J.-Israel Commission funds slashed

The New Jersey-Israel Commission lost its director, Andrea Yonah, to budget cuts last week as it officially became part of a new initiative in the State Department to boost business in New Jersey.

The commission has been rolled into the Partnership for Public Action, which, under the auspices of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is charged with attracting new businesses, retaining businesses, and making the state more business-friendly, said Sean Connor, Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy press secretary. Other programs joining the Israel Commission will be announced in coming weeks, he added.

“The New Jersey-Israel Commission will be focusing on how to bring more economic development to the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We are excited about that. The New Jersey-Israel Commission has and will continue to play an important role in helping to attract, retain, and grow our relationships with global businesses.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who had chaired the commission, expressed optimism that its focus on business development and cooperation, cultural exchange, and educational exchange would remain

“We’ve been reassured by the lieutenant governor that the commission itself is now a valued part of [her] portfolio,” he said. “We’re going to make this work.”

Kurtzer tendered his resignation after the shake-up announcement just before Passover. The move was a courtesy to Christie who, Kurtzer said, should be allowed to choose his own chair. Kurtzer is hopeful, however, that the governor will see fit to reappoint him as a member of the commission.

Since the commission was already housed within the State Department, it was easier to roll it into the partnership than other programs, Connor said. The changes to the commission, he emphasized, were administrative and there would be no changes to its mission or membership make-up. The commission had been operating with an annual budget of $130,000, almost $120,000 of which went toward salaries for Yonah and another employee, he said.

April 9 marked the last day of Yonah’s eight-year tenure with the commission.

“She’s a powerhouse,” said commission member Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “She has been able to attract excellent leadership on the commission, bring business from Israel to New Jersey, and develop cultural, scientific, and trade relationships that have helped both New Jersey and Israel.”

“We’re not saying goodbye to Andrea,” said commission member Mark Levenson. “She will be working with us on lots of issues and ventures in terms of trying to help Israel and I can’t wait until she lands her next position because she is just a dynamo.”

Yonah remained upbeat during a phone interview with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday.

“To be able to bring the best of Israel and match it with the best of New Jersey was a dream,” Yonah said. “Both of our states have so much in common and so much to collaborate on and so much opportunity for the future.”

Her future remained uncertain, but, she said, she looked forward to spending time in Israel and continuing to help bridge the Jewish state and the Garden State.

As members praised Yonah’s leadership they also expressed outrage at Christie for cutting the commission’s funding.

“This is an affront to the people who volunteered to be on this commission,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a longtime member. “This is an affront to an employee who had served so well for eight years. It’s an affront to the Jewish community.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) had harsher words for Christie.

“The governor’s budget sold the commission out with any number of other groups,” he said. “The New Jersey-Israel Commission was one of the first of its kind. It has been shown and proven that the commission is instrumental in creating jobs for New Jersey.”

Schaer, a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, also lashed out at Christie’s budget proposals.

“There are so many areas of real concern that so many of us have regarding seniors, education, colleges, and universities,” he said.

Christie has the option to veto any changes the Assembly or Senate budget committees make and, according to Schaer, he has pledged to do so. Despite the Christie administration’s explanations, Schaer doubted the benefits achieved by the change.

“With New Jersey-Israel Commission we see the cost was ridiculously small compared to the deficit and the very real benefit — the close relationship with the State of Israel,” he said. “In that case, the governor’s proposal doesn’t make financial sense and doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The New Jersey-Israel Commission was created in 1989 to foster business ties as part of a sister-state agreement. More than 700 New Jersey companies do business with Israel, 65 Israeli companies maintain operations in New Jersey, and 18 New Jersey companies have operations in Israel.

 
 

JCRC to host legislative gathering

State and national officials will gather in Paramus next week to hear the concerns of the local Jewish community at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual legislative gathering.

Sponsored by the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the legislative gathering is an opportunity for New Jersey officials to talk directly to Jewish communal leaders and vice versa, said JCRC director Joy Kurland.

“It’s keeping the dialogue and communication open,” she said. “It’s part of our government affairs and public policy work, enhancing relationships with government officials.”

This year’s meeting, to be held at UJA-NNJ’s Paramus headquarters Tuesday evening, will address the New Jersey fiscal year 2011 budget, Iran divestment efforts in the state, U.S.-Israel relations, economic recovery, and health-care reform.

“We want to hear about the effects of the state budget and what impact it might have on our communities,” Kurland said. “It’s things like that, that are helpful to our Jewish community leadership to be able to become educated and knowledgeable.”

New Jersey began divesting its pension funds from Iran in 2008 and Kurland would like to hear the legislators address where that process stands. With regard to health-care reform, Kurland would like an update on how President Obama’s health-care legislation is being implemented in New Jersey and what effects it will have on UJA’s constituents. As for the budget, Gov. Christie’s fiscal proposals for 2011 included cuts to several school programs and other initiatives that could affect the work of the federation or its subsidiary agencies.

The meeting, which is closed to the public, will include members of JCRC boards and committees, the federation’s executive boards, and rabbinical leaders. Expected to attend from the state arena are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38), Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Assemblyman Robert Schroeder (D-39), Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-35), Sen. Gerald Cardinale (D-39), and Bergen County Freeholder Elizabeth Calabrese. U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett’s director of outreach, Matthew Barnes, is also expected.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Gov. Christie do not plan to attend, while JCRC is still reaching out to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), a former JCRC chair, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8).

Weinberg has attended the gathering every year since its inception.

“It’s educating. It’s enlightening,” she said. “We’re able to tell UJA [what we’re doing] and they’re in turn able to tell us [what they’re focusing on].”

Schaer has also attended the meetings since the beginning.

“Legislative gatherings — and specifically the UJA gathering — provide a formalized and necessary framework for communication so that in this case, legislators representing their various districts can work closely to understand the priorities and concerns of the Jewish community,” he said. “As the coordinating body for many Jewish institutions, the UJA is a vital institution in terms of reflecting those concerns to the legislators.”

The Jewish Council for Special Needs held a meeting with legislators on May 4 and JCSN chair Sharyn Gallatin credited last year’s legislative gathering for creating connections with area officials.

Gallatin presented her cause at last year’s legislative gathering and caught Weinberg’s attention. They arranged a follow-up meeting, which resulted in Weinberg’s participation in a legislative meeting earlier this month addressing the need for a Department of Disabilities in Bergen County.

“This was a result of this meeting last year where Sharyn was able to see what we did, make the contacts, and see JCRC as the facilitator of going to a deeper level,” Kurland said. “It was really highly successful.”

Kurland is head of the regional Community Relations Council, an agency of UJA-NNJ, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in Essex and Morris counties, and Central Federation in Union and Warren Counties. While CRCs across the country hold legislative gatherings, the federations in the regional group don’t have similar meetings of the magnitude of UJA-NNJ’s.

“We would like to replicate it,” Kurland said.

 
 

Shabbat trumps gymnastics

A second-grade Level 4 gymnast from Teaneck made headlines this week, not for her prowess on the bars and beam but because she couldn’t compete in a state competition held last Shabbat.

Amalya Knapp’s parents, Chavie and Stephen, had sought advice from a local Orthodox rabbi and were told the event would not be appropriate for the Sabbath. Through her coach at the U.S. Gymnastics Development Center in Leonia, the family asked if Amalya could compete for the individual state title on Saturday night or Sunday, but the USA Gymnastics Association ruled that her Sunday participation would count only toward her team’s score.

“Amalya was devastated when she found out,” Chavie Knapp told The Jewish Standard. “But she chose to [accept that option], understanding that her hard work will only pay off for her team, and not for individual awards or for her own ranking.”

image
Amalya Knapp KNAPP FAMILY

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey student has taken first place in five of nine Level 4 competitions in which she’s performed, and on Sunday she achieved her highest overall score of the year. “Amalya’s coaches really made her feel a part of it,” said her mother. “She worked hard and she felt great about it.”

That day, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) heard about the controversy and wrote to Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics that “[a]s the first and only Orthodox Jewish member of the New Jersey Legislature, I find this situation unacceptable.” He urged President Steve Penny “to make appropriate accommodations for children such as Miss Knapp in the future.”

Schaer told the Standard that he does not represent the Knapps’ district, but felt compelled to step in as the author of seven laws against religious discrimination. “I believe it is incumbent upon all of us in New Jersey, not just Orthodox Jews, to join together to ensure full and equal participation by members of all communities in social, athletic, and other aspects of life here.”

He recalled that in 2005, the mock trial team of Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County was barred from competing in national rounds held on a Saturday, until Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) and the New Jersey Bar Foundation and Bar Association successfully lobbied for a change in policy.

USA Gymnastics issued a statement in response to Schaer that it “understands how personal choices and conflicts can affect an athlete’s participation and does its best to reasonably provide alternatives, when possible.... Per USA Gymnastics’ rules and policies, if an athlete cannot compete during the assigned session due to religious reasons or valid unforeseen circumstances, the athlete may compete on another day (or in another session).... If the gymnast cannot participate in a session for the correct skill level and age group, the athlete is not eligible for individual awards and medals.... These rules and policies were followed in Amalya Knapp’s situation, and the event organizers did their best to reasonably accommodate her with a competitive opportunity.”

Chavie Knapp said she’d be “thrilled” if the policy were changed as a result of Schaer’s efforts, but stressed that she and her husband are not bitter. “We are feeling very positive and supported, and we’re trying to make this a learning opportunity for Amalya. At the end of the day, Shabbat trumps everything else, and the spirit of it is as important as the rest.”

 
 

OU looks to Trenton

Scholarship bill a ‘first step,’ but in what direction?

New Jersey may begin providing for tuition payments for some students to attend private schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivahs, if efforts of school choice advocates succeed when the legislature resumes its session in November.

It will not help Bergen County residents pay their tuition bills, however.

The funding would come through the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that passed the required committees in the State Senate and one of two committees in the Assembly. Advocates of the act, including the Orthodox Union, hope the measure moves forward and goes to Governor Chris Christie for signing before the legislative session ends in December

As currently drafted, the act would provide scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students. One quarter of the available scholarships would be set aside for students presently attending private or parochial schools. The scholarships would be available for families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty line — about $65,000 for a family of five. The schools accepting the scholarships would have to accept them as full tuition, test participating students in statewide testing, and follow other requirements.

The catch for northern New Jersey residents, however, is that these scholarships will be available only for students in a certain number of “chronically failing” school districts — which do not include any in Bergen County.

Three of the 13 proposed pilot districts, however, do include substantial Jewish, and Orthodox, communities: Passaic, Elizabeth, and Lakewood.

“It’s something we’re very positive and happy about,” said Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky of the prospect of the Opportunity Scholarship Act’s passage. “At least it’s moving in the right direction.”

“This is indeed a process,” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) told the OU’s legislative breakfast. Schaer is one of the lead co-sponsors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “We will start small. As long as we start the process, we will have the opportunity to have much more done.” Schaer, from Passaic, is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the state legislature.

One vocal communal critic, however, does not believe this process is a step in the right direction. Blogging under the pseudonymn 200kchump, one Bergen County father of day school students has been loudly decrying the high price of day school tuition. He has advocated reform of existing schools, supported the proposal for a local Hebrew-language charter school, and most recently trumpeted the creation of a new lost-cost yeshivah.

State funding, he insists, is not the answer, for two reasons.

“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “It is up to us as a Jewish community to figure out
a way to provide affordable education to our children. We should not be asking for nor accepting handouts from the government to support our yeshivahs.

“Even if one could get comfortable with the church/state issues, our beloved state is a fiscal mess thanks in large part to the greedy public servants who have nearly bankrupted this state. While Gov. Christie is finally starting to get our fiscal house in order and stand up to the unions, I do not believe the state currently is in a position to provide state-financed scholarships.”

Fiscal issues are expected to be concerns as the Assembly budget committee considers the scholarship act, with the possibility of its costs being scaled down.

Cost-cutting concerns in Trenton already have cost day schools money this year. An effort to restore $40 per-capita aid in technology assistance to private schools was part of the budget passed by Democratic legislature, but was vetoed by Christie.

 
 

Bill aims to maintain adoptee’s religion

Law would require that children be raised in birth family’s faith

_JStandardLocal
Published: 16 December 2011
(tags): gary schaer

An Orthodox Jewish member of the New Jersey State Assembly introduced a bill that would require adoptees to be placed in homes that would “maintain a child’s religious upbringing.”

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), who represents portions of Bergen and Passaic counties, said he introduced the bill out of concern that an adoptee or foster child could be “put in a home where the parents practiced a religion other than that of the child.”

Within a day of the bill’s introduction, Schaer said, it has already received support from David Mandel, the chief executive officer of the Orthodox Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services in Brooklyn and from Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum and an advisory board member of the New Jersey Council on American Islamic Relations.

“Not only Jews and Muslims, but many smaller Protestant sects, and even some people in the Catholic community” are supporting the measure, Schaer said.

In addition, a spokesperson for the Orthodox Union (OU) is praising it as “a great bill. It is important that children remain with the same culture they had with the family they were born into,” said Teaneck resident Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, the OU’s New Jersey regional director for public policy.

The bill would require state and private adoption agencies “to maintain a child’s religious upbringing when placing a child with a guardian, into foster care, or into an adoptive home.”

Agencies and courts would be able to place a child in a setting of a different religion only with a written statement from the child’s birth parent or legal guardian, if feasible.

The bill also bars discriminating against prospective parents on the basis of age, sex, race, national origin, religion, or marital status.

“Certainly we want to make the adoption and foster care process as easy as humanly possible,” Schaer said in an interview, “but we need a fit that matches, and it matches best when religious beliefs of adoptive and foster parents meet those of the child.”

The granting of veto power to birth parents over a child’s religious upbringing, however, is a matter of concern to Marc Stern, associate general counsel for legal advocacy at the American Jewish Committee.

“When you take a kid out of the house because the parents have been drug abusers or are abusing the children, why let them and only them decide what the religious upbringing of the child should be?” asked Stern, saying he was speaking as an individual and not as an AJCommittee representative. “You don’t give parents you are taking kids away from access over anything else. Why this? I am not clear why you would give them any veto.”

However, Stern does see some merits in the bill, especially in cases where the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) is forced to remove abused children from their biological parents.

“It is traumatic enough to pull kids out of a home, and if you have kids who are Sabbath-observant and eat kosher food, and you put them in with the family who is up next on the DYFS list, you are adding to the trauma,” he said.

While the bill would ostensibly maintain the Jewish identity of a child born Jewish, it could also limit the number of non-Jewish children available for adoption by Jewish families.

“The number of children born Jewish who are available for adoption is very small — much smaller than the demand within the Jewish community,” said Saul Berman, an attorney and Orthodox rabbi who is a professor of Jewish law at Stern College and Columbia University in New York.

In fact, because of the complexity of determining a child’s Jewish status under halachah, or Jewish law, some Jewish parents actually prefer that an adopted child be from a non-Jewish family.

“It is often simpler to adopt a child who is of non-Jewish parentage and then perform a conversion without the need for further information,” said Berman.

The bill also requires that, in cases where a child is placed with a family of a different religious faith, provisions be made so that the child could attend services conducted in his or her own religious faith.

That clause would pose problems for observant Jewish families, said Berman. “I don’t think any committed Jewish family would want to put themselves into a situation where the adopted child practiced a religion other than Judaism,” he said.

In his former position as director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, the OU’s Pruzansky handled two cases in which children were removed from observant Jewish households and placed in non-Jewish foster homes.

Such a situation “simply can’t be tolerated,” he said. “It is something that is detrimental to the child.”

Pruzansky said it “took a lot of work behind the scenes” to have the children removed from their non-Jewish environments and placed with Orthodox foster parents. “Up until now, there hasn’t been any regulation on the state level to protect an adopted or foster child’s religious identity,” he said.

At this point, Schaer has no cosponsors. He anticipates none until after the state legislature opens its new session in January.

New Jersey Jewish News

 
 

Rabbis, cemetery owners, legislators continue closed-door talks

New Jersey Senate okays rabbi to sit on cemetery board

Time passes slowly in the New Jersey cemetery world.

Three years after his name was first presented to Gov. Jon Corzine for consideration, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor has been appointed to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates the state’s non-religious cemeteries. To be considered a religious cemetery, the property must be owned and operated by a recognized church or synagogue. Most Jewish cemeteries are not considered religious under state law.

Kornsgold’s appointment, which was finally confirmed by the State Senate last week, comes as representatives of the northern New Jersey Jewish community and the cemetery industry have been meeting to see if the two sides can reach agreement on contentious issues without the need for legislative action in Trenton.

The meetings have been convened by Assemblyman Gary Schaer and have been hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The first meeting took place around a year ago. The most recent was held Tuesday.

Schaer declined to discuss the meeting’s deliberations. “There’s been tremendous discussion,” he said, adding that further comment “will be harmful to the process.”

Most of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting — about 10 — agreed with his no-comment policy. The other legislator participating, however, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, voiced some skepticism concerning the prospect of negotiating an agreement.

“I’m less optimistic than some,” she said after the meeting. It is a question, she said, “of how much we could and would do legislatively, and how much is done on an agreement of goals outside legislation.”

In 2008, Weinberg first introduced a bill that would address one of the major concerns of the Jewish community: the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. The bill would bar fees beyond actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another would require cemetery companies to file annual financial reports with the state.

There is a large gap in Trenton between introducing a bill and the first legislative hurdle, a committee hearing.

Weinberg said she has arranged with the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nia Gill, to meet next month with a group of rabbis to hear their concerns. Gill, according to some, has been a stumbling block to any efforts to reform the system.

Weinberg’s involvement in the cemetery issue, and her legislation, came in the wake of a February 2008 meeting convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the then-UJA Federation of Bergen County. The meeting brought local legislators together with representatives of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the New York Board of Rabbis. At that meeting, the rabbinical boards and JCRC issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul of New Jersey’s oversight of the cemetery industry.

Schaer was also a participant in that meeting.

Nearly four years later, the appointment of Kornsgold to the cemetery board may be the first concrete accomplishment of the process begun by the JCRC and continuing in the current meetings held under its auspices.

Kornsgold was asked to serve on the board by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis because of his location, near Trenton. In the years since, however, the cemetery board has relocated. When he attends his first meeting on the board next month, it will be in Newark.

Kornsgold is one of two public representatives on the 10-member cemetery board. Three are representatives of state officials, and five are selected by the cemetery industry itself.

This makeup of the board was criticized in a statement issued by participants in the 2008 meeting, among them Schaer.

“Essentially, the foxes are in charge of the hen house,” wrote Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, in a column for this newspaper earlier this year. Engelmayer now serves as interim editor of The Jewish Standard.

Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center / Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, Engelmayer chaired the February 2008 meeting and led the fight for cemetery reform when he served as NJBR president from 2008-2010.

“The appointment — finally — of Jay Kornsgold to the cemetery board changes almost nothing from a practical standpoint,” Engelmayer said for this article. “But it does mean that the community now has someone to turn to on the board who will listen to its concerns and put those concerns before the board. It also means that if the board chooses to ignore legitimate complaints, there is someone on the board who will help put the spotlight on that.”

 
 

Religion and foster care

Should parents take on children from other faiths and traditions?

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 22 June 2012

A complaint from a Muslim constituent has led the New Jersey legislature’s sole Orthodox Jewish legislator to introduce a bill that would mandate that children in foster care be placed with their co-religionists “to the maximum extant practicable.”

But one local observant Jewish foster mother to Christian children worries that the bill would make life even harder for children needing foster care and the adults who wish to care for them. She believes that better enforcement of current guidelines, which require respecting a child’s religion, along with more formalized efforts by the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services to seek religiously compatible foster homes, would suffice.

“A child’s religious and cultural backgrounds are significant aspects of determining the best interests of the child,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat who represents the 36th District. Schaer drafted the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly.

“That’s why it’s so important that the placement of a child into foster care or adoption should be consistent with their religious and cultural backgrounds, unless it’s proven by convincing evidence that such placement is not in the best interests of the child,” he added.

Foster care is the initial step DYFS takes when it decides that it is not in a child’s best interest to remain with his or her parent, and it is considered to be temporary. But when the birth parent is unable or unwilling to address the issues that led to abuse or neglect a judge can terminate his or her parental rights, enabling the child to be adopted.

Schaer drafted the bill after being approached by Aref Assaf, president of the Arab American Forum and a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger’s website. Assaf had written about a young Muslim child whose Christian foster family changed the child’s name, took him to church, and finally converted him.

“Even when his parents were allowed supervised visits, DYFS disallowed the parents from taking the child to the nearby mosque and threatened at times to end the visits. DYFS repeatedly ignored the parents’ wishes that the religious dietary restrictions be observed by the foster family,” Assaf wrote. He contrasted the New Jersey law with New York State’s requirement that children be placed in the custody of individuals or agencies “of the same religious persuasion as the child.”

Orthodox Jewish groups support Schaer’s measure.

“We commend Assemblyman Schaer for crafting this important piece of legislation,” Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, who represents the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs in Trenton, said. “We believe it is vital to the welfare of a child to be raised in a religious environment consistent with that of his or her parents. Having a child placed in a foster home of a different faith can be both traumatic and confusing.”

The Brooklyn-based Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which provides foster care and social work services, primarily to the Orthodox community, also supports the measure.

Foster care “could be one of the most traumatic periods in a child’s life and the placement with a family that provides the environment to sustain a child’s religious beliefs can have a profound positive impact,” Derek Saker said. Saker, Ohel’s director of communications, lives in Passaic. “Taking a Muslim child and placing him in an agnostic home — or a Jewish home for that matter — adds to the confusion of the child.”

In New York State, he said, a government agency contacts Ohel if there is a Jewish child who needs foster care. Ohel and similar Muslim organizations “have for decades been trying to get a license to operate in New Jersey,” he added

In May, an Assembly committee approved Schaer’s bill by a six-to-one vote. It has yet to come to a vote of the full Assembly. From there, if it passes it would go on to a Senate committee, and then to the full Senate, where it is sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican who represents the 25th District. Schaer hopes the measure will be taken up in the fall legislative session and passed before the end of the year.

One Jewish state legislator expressed reservations about the measure as it is drafted. “I think the bill has some problems in it,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who represents the 37th District.

“Will this somehow mean that some children cannot be placed in adoptive families because there is some kind of an extra barrier?” she asked. She noted that current law requires the state to make “a reasonable effort” to maintain a child’s religious upbringing. The proposed bill would require that DYFS prepare a statement of facts when placing a child with another religious faith. “That adds a whole lot of bureaucracy,” she said.

She also wants to make sure “that there is nothing in this bill that could prevent gay couples from adopting a child. Would a Jewish gay couple or a Catholic gay couple be okay?”

Foster and Adoptive Family Services, an organization of New Jersey foster parents, opposes the bill, saying it would “severely restrict the pool of potential families for any particular child.”

One observant Jewish foster mother agrees with that critique. “I support taking religion into strong consideration,” says Tovah Isaiah Gidseg, a Teaneck resident who is raising two non-Jewish foster children. “I just don’t support requiring same-religion placement in all or even the majority of cases, the vast majority of whom are non-practicing Christians.

“This means adoption for Jewish families is just going to be that much harder. Few kids in the system are Jewish, and there is not really a shortage of Jewish foster or adoptive families.

Gidseg said the bill is “well intentioned.

“DYFS needs a formalized way to deal with the needs of children of minority faith. I just think [this bill] is a bit far reaching and misguided and will potentially harm the ability of Jewish families to be foster and adoptive parents.”

Gidsig said that the state makes “tremendous attempts” to keep children in the care of their birth families or extended family. Thirty-five percent of children in New Jersey foster care are in such “kinship” placement, one of the highest rates in the country, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“The definition of ‘kinship’ in New Jersey extends to close friends, neighbors, and members of a child’s religious community,” Gidsig said. “My family has been considered as a ‘kinship’ placement for Orthodox Jewish children before, despite not having a close relationship with the children, because DYFS understands that keeping an Orthodox child in a religious home is important. Jewish children in New Jersey, especially those in Orthodox communities, rarely enter the formal foster care system, and when they do they are almost always placed in Jewish homes.”

That is not to say that the system could not be improved. “Here in Bergen County, the foster care home finders and caseworkers generally know which foster families are Jewish and will go to those families if a Jewish foster child enters the system,” she said. But it may be different in counties that do not have large Orthodox populations. “There seems to be no central list of Jewish foster families available to caseworkers, so there’s no way for a DYFS worker to know which families are Jewish besides those who they personally are acquainted with or who their co-workers might be familiar with,” Gidsig said. “From what I’ve been told, the main way they know which homes are Jewish is by word of mouth among the caseworkers. This system is highly informal and this can be a real problem, because it results in Jewish children sometimes unnecessarily being placed in faraway counties before the local DYFS office discovers that they actually had an available Jewish home in their own area.”

Gidseg said that the original case that sparked the bill, where the child was stripped of his Muslim identity, was a violation of DYFS policy.

“DYFS already makes it legally incumbent upon all foster families to honor and maintain a child’s faith. We must agree to this when we become licensed as foster families and we can lose our licenses for being religiously coercive in any way. We were asked at length during our home study how our Jewish faith would impact our fostering and how we would honor the racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds of foster children. While I certainly believe that it’s very difficult for a religious Jewish child to maintain their faith outside of a Jewish home, I do not believe the same is equally true for children of every faith and denomination. This has been borne out in the experience of myself and other Jewish foster families I know who foster/adopt non-Jewish children.

“Most of the Jewish foster parents I know have found that the children placed with them are almost exclusively from nominally Christian, nonreligious backgrounds, and usually the parents are not upset that their children are with a Jewish foster family.

“Why, then, should these children only be placed in Christian homes?” Gidseg asked.

“Why is a Jewish home that is willing to make sure the children get to celebrate Christmas (even if it’s in the home of a non-Jewish friend or family member), or who finds someone to take the children to church if they so request, or that allows the children to practice their traditions, be considered less of an appropriate placement?

“Instead of making such a placement an outright violation of policy, DYFS could instead provide more support and education to foster families and caseworkers with regard to cultural and religious competency and how to make sure children’s’ traditions are honored in their foster families, and encourage birth families to talk openly about their preferences for their child’s placement early in the placement process. DYFS should also begin to maintain updated statewide lists of foster families of minority faiths that they can use as a reference if looking for a placement of a child who is Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc.”

The proposed bill, Gidseg said, would seriously affect Jewish families’ ability to adopt New Jersey children, even if parents had lost their parental rights, and had not indicated that they cared about their children’s religion.

“In most cases I know of, if they have asked for a same-religion placement they have received one if it is available,” she said.

“At the point that adoption is finalized, a Jewish family who adopts through the foster care system has the right to pursue a conversion for their child to Judaism. This is not a right that should be removed, as the adoptive family becomes the full legal parents and therefore the ones to make religious decisions for their child.”

 
 

Local cemetery owners sign pact

Area rabbis have not yet taken a position on the agreement

Deb HermanLocal
Published: 26 October 2012

Nearly two years of meetings between cemetery owners, rabbis, and state legislators have produced their first concrete result: Three cemetery owners have signed an agreement that will smooth the way to burials on Sundays and legal holidays, and end the requirement of cash payments to cemeteries that are not equipped to take credit cards.

The rabbis, however, have yet to take a position on the agreement.

Beth Israel Cemetery, Cedar Park Cemetery, and Riverside Cemetery, whose representatives signed the agreement, are among the leading Jewish cemeteries in the state.

The agreement does not deal with all the issues raised over the last five years by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, including a major Jewish concern: The high price of Sunday burials. Jewish tradition urges that the dead be buried as soon as possible, but not on Shabbat.

The agreement was announced last week in a press release from the office of Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who took part in the meetings along with State Senator Loretta Weinberg. The meetings were facilitated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federations of Northern New Jersey, and took place at the federation’s offices.

“It’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Schaer said. “When I first dealt with the issue, the only thing I would hear is that no one would sit with anyone else.

“This is not everything that we wanted, but this is a process and certainly further along the road than we have been,” he said.

The Board of Rabbis, which participated in the meetings, has not signed on to it yet, or even discussed it.

“We have not yet gotten around to discussing this agreement,” Rabbi Benjamin Shull, the rabbinical body’s president, said. “We planned to, but circumstances prevented it at our October meeting. We are not yet signatories, and have not taken any formal position as yet. We hope to do so at our November meeting.”

“I’m encouraged by any progress on the issue,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who represented the Board of Rabbis in many of the meetings. He, like Shull, said that the November meeting will be the place to discuss the pact’s terms.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, who chairs the JCR, was in Israel this week and could not be reached for this story. Schaer said that it his understanding, based on “extensive communication” with Borovitz and other rabbis, that “we all seem to be on board,” although Shull’s and Sirbu’s statements contradict that.

The agreement calls for a meeting in six months, and “periodically thereafter,” to evaluate the progress on the issues.

“Hopefully, we will soon be able to deal with the issue of affordability” of Sunday and holiday burials, Schaer said.

Weinberg said that while “I’m happy we got this far, it’s not the end of the road.

“I admire the rabbis for their ability to articulate their problems, and admire the cemeteries in trying to react in the best way possible,” she said. “I don’t think it replaces legislation.”

Weinberg has had two bills pending in Trenton, which she now hopes to move to committee consideration before the end of the year. One will change the makeup of the state cemetery board, which regulates cemeteries, so it no longer will be made up mostly of cemetery representatives. The other would provide for caps on cemetery fees.

Schaer, however, said he disagreed with Weinberg about the role of legislation, saying he would prefer to deal with the issues through discussion and negotiation, rather than “the strong arm of government.”

“I’ve made it clear to the cemeteries that on my part, as long as the discussions are ongoing and serious, I would rather deal with the matters at hand more informally, rather than under statehouse law,” he said.

In their memorandum of understanding, the cemetery owners commit to raising the question of holiday burials in their next union negotiations. “Reasonable holiday compensation to staff will be offered and appropriate costs passed through to families,” the agreement says.

Holiday burials would be guaranteed if the request is called in before 9 a.m., and would have to take place by 1 p.m. The cemeteries also commit to trying to accommodate requests for burials after their normal hours, when daylight hours permit.

The complete memorandum of understanding can be viewed at target='_blank'> http://bit.ly/js-mou.

 
 
 
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