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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.

 
 

Rabbis respond to gay marriage defeat

Despite the challenges ahead, advocates of gay marriage within the Jewish community were undeterred after the Senate failed to pass its marriage equality bill last week.

The Senate voted 20-14 last Thursday against the bill, which proponents were trying to push through before Gov. Jon Corzine, who had promised to sign it, leaves office next week. Governor-elect Chris Christie has stated his opposition to gay marriage.

“Our side is going back to court to win marriage equality,” said Steven Goldstein, a Teaneck resident who heads Garden State Equality, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, during a press conference after the vote. “We are not waiting out the term of any new administration to bring equality to same-sex couples in our state.”

Goldstein pointed to a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that directed the legislature to create legislation for gay marriage or another structure that provides the equal protection of marriage.

Garden State Equality has partnered with Lambda Legal, an organization involved in gay rights litigation across the country, to bring a lawsuit against the state to enforce the 2006 decision. A suit would be forthcoming in a matter of weeks, Goldstein told The Jewish Standard earlier this week.

Goldstein, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, said that the issue has support from 19 religious denominations, include three branches of Judaism.

“I’m personally gratified,” he said. “It means so much to me as a leader who is both gay and Jewish.”

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements support gay marriage, while the Conservative movement passed opposing views two years ago, both of which are valid opinions for the movement’s rabbis. The Orthodox movement remains against the issue.

“It is true that the Orthodox Jewish community by and large opposes marriage equality,” he said. “I respect that point of view. But the vast majority of Jewish residents across New Jersey back marriage equality.”

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of the Orthodox Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn told the Standard that the bill’s defeat is “a positive phenomenon not just for the Jewish people but the entire state of New Jersey.”

“It’s a victory for morality and morality is good for the state,” he said, declining further comment.

Rabbi Randall Mark of the Conservative Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne is not opposed to gay marriage, but he’s not an activist for it, either.

“As a liberal rabbi, I think that it is reasonable for people who adopt a gay or lesbian lifestyle to be able to marry,” he said, “but I also recognize we live in a complex society and change happens slowly and often painfully.”

In 2006, New Jersey passed a law recognizing civil unions. Garden State Equality has said civil unions do not provide the same legal benefits or protections as marriage and that by the end of July 2007, 211 of the 1,358 couples who had entered civil unions since the law’s enactment had reported that their employers would not recognize the unions, denying them spousal insurance benefits.

“Many of the couples I’ve worked with have realized after the fact that civil union isn’t marriage,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brickman of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, which is Reform. “That name for their relationship carries a lot of weight. Not having that title available for their use is clearly a disadvantage.”

Brickman is intimately familiar with the rights Garden State Equality is fighting for. In 2006, Brickman’s domestic partner died, leaving him in a legal entanglement.

“We lived together for 22 years in a committed relationship, and when he passed away in 2006, I had to go through the process of not only grieving his death but also dealing with financial implications of not being able to claim him as a spouse,” he said.

“Federal and state government looked at our relationship as nonexistent,” he added, “despite the fact that we lived with as much integrity as heterosexual couples do.”

As Garden State Equality prepares to take gay marriage to the court system, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the prime sponsor behind the marriage equality bill, said she was optimistic. “We’ve helped build enough of a record of people on all sides of this issue saying civil unions do not work,” she said.

Despite Christie’s promises to seek a federal ban on gay marriage, Weinberg was positive the courts would impose a favorable decision. “Once the court makes a decision, it will automatically become law,” she said.

Brickman and Goldstein both stressed that they respect their colleagues who oppose same-sex marriage, and they both noted that no member of the clergy would be forced to perform a ceremony he or she is uncomfortable with. “That was a scare tactic used by the opponents to this law,” Brickman said.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Brickman said. “Jews have always been at the forefront of fights when there’s a matter of fairness on the line. In any situation where a society is treating people unfairly, we need to be at the forefront of correcting that.”

 
 

Jewish groups deplore state budget cuts

Jewish agencies braced for the worst after Gov. Chris Christie last week announced more than $2 billion in budget cuts for the remainder of the 2010 fiscal year.

Christie’s address to a joint session of the legislature last Thursday came shortly after the governor declared a fiscal emergency in New Jersey. The cuts, he told the legislature, were “among the hardest decisions any governor could be called upon to make.”

The budget solutions, according to the governor’s office, focus on four areas: targeting savings or areas of over-funding; targeting waste and ineffective programs; identifying areas for long-term reform; and making hard choices in the form of budget cuts. In total, the governor’s plan included 375 line item cuts and program eliminations — and that has the Jewish community worried.

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Gov. Chris Christie announced more than $2 billion in budget cuts last week.

“A lot of the money’s coming from the programs for the needy,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents the state’s 12 Jewish federations in Trenton.

As of Tuesday, Toporek was still reviewing the governor’s proposals but he had already pinpointed areas that would hit Jewish organizations.

School aid is taking a large hit as the government plans to withhold $475 million. Many of the state’s school districts have surplus budgets, according to Christie, and no district will lose more aid than it has in its surpluses. The cuts, however, will affect the large number of parents who send their children to day school and rely on state aid for busing. Under state law, towns and cities that provide busing for their public school students must also provide it for private school students. If public busing is available, day-school students can ride those buses for free for up to 20 miles. Parents whose children travel farther than 20 miles have to pay for bus service but receive a state reimbursement of $884. Under Christie’s proposal, that number has been cut in half.

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, declined comment on the cut.

Among the other programs sent to the budget guillotine is New Jersey After 3, an organization that funds after-school programs. Jewish Family Service of Bergen County receives $186,000 annually from New Jersey After 3 to run programs at four Cliffside Park elementary schools that attract more than 235 youngsters weekly. With New Jersey After 3 facing a cut of $5.24 million, the local programs are in jeopardy, said Lisa Fedder, JFS’s executive director.

“Across the state at least 10,000 kids will no longer have an after-school program, depending on when these programs shut down,” she said.

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Jacob Toporek

JFS planned to meet with the Cliffside Park superintendent on Feb. 18 to discuss funding options. One solution may be to ask parents to pay for the program, although Fedder recognized that many of the parents cannot afford it. Unless a funding source is found, the program will close, she said.

“We’re looking at all the alternatives because we want desperately to keep the program open,” Fedder said.

Englewood also has a New Jersey After 3 program, which is now in danger, said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), who had been a candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Gov. Jon Corzine.

“People will become educated as they see that, although there is room to cut fraud and abuse, what really is being cut is programs that are important to many of us, and in particular many of us in the Jewish community,” she said.

After-school program asks for help to ensure survival

After-school program asks for help to ensure survival

New Jersey After 3 has created an online petition urging the governor to restore its funding. The hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the most dangerous for children, according to the petition, and cutting the program’s funding would close programs at more than 100 schools across the state.

For more information, visit

www.change.org/njafter3/actions/view/keep_12000_kids_safe_save_afterschool_programs_in_new_jersey

With cuts to after-school programs and N.J. Transit, Weinberg warned, some parents may be forced to quit jobs to take care of their children after school or because fare hikes could make commuting too costly.

Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne does not run a New Jersey After 3 program, but its director, Leah Kaufman, is concerned about the impact of these cuts on future funding.

“Applying for grants through the state is going to be more and more difficult,” she said.

The Assembly budget committee planned to meet Feb. 17, and Weinberg said the Senate budget committee would meet soon, as well, to discuss the cuts. Christie, she said, is doing exactly what he promised to do in his campaign: Cut expenditures without raising income.

“All of us are going to come to the realization that cutting spending means cutting programs all of us depend on,” Weinberg said.

“I know these judgments will affect fellow New Jerseyans and will hurt,” Christie said during his address last week. “This is not a happy moment.”

Christie’s remark, however, was little consolation for those affected. With the government already predicting a $10 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, Jewish organizations were bracing for another round of cuts.

“Obviously the state needs to have money to run and cuts have to come from somewhere,” Fedder said, “but I hate to see it done on the backs of the most vulnerable and the people without voices.”

Toporek was pessimistic about the state’s 2011 budget, noting that many of these cuts may continue into the next fiscal year.

“These are just the cuts to make up the $2 billion shortfall indicated now through June 30,” he said. “If this is a harbinger of what’s going to happen, the next budget is going to be very painful as well.”

 
 

DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted

For Andrea DeVries, Mother’s Day is forever etched into her mind as the day her youngest son was killed in a traffic accident.

Twenty-four-year-old Daniel DeVries was engaged and working in human resources at Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus. He had graduated a year earlier from Monmouth University and lived with his parents, Andrea and Roger, in their Paramus home near the Ridgewood border. On Mother’s Day 2008, he was crossing the intersection of Maple and Ridgewood avenues when he was struck by a driver making a left turn. He was killed almost instantly.

The only charge brought against the driver was failure to yield to a pedestrian. There was no investigation into whether he had been intoxicated or operating a cell phone at the time of the accident, according to Andrea DeVries. The driver paid $300 in fines and had his license temporarily suspended, but DeVries said she felt justice had been eluded.

“We were just flabbergasted,” DeVries told The Jewish Standard earlier this week. “We were outraged. We were just shocked that this could just happen, especially after we read the witnesses’ accounts.”

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Andrea DeVries and her son Daniel, who was killed while in a Ridgewood pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008.

Since then, DeVries has been on a crusade to promote pedestrian safety and seek harsher penalties for motorists who drive and talk on their cell phones.

Last year, she attended a legislative breakfast at her synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. Her rabbi, Neal Borovitz, invited her to ask the speakers, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and a proxy for her then-rival for lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, about the case.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, who represents Paramus and sits on the state’s transportation committee, was in the audience. At her invitation, DeVries testified before the Assembly in January as it considered a bill increasing fines for those drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians.

“It made that bill come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The bill passed the legislature and Gov. Jon Corzine signed it as one of his final acts in office. The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian.

“It was a baby step,” she said of the legislation.

On average, 150 New Jersey pedestrians die each year in traffic accidents, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. And for each fatality, two more are injured. New Jersey began counting the number of crashes associated with cell phones in June 2001. In 2004, the state banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. In 2008, the state made texting while driving illegal.

In 2008, the state recorded 1,821 hand-held cell phone-related crashes and 1,383 hands-free cell phone-related crashes. With 159, Bergen County had the third highest number of hands-free crashes that year. Essex County recorded the highest with 380 and Hudson County the second highest with 310. Essex also led the number of hand-held related crashes with 252, while Bergen registered 149. Hudson recorded 102.

“Pedestrian deaths are an epidemic in New Jersey,” DeVries said. “Drivers are not being held responsible. Drivers are more and more distracted by technology.”

According to Distraction.gov, a Website set up by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are three main types of driver distraction: visual, taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off what you are doing.

Texting is the most alarming distraction, according to the site, because it involves all three types of distraction.

“I don’t know whether adults realize this,” said Elana Flaumenhaft, assistant principal at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, but “a student can have a cell phone in her pocket, look you in the face, and text the entire time with her thumb. Because they can do that, they don’t see what the issue is.”

None of the three yeshiva high schools in Bergen County offer drivers’ education. At Ma’ayanot, however, the senior class each year is witness to a presentation on the dangers of drunk driving.

Texting while driving should be addressed as well, said Ruth Wang Birnbaum, assistant principal for academic affairs at Ma’ayanot. She pointed to statistics that show that texting while driving is as dangerous as drinking while driving.

“It’s not an issue of your hands being free, it’s an issue of you being distracted,” she said. Hands-free devices, she continued, are “irrelevant.”

An estimated 515,000 people were injured and 5,870 people were killed nationwide in 2008 in police-reported crashes in which at least one driver distraction was reported, according to Distraction.gov. According to the National Safety Council, at least 1.4 million crashes nationwide are caused by drivers talking on cell phones, while at least 200,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are texting.

According to statistics from the University of Utah posted on Distraction.gov, using a cell phone while driving, whether hands-free or not, affects a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol level of .08, the legal limit. Carnegie Mellon University found that driving while using a cell phone results in a reduction of 37 percent in the amount of brain activity associated with driving, while a Virginia Tech study found that 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some type of distraction.

Drivers using hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes that result in injury, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

During the past 23 months, according to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, police issued 224,725 citations — an average of more than 9,000 a month — to drivers violating the state’s cell-phone laws.

“We are making progress in our efforts to ensure that all motorists are aware of the consequences they face if they choose to talk on a cell phone or text while driving,” said Pam Fischer, director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety in a statement on Wednesday. “Any cell-phone conversation while driving, whether hand-held or hands-free, is distracting and dangerous and can result in crashes, injuries, and in some cases the loss of life.”

Teaneck Police Chief Robert Wilson said his department has been targeting cell-phone usage since the second half of last year. New Jersey, he noted, has a very high rate of seatbelt usage because of high rates of enforcement.

“Hopefully we’ll get the same effect [for cell-phone usage] as seatbelt usage,” he said.

Teaneck’s Lt. Robert Carney does not see cell-phone usage increasing among drivers but he does not see the problem abating until the state punishes violators with points on their licenses.

“People seem to believe if they put [a cell phone] on speakerphone while still holding it, it’s hands-free,” he said.

The man who struck and killed Daniel DeVries will never return to trial or face stiffer punishment than the handful of fines he has already paid. Andrea DeVries’ personal quest for justice is over, but she continues fighting to prevent others from having to share her nightmare. Through Weinberg, DeVries has been in touch with the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, which does pro bono work to promote victims’ rights, in order to help others get the justice she feels she never received.

“The only thing I can do now is try to prevent this from happening to other people,” she said. “When you get behind the wheel of a car it can be a deadly weapon if it’s not operated properly.”

Freedom carries responsibility under Jewish law, said Avodat Shalom’s Borovitz. Drivers need greater accountability under the law. (See also Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer’s column.)

“The Jewish idea of freedom emphasized throughout the Torah is freedom under law,” Borovitz said. “We have to have rules where we recognize every human being is created in the image of God and has value and therefore we have to be accountable for our actions.”

He pointed to strict laws in Massachusetts and California that stop traffic when pedestrians enter crosswalks. In April, state law will change regarding pedestrians and crosswalks, a result of another last-minute Corzine act. The new law will require motorists to come to a complete stop for pedestrians in crosswalks instead of just yielding to them.

“Nothing can be done to bring back the pure and wonderful soul that was Danny DeVries,” Borovitz said, “but there should be something to make sure there aren’t more victims like Danny.”

 
 

Jews mixed on public-school cuts

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Members of the state legislature held a town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Bergen Academies in Hackensack to hear concerns about the proposed 2011 budget. From left are Assemblywoman Joan Voss, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, Sen. Bob Gordon, Sen. Paul Sarlo, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, and Assemblyman Fred Scalera. Josh Lipowsky

Public school teachers and students took to the streets this week in protest of last week’s statewide school board elections, which resulted in a rejection of almost 60 percent of New Jersey’s school budgets. As they struggle with high costs in the day-school system, Jewish communal leaders appeared mixed in their reactions to the emerging battle between the governor and the public schools.

Gov. Chris Christie is hailing the mass rejection as approval of his calls for schools to cut spending, including implementing a salary freeze for teachers. The state’s day-school system appears to have escaped largely unscathed, according to Howie Beigelman, the Orthodox Union’s deputy director of public policy, although community leaders are always concerned come budget time.

“We were extremely worried going into the budget; there were rumors of all kinds of cuts,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “But as far as Jewish schools go, we are seeing the same amount as last year in the [state] programs we use most — transportation and such — other than the lunch program, which has been inexplicably cut.”

State funding for non-public school lunch aid accounts for only 5 percent of a more than $8 million budget for the programs, according to Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy organization, and chair of State of New Jersey Non-Public School Advisory Committee. That funding is a victim of Christie’s cuts, but the other 95 percent, which comes from federal funding, remains intact.

The state cut $7 million in technology aid to day schools in the 2010 budget, Pruzansky said. The schools have struggled to make up that funding but, in the proposed 2011 budget, they escaped the major cuts that will affect the public schools.

“On the whole, non-public schools are still hurting,” Pruzansky said. “The only thing we can be thankful for is there was no [major] decrease in aid.”

Pruzansky lashed out at the New Jersey Education Association for not accepting the governor’s call for a wage freeze for teachers. Public school teachers typically earn much higher salaries than their day-school colleagues, he said.

“Non-public school teachers are sacrificing far more than their public-school counterparts,” Pruzansky said. “The heroes in education today should be non-public school teachers who do more with less.”

For Yavneh Academy in Paramus, last year’s technology grant cut meant a loss of $27,500, according to the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Though the day-school system appears to have escaped the budget ax in the coming cycle, the cuts to the public schools are still disturbing, he said.

“We work closely with our public schools, and it’s hard to advocate for the needs of the yeshivot when public school funding is being questioned,” he said. “However, we should still try where at all possible.”

Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of school at Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, sympathized with her public-school colleagues.

“Our hearts go out to the students and the families and the teachers in the public-school system,” she said. “We hope that the financial crisis will be averted in the near future.”

Teachers gathered outside state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s Teaneck office last week and students across the area walked out of schools in protest on Tuesday. Weinberg (D-37) and state Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Bob Gordon (D-38) held a community forum at Bergen Academies in Hackensack on Tuesday night, which attracted about 100 residents from across the county who mostly spoke out against the budget cuts. In response, Gordon called the budget proposal “reckless” and accused Christie of a “reverse Robin Hood” mentality.

“The legislature will put its own impact on this budget,” Weinberg told the audience at the end of the meeting. “We are going to be your advocate.”

Some Jewish organizations are going to bat in Trenton for public-school programs facing cuts in the new budget. Suad Gacham, director of School Based Services for Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, testified before an Assembly budget hearing last week about New Jersey After 3, an after-school program in danger of losing more than $5 million in state funding. JFS runs one program in Cliffside Park that attracts more than 235 youngsters weekly and may face cancellation.

“If these programs are to disappear,” Gacham told the budget committee, “30 to 40 percent of the children would be latchkey children, coming home alone at a very young age to an unsupervised home until their parents return from work. Children would be at risk.”

Praising the work of public-school educators, Lisa Fedder, executive director of JFS, called Tuesday’s student walkouts “an exercise in democracy.”

“For some, it may be their first exercise in democracy — how you identify a cause and take steps to express your point of view,” she said.

Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, issued a statement earlier this week condemning the student walkouts.

“First, students belong in the classroom,” he said. “Students would be better served,” he added, “if they were given a full, impartial understanding of the problems that got us here in the first place and why dramatic action was needed.”

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association of Jewish Federations, said it has been working with other organizations advocating against the cuts rather than taking a lead.

“The governor’s seeking a shared sacrifice, and I think the agencies and the people we’re advocating with recognize that,” Toporek said in a telephone interview. “But they’re very much concerned that the impact on the clientele we deal with may be a little greater than the impact of the shared sacrifice on others.”

Democratic legislators have promised to make changes to the budget, but Christie has also vowed to veto any significant reversals to his cuts.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” said JFS’ Fedder. “I know that people are dealing with some very difficult issues. There are not any easy answers.”

 
 

N.J. students are among first to study at new Tiferet site

Five high school grads from Teaneck, one from Bergenfield, and one from Passaic are among students finishing an academic year in the new four-story facility of the Tiferet Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women in suburban Jerusalem.

According to co-founder Rabbi Azriel Rosner, Tiferet was founded in 2005 with the unique goal of providing a complete community for gap-year students, where teachers all live in the neighborhood and maintain an open-home policy for the 60 young women from London, Toronto, Florida, Texas, Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, and the New York metropolitan area.

Given that nearly 70 different seminary programs are available for overseas women before college — 51 of them in Jerusalem — each one must find a niche that attracts a particular type of student. Tiferet is in Ramat Beit Shemesh, about 45 minutes from the capital city.

“Because we are a little out of the Jerusalem social scene, our emphasis is on girls who are coming to Israel to learn and grow and not necessarily be part of that scene,” said Rosner. “Everyone involved here lives within walking distance, and for students thousands of miles from home this adds an aspect of integration. Judaism is more than academic; it is also experiential, and our setup offers an experience of being part of an Israeli community.”

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New Jersey students at Tiferet include, from left, Jessica Listhaus (Livingston), Alana Blumenthal (Teaneck), Lindsay Stadtmauer (West Orange), Ariel Mischel (Teaneck), Rachel Moradi (West Orange), Alyssa Zaretsky (Teaneck) and Michelle Fleksher (Passaic). Not shown are Leora Koenig (Bergenfield), Sara Weiss Kallus (Teaneck), Doren Glaser (Teaneck), and Tehilla Goder (Hillside).

Michelle Fleksher of Passaic, a 2009 graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, said Tiferet interested her primarily for its self-contained atmosphere.

“I was looking for something smaller and warm, and here we’re in a community and can go to visit our teachers whenever we want,” she said. “Coming from a place of not liking to be away from home, that was the number 1 reason for me to choose Tiferet.”

Alyssa Zaretsky of Teaneck explained that each student is assigned an “adoptive” family, providing an insider view of Israeli life. The families “live in a very modest way but have everything they need, and they and their children are happy,” she said.

Fleksher noted that unlike many other seminaries, Tiferet offers college credit based on attendance, not exams or papers. “When it comes to testing I can get very stressed, and I didn’t want that,” she said. “You are here because you want to be. It’s very calming.” She hopes to study nursing in the United States after completing a second year at Tiferet.

The new structure, faced in Jerusalem stone, houses classrooms, a dining room, a study hall, and student dormitories. Its construction was financed by private donations and what is referred to as a “substantial” no-interest loan from the Caroline & Joseph S. Gruss Life Monument Fund. To keep up with enrollment demand, added Rosner, a second building is planned.

Students can choose from among classes in Bible; Jewish history, law, and philosophy; and Talmud, prayer, Zionism, and Israel advocacy. Like most other seminaries, Tiferet offers hikes and trips to national parks, landmarks, and archaeological sites. Also like other programs, it holds classes from morning till night and leaves one day a week free for community volunteering.

Bergenfield resident Leora Koenig, a Frisch School graduate, said her service involved playing with children in a local family so that the mother could devote extra time to their autistic sibling.

Alana Blumenthal of Teaneck came to visit the school when she was a senior at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth. “I saw that no one was bored,” she related. “I sat in on a class and was inspired right away. This was the way I wanted to learn and spend the year. And once you get accepted, you’re immediately part of this huge family that is Tiferet.”

 
 

Presbyterian report threatens coalition

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs did not mince words. In a letter dated March 15 and addressed to its board and member agencies, the group wrote: “The Jewish community finds itself at a crossroad in our relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

At issue is a report from the church’s Middle East Study Committee. Entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page document — which will be presented at the group’s 219th General Assembly in July — is “an egregious diatribe against Israel,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of North Jersey and head of the regional Community Relations Council.

Kurland and Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday to relay their concerns.

This is not the first time the Protestant denomination — with some 10,000 congregations and 2 million to 3 million members — has put forward positions critical of Israel.

But, said Gall, “this is the worst ever,” because rather than just voicing specific concerns or proposals advocating boycotts or divestment, “it’s much more insidious; it’s about delegitimizing Israel as a state.”

In the past, she said, groups such as AJCommittee and JCPA mobilized their local offices to talk to Presbyterian delegates before they went to their biennial conventions, letting them know how their Jewish neighbors felt about anti-Israel proposals. And, in the past, such efforts were generally successful.

This time, however, may be different.

“Regretfully, there is a possibility it will pass,” said Gall, pointing out that while there are certainly a small number of delegates who will be committed to its passage, most — “who will also be considering tons of other stuff” — may simply not understand the implications of the issue and simply let it go through.

In addition, she pointed out, this year’s agenda also contains a report on gay rights, something likely to garner much more attention.

“We as Jews forget that it’s not the most important thing to the average church member,” she said.

Nevertheless, said Kurland, should the measure pass, “We’re going to have to step back and reassess” relations with the Presbyterian Church. Citing coalitions in which Jews and Presbyterians work together on issues such as Darfur and immigration reform, she said that, conceivably, such efforts might not be able to continue.

“The proposal can’t be fixed,” said Gall. “In our estimation, it can’t be tweaked. All the blame for everything is on Israel,” she added, noting that the document refers continually to “occupation, occupation, occupation, and land taken away from the Palestinians.”

“It’s a rewriting of the story,” said Kurland. “The whole piece is a horrific attack against Israel, making use of pieces of text taken completely out of context.”

These include scriptural passages, she said. The March JCPA letter gives examples of “a problematic theology” in the report that negates Jewish claims to the land while simultaneously “holding the modern State of Israel to biblical standards of justice,” standards that are not applied to other countries.

Kurland also pointed out that despite the Presbyterians’ protestations, no mainstream American Jewish organizations were consulted during the preparation of the report. The committee indicated that it had spoken with Jewish Voices for Peace, described by JCPA as an anti-Israel group; B’Tselem, an Israeli group; and J Street.

J Street, however, said later that it was never consulted by the Presbyterian group and that it finds the report “troubling and unfair,” according to JCPA.

Additionally, the report holds “Israeli discrimination” responsible for the declining Christian population in the country, and, said Gall, “One of the authors of the historical analysis sections claims that United States aid to Israel violates domestic and international law.”

While Jews are clearly troubled by the report, they are not alone, said the AJCommittee director.

“It’s not all Presbyterians,” she said. “We’re not talking about demonizing the whole church. Some are very upset and are working to change it.”

To help in this effort, local community relations councils and regional AJCommittee offices are reaching out to their Presbyterian coalition partners, stressing the importance of countering the report, which, if accepted, would result in anti-Israel measures.

Kurland said there are 30 convention delegates from New Jersey.

“We have to try to speak with them and with other Presbyterian ministers who are our friends,” she said. “There are relationships that have been built over the years on the local level, where they don’t march in lockstep with the national body.” People on the local level “have to hear from their Jewish clergy counterparts that these relationships really mean something.”

“We also have to explain to our partners that maybe they haven’t quite understood how important Israel is to us, that it’s part of our identity as American Jews,” said Gall.

“We have a perfect right to try to educate our friends and neighbors” on the importance of Israel, she said. “We think we’ve done so much and we all get along, but we don’t talk about the things that are really important to us. Our neighbors don’t seem to understand that being Jewish is not just about going to synagogue on Saturday; it’s not just a religion.” While Jews may be reluctant to initiate such discussions, “other people need to know,” she said.

Should the report pass, said the two Jewish leaders, the Jewish community will “have to take a deep breath and step back,” though exactly how the repercussions will be felt will differ from town to town. They also agreed that Israel’s recent actions regarding the Gaza aid flotilla will “put a cloud on what we’re trying to do.”

“I’m sure it will have to be addressed,” said Gall. “Maybe we’ll wait a week to make calls.”

Nevertheless, said Kurland, pointing out that task-force meetings have already been held on the subject, action must be taken.

“What’s really troublesome is not only that this issue was visited a few years ago and we thought that things were addressed and rectified, but that this initiative is so egregiously anti-Israel that it can break up a coalition with the Presbyterians.” Coalition partners “must understand what’s at stake here; that we cannot be at the table with people who are working against the welfare and security of the State of Israel.”

 
 

Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

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Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives — leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body — the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.’”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.

 
 

Why NORPAC is supporting a challenger

 
 
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