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They made the news in 2009

Fifteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: Naming the newsmakers of the year just past.

Particularly because of the recession (and Bernard Madoff), it was a very rough year. People lost their savings and their jobs. Some even lost their homes. Charities suffered and were hard-pressed to continue their good works. But the year called forth the best in us. We helped each other. We used our seichel and invented new ways of dealing with difficulty. Some of them even bridged age-old divisions.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival? Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we name two people to the top of our list: State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Rabbi Ephraim Simon.

In December of 2008, we reported that Weinberg had lost her life savings in the Bernard Madoff scam. Instead of retreating to nurse her financial wounds, Weinberg — who by her own account has a tough skin — went on to run for lieutenant governor in November.

Tough indeed.

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State Sen. Loretta Weinberg continues to champion laws that benefit families, fairness, and ethics.

Weinberg, who described herself during the gubernatorial campaign as a “feisty grandmother,” is a former Bergen County assistant administrator (1975 to 1985), member of the Teaneck Township Council (1990-1994), and New Jersey assemblywoman (1992-2005). Now, as state senator, she continues to pioneer important state legislation while mentoring young women new to the political arena.

Challenge is nothing new for the New Jersey leader, a Teaneck resident since the mid-1960s. When she entered the N.J. Assembly in 1992, she was the only woman in the group’s Democratic caucus. Today, she is in the forefront of the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage.

That issue, Weinberg told The Jewish Standard last month, basically comes down to 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.”

Born in New York in 1935, Weinberg graduated from the University of California with a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science, subsequently completing all coursework for a master of arts degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Throughout her legislative career, she has introduced and supported dozens of measures targeted primarily to families.

Among her other achievements, she sponsored a law to require health insurance companies to pay for at least 48 hours of hospital care for new mothers and their babies; helped establish New Jersey’s Child-Proof Handgun Bill; shaped the autism research funding bill that gives $1 from every New Jersey traffic violation to autism research; fought to enact a law lowering the legal alcohol level to .08 in New Jersey; and sponsored the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits smoking in indoor public places and workplaces.

She has also been active in the community, in both Jewish and secular organizations. A longtime member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, she is a life member of the National Council of Jewish Women and a founding member of Shelter Our Sisters, which helps victims of domestic violence.

Known for her outspoken approach to government corruption, she was a valuable addition to the Corzine team in November.

“If we don’t clean up politics, we can’t address anything else in a fair, open way,” she said, noting that she has had some “ugly first-hand experience.”

Weinberg’s politics and Jewishness are inextricably linked. Telling the Standard that she doesn’t want to sound “chauvinistic,” she pointed out that “the values imparted through our religious background are wonderful for being office-holders,” citing Jewish teachings on repairing the world, reaching out to help others less fortunate, and philanthropy.

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Rabbi Ephraim Simon literally gave of himself to save a stranger’s life.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon saved a stranger’s life last year by giving him his kidney. But in effect the Teaneck Chabad rabbi saved an entire family: The recipient was a desperately ill 51-year-old father of 10 who is now healthy enough to give his children the care they need.

Simon’s selfless act did much to clear the noxious air of the summer’s allegations of money-laundering by respected rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn and of illegal brokering of organs by an observant Brooklyn man.

It also spread the news that organ donation is halachically permissible — and it likely inspired many people to get an organ donor card.

There is, in fact, no way to know how many lives it will save over the years.

As the Rabbis tell us, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.”

Simon was among the top 20 candidates in the Jewish Community Heroes competition of the Jewish Federations of North America, and he’s certainly one of our heroes.

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Ari Teman, founder of JCorps, became the first JFNA Jewish Community Hero.

As it turned out, the award stayed in our community: JFNA named Teaneck native Ari Teman its first Jewish Community Hero, awarding him $25,000.

Teman, a standup comedian and the founder in 2007 of JCorps — which matches young Jews with volunteer opportunities in nine cities over three continents — beat out some 400 competitors, winning a contest that was part of the federation system’s new effort to broaden its base of support.

During a press conference after he was declared the winner, Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County, paid tribute to Chabad, which, he said, has influenced him in his outreach efforts.

“Chabad is way ahead of us,” he said. “If you’re traveling somewhere in the world, in some far remote village, there’s a Chabad guy willing to let you in no matter what. We’ve been able to borrow from them [the philosophy of] ‘a Jew is a Jew’ and not get into the conversation of what kind of Jew are you. We got that from Chabad.”

JCorps has already enlisted some 10,000 volunteers for local community service projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel — all with virtually no budget.

The award money “will enable us to take in a lot more volunteers rapidly without having to worry, ‘Do we have to slow it down because we can’t afford to bring more people in?’” Teman said.

The 27-year-old also rated an invite to the White House Chanukah party on the fifth night of Chanukah. According to JTA, he “e-mailed friends that he earned a presidential laugh and a hug with a joke: ‘They’re calling Obama a Nazi ... which I think is fantastic ... because if you thought the presidency was a tough job for a black guy to get — Nazi? We have overcome! Mr. President, you are breaking down color barriers!’”

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) was a powerful voice in Washington in 2009.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rothman has been involved with several resolutions that have awarded funding to New Jersey and area institutions. He has also played a large role in forwarding U.S.-Israel relations and local Jewish causes.

In January, he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for increased transparency in the operation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Rothman demanded an overhaul of UNRWA, starting with its educational materials, because, “[w]e certainly want to make sure that United States taxpayer dollars are not being passed along from UNRWA to Hamas or any other terrorist groups,” he told The Jewish Standard at the time. Rothman began the struggle to revamp UNRWA in 2004.

After a meeting in November with John Ging, UNRWA’s director of operations in Gaza, Rothman said, “While there is still much work to be done, we have come a long way in a small number of years.… UNRWA has stepped up its compliance with U.S. law stating that no United States taxpayer dollars will go to fund terrorists.”

As mayor of Englewood in 1984, Rothman lobbied the U.S. Department of State to block Libya from buying a mansion in the city. As a result of his efforts, the State Department and Libya signed an agreement limiting Libya’s use of the property. That agreement was the basis for preventing Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi from taking up residence at the house this summer during the opening session of the United Nations. Rothman joined Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who lives next door to the Libyan property, and current Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes in protesting the expected visit. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the house in November, which is permitted under the 1984 agreement.

As one of the original sponsors of the Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, Rothman has also been an important voice in pushing for tougher sanctions against Iran.

When the Mock Trial team at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck could not take part in the national competition in 2005 because it conflicted with Shabbat, Rothman went to bat, advocating that the national organization make an exception for TABC. Eventually an accommodation was made so the team could compete.

The House passed a Rothman-sponsored resolution in 2007 calling on the board of directors of the National High School Mock Trial Championships to accommodate students of all faiths to allow them to participate in the annual competition without violating the practices of their religion. History repeated itself last year, however, when it looked like the Maimonides School in Boston would be left out of the national competition because of a Shabbat conflict.

Last month, the Mock Trial board of directors adopted a formal procedure for a possible modification of the competition schedule due to religious beliefs and practices held by a team’s members.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was ubiquitous last year. A columnist for The Jewish Standard and The Jerusalem Post, Boteach released new books, filed an international lawsuit, and become a spiritual adviser to reality TV stars.

First the books. This year Boteach penned “The Kosher Sutra,” a guide to Jewish romantic passion, and “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” about his relationship with the late pop star and Jackson’s desire to see families focus more on their children.

That desire sparked the “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” campaign by Boteach’s This World: The Values Network. The campaign kicked off with a series of public service announcements featuring a slew of celebrities urging families to spend Friday nights together.

In November, The Values Network and Yeshiva University hosted An International Symposium on Jewish Values, which featured Boteach with such notable guests as law professor and author Alan Dershowitz, Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt, radio host Dennis Prager, and YU president Richard Joel.

When reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin, of TLC’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” split earlier this year, Jon Gosselin sought spiritual counseling from Boteach for a short while. TLC airs Boteach’s reality show, “Shalom in the Home,” in which he attempts to heal family discord.

The Boteach brand also grew a little more recently, with the release of “I’m a Rabbi Shmuley Groupie” T-shirts and mugs through his Website.

Most recently, though, Boteach has been making headlines as an outspoken critic of his next-door neighbor, the country of Libya. In August, Boteach led a protest against reports that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kaddafi would stay at a Libya-owned mansion next door to Boteach’s home in Englewood. (See page 7.) In the end, Kaddafi stayed elsewhere during his visit to the United Nations, but Boteach filed a lawsuit against the country alleging damage to his property caused during renovations on the Libyans’.

In Late November, while Boteach was on a humanitarian mission in Africa, Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, moved into the mansion, sparking protests from Boteach and the city’s mayor, Michael Wildes. The rabbi’s lawsuit against Libya is continuing and the court is waiting on a response from the country, according to Boteach’s lawyer.

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Under Jerry Nathan’s stewardship, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has collected 150 years’ worth of local Jewish history.

Jerry Nathans is a man with a mission. Just as the Jews have moved from country to country throughout our long history, the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey has moved from place to place, coming to rest (at least for the present) at the Barnert Medical Arts Complex in Paterson.

From Yiddish books printed in Paterson to wall hangings found on the streets of that city, the collection offers a unique look at local Jewish history, says Nathans, president of the group and the man who has virtually single-handedly shepherded northern New Jersey’s Jewish history for more than 20 years.

But the society is in trouble, says Nathans, 81, who doesn’t have the help he needs to keep it going and is seeking not only a board of directors but skilled professionals, including an archivist, to help preserve the treasures he has collected.

As the caretaker of 150 years of history — packed into some 300 boxes containing paintings, banners, and boxes filled with photographs and documents, detailing events from synagogue groundbreakings to synagogue closings, as well as everything in between — he says the long-range goal of the group is to establish a local Jewish heritage center for exhibits and research open to students, scholars, and other interested persons.

For information or to volunteer, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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UJA President Alan Scharfstein oversaw a transformative year for UJA-NNJ.

This was a transformative year for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. It had been planning major changes for two years, according to its president, Alan Scharfstein, changes designed “not only to manage funds but to engage the next generation.” The crisis caused by the recession acted as a catalyst.

In addition to trimming its budget and staff, it expanded donors’ options, allowing what it called “a new, personalized approach to philanthropy.” Thus, in addition to its annual campaign and its customary allocations to Jewish causes locally, in Israel, and worldwide, it advised donors that “supplemental projects can be created anywhere there is a need you want to help meet. From northern New Jersey or New Orleans to Nahariya or North Ossetia, UJA Federation has the partners in place to create and implement a project for you. And once your project is up and running, we’ll … report measurable outcomes so that you can be directly connected to the impact of your philanthropy.”

The federation also restructured itself into what it called “four centers of service”: the Center for Leadership and Volunteer Development; the Center for Philanthropy; the Center for Community Development and Innovation; and the Center for Israel Engagement.”

As Scharfstein told the Standard in June, “We want to be … nimble, responsive, fast…. We’re doing what needs to be done.”

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Rabbi Noam Marans, coordinator of the Kehillah Partnership, told delegates at the General Assembly why the program has worked so well.

The Kehillah Partnership — a Northern New Jersey program created in 2006 and linking the YJCC of Bergen County, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and local synagogues — garnered some well-deserved praise in November at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Washington, D.C. Promoting cost- and resource-sharing initiatives as well as joint programs, the venture is coordinated by Rabbi Noam Marans, associate director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.

“The Partnership is a place where local community agencies and institutions … work together to foster innovation and connectedness, doing together what no agency can do alone,” said Marans at the GA. “Institutions maintain individual identities and allegiances but embrace the benefit of working together with others.”

Among its other programs, the Partnership developed a curriculum for sixth-grade Hebrew school teachers that integrates the arts. In addition, the group recently brought the national PJ Library — geared toward getting young children and their families to read Jewish books — to the area.

Marans said that the program, which at present embraces 10 congregations, will eventually expand not only to more synagogues but to more Jewish institutions as well.

“We have learned,” he said, “that if one creates an environment of trust between institutions, the institutions and their lead players will work together on projects for the betterment of the entire community.”

Beginning in late 2008, letters and columns filled the pages of The Jewish Standard about the rising costs of day-school tuition, comparing those costs to a form of Jewish birth control. America’s economic downturn had shoved the problem of escalating day-school tuition to the forefront of the battle for Jewish continuity.

In January 2009, the Orthodox Union convened a host of rabbis and day-school administrators to discuss the growing problem of high day-school tuition. The Standard fostered the wider discussion by launching an occasional column, contributed by readers, it called “Continuing the Conversation.”

The OU, the world’s largest Orthodox umbrella group began exploring a series of nation-wide cost-saving programs, but that wasn’t enough. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood soon began gathering local day-school leaders, parents, and rabbis to tackle the problem.

The result was Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, NNJKIDS. It is the main project of Jewish Education For Generations, an organization launched in June to explore various options to solve what many have deemed a tuition crisis.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the entire community.

Goldin, who was our first Newsmaker of the Year 15 years ago, previously told the Standard that, “We’re trying to move away from the tuition-based model alone to a model of broad-based support.”

With the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, NNJKIDS has reached out to every Orthodox synagogue in the county, as well as a growing number of Conservative synagogues. Perhaps the organization’s greatest accomplishment in its short history has been its ability to bring people together from across the denominational spectrum to support the area’s Orthodox day schools as well as its two Solomon Schechter schools, which are affiliated with the Conservative movement.

In November, NNJKIDS awarded more than $180,000 — the first of what it hopes will be quarterly distributions — to eight elementary day schools.

They are: Ben Porat Yosef, Paramus; Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, Oakland; The Moriah School, Englewood; The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, River Edge; Sinai Schools; Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, New Milford; Yavneh Academy, Paramus; and Yeshivat Noam, Paramus.

For more information on the fund, visit http://www.nnjkids.org.

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Congregant Debbie Zlotowitz working with schoolchildren in Uganda as part of Barnert Temple’s Africa Initiative.

Responding to the tremendous needs of people in war-torn and impoverished African nations, Barnert Temple — which for several years has sponsored relief projects in that region — this year significantly expanded its outreach efforts.

The congregation’s Africa Initiative, unveiled in mid-October, includes a youth program to raise relief funds and awareness for victims in Darfur as well as projects linking the Franklin Lakes congregation with schools in Uganda and helping nascent women’s cooperatives expand their effectiveness in Rwanda.

Among other activities, the congregation will help fund a well in a Ugandan village so that girls charged with drawing water will have time to go to school.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman told The Jewish Standard that factors such as colonialism have worsened the situation in Africa, “a part of the world so rich in heritage and wisdom, yet so challenged by poverty and lack of opportunity.”

“We see our [Jewish] mandate to help as universal,” she said. “We bring all the gifts that have been granted us to bear upon the condition of others.”

She said that about 30 percent of Barnert’s members are involved in projects of social action.

The Barnert religious school is involved as well through its solar cooking project, which helps families of Darfur refugees in camps by relieving women of the need to scavenge for wood, making them vulnerable to attack.

For more information, visit the synagogue’s Website, barnerttemple.org, and follow the link to the social action committee.

Threatened with loss of funding for the school’s successful Music Discovery Partnership, the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly appealed to the community — and won.

According to the school’s director, Dorothy Roffman, the initiative — which has brought musical enrichment to more than 1,000 students in the Englewood public schools over the past 10 years — was able to survive the expiration of the Englewood District’s federal and state program grants. Recognizing the importance of the program, the district decided to use federal stimulus money to support the program as part of a comprehensive plan to raise student achievement.

Ironically, in August the Thurnauer school had announced that it was designated a Major Arts Institution by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State and had been awarded $18,000 by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Learning in the Arts Program — for the very program later threatened.

Roffman said the Music Discovery Partnership benefits both the students and the community as a whole.

“A rewarding and extensive artistic experience can have an enormous impact on individuals, their families, and peers, including learning to focus, gaining self-confidence, and developing sensitivity to other points of view,” she said. In addition, “Consistent exposure to the arts has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to stimulate long-term, systemic change in the way that the arts are perceived and valued by our society.”

For further information about the Thurnauer school or the Music Discovery Partnership, call the school, (201) 408-1465, or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

NNJKIDS launches awareness month to raise money for day schools

In order to increase responsiveness to their goal of stemming the rise of yeshiva tuition, the committee behind North Jersey’s day-school kehilla fund has declared May NNJKIDS Month.

NNJKIDS, or Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, is the community fund of Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group formed last year to explore ways to lower tuition. To date, the organization has received more than 1,000 donations and distributed more than $300,000 to eight area day schools.

“What we’ve seen in the past year is a step change in the impact you can have when you tackle the issue collectively rather than individually,” said JEFG chair Sam Moed. “The effectiveness of what you can do is magnified when you pool all of the resources and tap into broader community infrastructure and capabilities.”

More than 60 area businesses — including restaurants, salons, and hardware stores — are displaying signs advertising NNJKIDS Month, and customers will have the option of adding donations to the fund to their bills. Each school is sending letters to parents encouraging participation in the fund. The schools are also promoting learn-a-thons during Shavuot for students to raise money from sponsors for the number of hours they spend learning during the holiday.

“The idea is a multi-pronged strategy to reach people wherever they are,” said Jennifer Miller, an officer of JEFG. “The community lives in the retail establishments, they live in the synagogues and respect what the rabbis promote, and of course the community lives in the day schools. We wanted to hit every constituency at every level.”

NNJKIDS has made two distributions so far, with a third planned later this month. The organization intends to hand out money quarterly to the eight elementary day schools within the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey catchment area, based on the number of students each school has from that area.

“The funds we’ve received from NNJKIDS have enabled us to keep tuition increases at a very low level for the coming year,” said Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, who said the school has scheduled a 1.9 percent increase. “It would have had to be higher.”

There are 926 students in K-8 this year, and 22 percent of Moriah’s families receive tuition assistance. The school has seen an increase in applications in the past two years, said Prager, who expects the percentage to remain about the same for next year.

Yavneh Academy in Paramus has approved a $200 increase to its $14,000 annual tuition, said the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Without JEFG’s contribution, however, the school would have had to increase tuition an added $200, he said. Yavneh has received more than $100,000 from NNJKIDS to date.

“If it wasn’t for that, quite frankly, I don’t where we’d be,” Kirschner said. “People really need to get behind this effort, because this is hopefully going to change the face of education in the community.”

Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has received less than $10,000 from the fund to date. The funds have not had a major impact on scholarship levels, said head of school Ruth Gafni, but seven families were able to receive scholarships that allowed their children to remain in the school instead of withdrawing midyear.

“How blessed we are to have people in our community willing to spend an enormous amount of time on what may save Jewish education in years to come,” she said.

Beyond the money, Gafni praised NNJKIDS for bringing the tuition crisis to the forefront and uniting the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

Recognizing that all the schools are in this situation together is a major part of the organization, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, JEFG’s rabbinic adviser and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“It’s encouraged a level of cooperation that’s really wonderful to witness,” he said. “It’s opened up lines of communication between the communities that’s beginning to extend to other areas of education as well.”

NNJKIDS leaders appeared pleased with what they have accomplished so far but also warned against complacency. The ultimate goal, they say, is to get 100 percent participation from the community.

“We’ve taken a good first step,” said Gershon Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of JEFG. “Clearly there is a lot more education that has to be done. We’re still only reaching a small percentage of our target audience, but the initial results are certainly promising.”

For more information on NNJKIDS, visit www.nnjkids.org.

 
 

‘We can make a difference in our children’s lives’

 

Learning curve

Community confronts day-school tuition crisis

Students have closed their books for summer but schools and parents alike are working to make the grade in the next stage of the day-school tuition crisis saga.

Raising one child can cost a middle-income family $19,380 to $23,180 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And if that family is dedicated to a day-school education, which can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year, then it’s time to start getting creative. According to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 4,822 students attended kindergarten through 12th grade in one of Bergen County’s 13 yeshiva day schools during the 2009-10 school year.

The country’s economic downturn pushed the tuition crisis out of the shadows of griping around the Shabbat table and into a very bright spotlight. Beginning with an early 2009 educators conference at the Orthodox Union in New York, teachers, administrators, and parents heeded the call to action to ease what many described as an increasing burden on day-school families.

Throughout the past year, several key players emerged, each with ideas on how to solve the problem. Indeed, the community saw a number of initiatives put forward; some gained momentum while others fizzled.

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NNJKIDS

“The community’s voting with its feet and saying the model of day-school education is not broken,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbinic adviser to Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group created last year to explore new funding options. “It’s the model of funding that’s broken.” (See page 16.)

JEFG’s main project has been Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS, a fund-raising initiative meant to shift the burden of tuition off of the parents and make it a communal priority. Formed in May 2009, NNJKIDS handed out $300,000 to eight area elementary schools throughout the course of the past school year. Organizers declared May NNJKIDS Month, a fund-raising push in the community that netted about a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a tremendous increase and uptake in the amount of awareness around NNJKIDS,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG.

More than 60 businesses participated in the month-long program. Business-owners asked customers to contribute to NNJKIDS at checkout, and day-school children collected pledges for a learn-a-thon during Shavuot. One donor had promised a matching grant of up to $100,000 and NNJKIDS organizers reported that the full match would be collected.

“If anyone would have predicted when we began that we would be this far along, I would not have believed it,” Goldin said. “To be able to get all the schools to sit down and cooperate to the level that they have and get the communal support from various institutions and garner the support on the grassroots level is very encouraging.”

JEFG leaders said their donations mitigated tuition by $200 per student.

“NNJKIDS was a strong contributor to our ability to moderate the increase in tuition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, president of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The funds from NNJKIDS were considered after all other economic considerations and had a real impact on lowering tuition increases for next year.”

JEFG isn’t resting on its laurels, however.

“We’ve got to continue to work on this and not in any way take our focus off different funding models and different approaches to all models of day schools,” Moed said.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in northwestern New Jersey has successfully created a community mega-fund. The $50 million campaign began with $13 million in contributions from 11 families in 2007 and sparked an idea within JEFG to replicate the endowment fund here.

David Moss, assistant executive vice president for endowment at UJA-NNJ, who has been working with JEFG on the mega-fund, said the idea is still being explored. The hope, according to Moss, is that such a fund would contribute not only to North Jersey’s day schools, but to congregational Hebrew schools as well.

“A lot of details have yet to be determined,” he said. “We’ve been, as a Jewish community and a federation in particular, particularly pleased with the efforts that JEFG is undertaking. When we’re ready to move forward with the mega-fund for Jewish education, it’s going to make the project that much more manageable.”

While he is a firm believer in day schools, Goldin said expanding the mega fund to include congregational Hebrew schools is a demonstration of JEFG’s commitment to educate every Jewish child.

“None of us is on an island,” he said.

Indeed, NNJKIDS has pulled together representatives of the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools and earned the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the area’s Orthodox rabbis, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents the area’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis. Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard during NNJKIDS Month that the organization has created a sense of community.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

The government — navigating the separation of church and state

More than 170,000 students in New Jersey attend some 1,200 non-public schools, according to the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of New Jersey. Of those, about 80 percent attend religious schools. The government provides $137 in aid per private-school student — $72 for nursing services and $65 for textbooks. A handful of groups is exploring options to expand that funding within the confines of the separation between church and state.

Schools that will receive part of a $221,367 allocation from the UJA Federation of Northern N.J. during the 2010-11 school year:

• Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School

• Ben Porat Yosef

• The Frisch School

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Solomon Schechter Day School
of Bergen County

• Torah Academy of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshiva Ohr Yosef

• Yeshiva Noam

• Sinai Schools

In one of his final acts in office in December, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to investigate how the state can aid non-public schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, director of education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, co-chaired the commission, which turned in its report to Gov. Chris Christie last month. The 23-member commission also included the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state treasurer and attorney general, charged with monitoring the church-state barrier. As of earlier this week, the commission’s findings had not yet been made public. Schaer declined comment until Christie’s office releases the report.

“Gov. Christie has received the commission’s report and we are currently reviewing its findings,” said Sean L. Conner, a Christie spokesman. “We are working to ensure every child in New Jersey has access to a quality education, no matter their zip code or family’s socioeconomic status.”

Howie Beigelman, deputy director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, testified before the New Jersey Senate’s Committee on Economic Development in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill that would create scholarships to be funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland Senate recently passed a similar bill.

“That will be a great step forward for all of us,” Beigelman told the Standard. “Lower and moderate-income kids can get a scholarship to go to a better school of their choice.”

The IPA is focusing its efforts on the OSA and has all but abandoned the pursuit of school vouchers. Vouchers, according to Beigelman, are “a minefield. While we certainly think legally there are ways to draft it that are appropriate, we think tax credits are easier and in other states help public and non-public schools. We’re happy to help everyone at the same time.”

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the New Jersey State Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Christie’s stance toward school choice.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to have a governor like Gov. Chris Christie who understands the importance of having a child educated in a place where their parents decide is the best place to be educated,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our community to start reaping increased funding for our students.”

Christie has drawn criticism across the state for slashing public school funding. More than half of the proposed school budgets across the state were voted down during April’s contentious school board elections. The elections were particularly contentious in Teaneck because of a slate of candidates for school board who didn’t have children in the public schools. This led to some accusations that some in the Orthodox community were willing to sacrifice the public schools to lower property taxes. This is not the case, Beigelman said.

“We are pro-public school,” Beigelman said. “We also want and need our folks — and everyone who’s in a bad school — to have options.”

The local community is beginning to enter the political arena as well. Jerry Gontownik, vice president of the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC, earlier this year founded EDPAC, dedicated to promoting day-school funding in Trenton.

“We are a PAC that is limited to the state of New Jersey,” Gontownik said, “and focused on encouraging our state elected officials to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools.”

He said one of the areas his group would push is to increase state funding for special education in parochial schools. Tuition at Sinai Schools — which is devoted to special education and has campuses at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck — charges base costs of more than $40,000 for in-state students and more than $50,000 for out-of-state pupils.

“Some people choose for religious reasons to send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “But I don’t think that choice should cut off completely the right of those parents to receive some funding toward the cost of education for their children.”

Like other advocacy groups, EDPAC is waiting for the governor to release the non-public schools report.

“I hope that if and when there is legislation that would assist the community in paying for Jewish education, that the community will appreciate the potential for such legislation and will assist financially in bringing such legislation to fruition.”

The OU

The Orthodox Union first brought the issue to the public’s attention at a conference for educators last year. OU leaders promised action to stem the increasingly prohibitive tuition, and the organization has made some progress, said Cary Friedman, associate director of day-school and educational services at the OU.

Approximately 15 schools throughout the tri-state area have signed on to a joint health insurance program the OU is coordinating. The OU, Friedman said, has created a professional employer organization, Advantec, so that all staff of the schools in the plan become employees of the new, larger organization. That organization then negotiates lower insurance rates for all the employees spread throughout the different schools.

“The whole topic of health care is just a crushing burden for the schools,” Friedman said. “Even though we’re offering good rates, their concerns are if this is going to continue into the future.”

The Internet may provide another source of relief for day schools. Some states have online charter schools, which — if used for secular components of day schools — could represent cost savings of up to 30 percent, Friedman said. This could also be a way around the church-state issue for funding of secular education.

“That online participation a kid can do in his basement, in a public library, or in a yeshiva classroom next to 19 other kids also signed up for the charter classroom,” he said.

New York and New Jersey currently do not permit online charter schools.

The Chabad factor

Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly has run a preschool for 13 years, but each year it has faced a dilemma of continuing education, said executive director Rabbi Mordechai Shain.

In recent years, Shain has noticed a trend among parents to put their children into public school after they finish at Chabad. Their argument, he said, is the high quality of Tenafly schools and the cost: Free.

“That’s our challenge,” Shain said. “How do you balance telling parents that they can have an academic education at no charge and telling them here we’re going to charge you thousands?”

In response, Chabad opened a kindergarten last year with 11 children. In November, registration for the 2010-11 year had reached 40 students. In response to the growth, Chabad created a first-grade class, which will begin in September with a class of 10 at a cost of $9,700 per student for first grade, and $9,400 for kindergarten. Both classes require a $770 registration fee as well.

Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, the closest day school to Tenafly Chabad, said he does not expect the new school to affect Moriah.

Chabad’s school, Shain said, is not meant to detract from any of the existing day schools. He estimated that about half the enrollment of the kindergarten and 60 percent of the first-grade class comes from Tenafly or surrounding areas that don’t have large Orthodox populations or large percentages of students already in day school.

“To reach people here, in this community, there’s no other way if we don’t open our own [school],” Shain said.

The Staten Island option

One of the ideas floated around last year was to create a low-cost day-school that offered basic educational services without many of the perks — advanced computers, smartboards, extra-curricular activities — now common in day schools. This idea never took off, but it caught the attention of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, which charges local students an annual tuition of $8,500.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools distributed more than $300,000 to area elementary schools during its first year. The following schools receive quarterly allocations from the organization:

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Sinai Schools

• Solomon Schechter Day School \of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshivat Noam

JFS extended that tuition rate — which includes $2,000 for transportation — to Bergen County families. Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield sent their three children — ages 6, 9, and 11 — to JFS this year and said they were very happy with the less expensive option.

“We were lucky to have found JFS,” Uri Gutfreund said. “One year after the decision, we are so glad that we made the move and we hope other parents investigate the option for their children.”

The school held two parlor meetings in the area last year and another two in recent months. One additional family has expressed interest in the school for the 2010-11 school year. JFS principal Rabbi Richard Erlich said he has been disappointed with the response so far from Bergen County, but he understands parents’ fears.

“This is a very big jump for a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to decide to remove your children from the local institution and send them 45 minutes away to another state.”

The big stumbling blocks for parents, Gutfreund said, are the commute and social life of the child.

“The social issue is a big mental block,” he said. “It’s going back to the old days when you had shul friends and school friends and neighborhood friends.”

JFS will continue to offer the $8,500 tuition to North Jersey families, Erlich said. About half of the school’s 400-odd students from Staten Island and Brooklyn receive some form of scholarship, but none of those funds is available for New Jersey families. At a few thousand dollars less than the local schools, however, Erlich said New Jersey families are already receiving quite a bargain.

“I’m still surprised,” Erlich said. “Clearly the recession is as entrenched this year as last year. People who didn’t have jobs last year still don’t have jobs this year. I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t a much greater response to our offer.”

How the schools are coping

Funds from NNJKIDS mitigated tuition increases across the board by about $200 per child, according to JEFG and school officials. It’s a start, but many schools still had to raise their rates and find other ways to cut costs.

Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School in Paramus is raising its tuition for the coming year to $10,000, an increase of $1,000 from this year’s rate. The school relies on its efficiency and goodwill of its parents to keep its prices low, said principal Miriam Bak.

One of the areas in which the school saves is by not paying teacher benefits. Most of the staff of almost 30 teachers is part time, though they are well-trained specialists and the school goes out of its way to accommodate schedules, Bak said.

At Ben Porat Yosef, which shares the old Frisch building with Bat Torah, tuition for pre-K rose $400 to $13,600, while tuition for first through fifth grades rose $400 to $14,200. The nursery school lowered its tuition by $1,300 to $7,900 and the toddler class lowered its tuition by $800 to $6,900.

The school has 215 students enrolled for next year, an approximately 40 percent increase from this past year, said Yehuda Kohn, vice president of the school’s board. Next year will also mark the school’s first fifth-grade class.

“Ben Porat Yosef is in a unique position in that we are in a vigorous growth phase,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. “As a result, not only have we not had to cut any staff, but our current fixed costs are now becoming more cost-effective.”

The school held a scholarship walkathon recently that raised more than $60,000. BPY is also working with Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership to create new avenues for revenue without increasing tuition. In addition, the school is “actively pursuing” all cost-cutting ideas, Kohn continued.

“No line item on our budget is immune,” he wrote.

“We’re learning to do more with less. We’re going to have to take on that mantra,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, who spoke with the Standard last month.

Yavneh raised its tuition for kindergarten to fifth grade to $13,300 and tuition for sixth through eighth grade to $13,975 — representing a $200 increase on both levels. The school’s allocation from UJA-NNJ has also decreased in recent years, Kirschner said. The federation gave it $105,000 for the 2005-06 year, while the allocation for 2009-10 was under $30,000.

The non-profit world has been one of the biggest victims of the economic downturn, but UJA-NNJ has increased its 2010-11 allocation to 13 schools to a total of $221,357 — an $8,520 increase from this past year.

“In a year when we kept slack most of our allocations, the day schools got a 4 percent increase,” said Alan Sweifach, the federation’s planning and allocations director. “It’s going to take a solution beyond the allocation. The allocation and the increase to Jewish education is an important message. At least it is a recognition and step in the right direction when the dollars are so limited.”

Tuition levels at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck will remain at the 2009-10 rates, largely thanks to a 10 percent increase in the student body. Salaries were frozen during the 2009-10 year, but teachers can expect to receive “modest” salary increases during the 2010-11 school year, administrator Ceil Olivestone wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. Olivestone praised what she called “efforts to keep a tight control on programs and expenses.”

“While we have not affected any curricular or extracurricular program or expense that would compromise the quality and essence of the chinuch/education that we provide,” she wrote, “the budget was thoroughly reviewed by the administration and lay leadership.”

Fund-raising among parents of current and former students, as well as within the community, provides 10 percent of the school’s budget, Olivestone wrote.

Basic tuition at The Frisch School in Paramus for 2010-11 will increase to $21,950 from $21,250, according to the school’s president, Martin Heistein. About 27 percent of the families of the school’s approximately 660 students this year received some form of scholarship.

The school has also avoided layoffs, Heistein said.

“We’ve reviewed all the remaining aspects of the budget and tried to toe the line where possible,” he said.

Moriah has increased tuition by 1.9 percent across the board, bringing the total for kindergarten to second grade up to $13,380; $13,635 for third through fifth grade; and $14,050 for sixth through eighth grade.

Salaries stayed level this year and will remain the same into next year, he continued. The school did lay off “several” mostly part-time employees, though Prager would not comment on the exact number.

“It’s certainly something we didn’t want to do but felt in order to be financially responsible we had to tighten the staffing somewhat,” he said.

The school has cut back costs on color printing, energy, and is spending on only “necessary purchases” of educational resources, Prager said.

“In the short run, our cost-saving steps, together with whatever help we’ve gotten from NNJKIDS, has at least at the present time, we feel, enabled us to successfully meet the economic challenges we’ve faced this year and into the coming year,” Prager said. “As to what the long-range picture will be only time will tell.”

RYNJ cut 10 jobs and kept salaries flat during the 2009-10 school year. Along with a reduction of positions, responsibilities, and pay, the school avoided a tuition increase from 2008-09 by cutting $500,000 in costs, said the school’s president.

The school projects an enrollment of 970 children in preschool through eighth grade next year, an increase of 35 students, and an average increase of $150, or 1.1 percent, per student per grade, according to Rosenbaum.

The increase breaks down to $255 for grades four through eight, $125 for grades one through three, and no increase for preschool. No other increases are planned, according to Rosenbaum.

The school is also looking to restructure teacher compensation and benefits, including giving tuition breaks for children of employees.

“These efforts are having a one-time impact on our economics but once we get over the initial bump, will position us well in the coming years to manage our costs,” Rosenbaum said.

Sinai also moved one of its elementary programs into RYNJ last year, which has helped defray the costs of the school’s expansion, Rosenbaum said.

“Sinai has been a great addition to our school, and we look forward to finding additional ways to collaborate to reduce costs and run fund-raising programs together,” he said.

RYNJ is one of four schools that saved a combined $24,000 through an electrical group-purchasing plan under UJA-NNJ. The nine-month-old program also includes Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland.

Frisch, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and Moriah School also recently signed up.

“In these turbulent economic times, we recognize the value of working together as a community to reduce costs wherever possible,” said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager.

To make the program work, the schools turn their electric bills over to UJA-NNJ, which then arranges for a single supplier, such as Con Edison or Suez, through Public Service Electricity & Gas. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

“We get multiple bids from potential suppliers. We select the supplier that offers the best product, service, and price,” Holland said. “We’re looking at annual savings up to $45,000 per school on electricity costs alone.”

The program began as part of the Kehillah Partnership, a group of community organizations that works to save on expenses and resources. The Kehillah Cooperative is the cost-sharing arm of the Partnership and it has netted savings for numerous community organizations.

“We started with electricity, saving $350,000 to date, and look forward to working cooperatively with all Jewish non-profits in northern New Jersey,” Holland said. “Our success so far demonstrates the opportunity the Kehillah Cooperative offers schools, as well as agencies and synagogues.”

Looking forward

“Do I think we’re living through tough times? Absolutely,” said Frisch’s Heistein. “It’s a constant challenge.”

One vocal day-school critic has taken to the Internet to vent his views with a blog called The $200k Chump, which takes its name from the high salary required to afford tuition. The anonymous blogger, who declined a telephone or face-to-face interview, claims to be a parent paying full tuition at one of the county’s schools and frequently writes about the “legacy schools” — Frisch, Moriah, and other established day schools — and why efforts to lower tuition there will not succeed.

“Like many here in town, I am struggling to pay the high cost of yeshiva tuition and want to use this blog to explore some REAL solutions to the crisis,” the “Chump” wrote in the blog’s bio. “Some of my proposals may not be popular with many of the administrators, teachers, board members, and scholarship recipients at our local day schools but that is life and I don’t really care much. The system is broken and we need real change before it is too late.”

The blogger has lashed out against school officials, as well as NNJKIDS for raising money the writer claims is used to hire more administrators. The Chump has also written about other alternatives, including charter schools, JFS, and “the nuclear option” — enrolling students in public schools.

Ideas for charter schools — an Englewood man has been trying to create a Hebrew language charter for two years — and after-school Talmud Torah programs — the Jewish Center of Teaneck has flirted with the idea and is ready to go if enough families show interest, according to Rabbi Lawrence Zierler — are not new but have yet to gain steam. The community has a responsibility to continue exploring all options, said JEFG’s Goldin.

The OU’s Friedman warned against complacency, even if the national economic picture looks brighter.

“The economy seems to be in a little bit of a respite, but nothing has changed,” he said. “If we delude ourselves and pretend it’s going away, it’s not going to go away.”

 
 

We name the newsmakers of 2010

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A torrential storm brought down trees and power lines across Bergen County in March and claimed the lives of Ovadia Mussaffi and Lawrence Krause.

Sixteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: naming the newsmakers of the year just passed (or, in this case, just passing).

This has been a challenging year, punctuated by an earthquake and storms as well as the continuing harsh winds of the recession. But we have also seen the community rising to meet those challenges in creative as well as tried-and-true ways.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival. Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we’ve enlarged our scope beyond the Jewish community. We award the top spot on the list to the “heroes of Haiti,” local doctors, Jewish or not, who gave their time and expertise in the devastation following the January earthquake there.

We name and celebrate those doctors whose efforts we’ve chronicled: Alan Gwertzman, Timothy Finley, Howard Zucker, Joshua Hyman, and Thomas Bojko. (Many of these are connected to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.)

We also cite the many unnamed medical personnel from this area who have worked to heal the still-wounded nation and its people. (And we note that Israel has maintained a virtually constant medical presence in Haiti and that Teaneck attorney Sam Davis, the founding director of Burn Advocates Network, expanded its reach, starting a physical and occupational therapy clinic there as well as arranging for medical equipment and recruiting doctors to man the clinic.)

Libya is again cracking our newsmakers list. The African country burst onto the list in 2009 when its leader, Muammar Kaddafi, was reportedly planning to stay at a Libya-owned mansion in Englewood during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. After protests led by the mansion’s neighbor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Kaddafi announced he would stay in New York. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, soon moved in.

In 2010, Libya made the list again, first because of its election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and second because of the controversy surrounding Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole conspirator convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 278 people, including 38 from New Jersey. He was released from prison last year on humanitarian grounds because doctors estimated he had only months to live after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He has outlived those expectations, angering advocates of the Lockerbie victims who alleged that Great Britain freed al-Megrahi because of pressure from BP for an oil deal.

Recently released cables from WikiLeaks appeared to confirm suspicions that Libya had threatened Great Britain economically if Scotland did not release al-Megrahi.

New Jersey’s U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, have repeatedly called for investigations into the circumstances of al-Megrahi’s release. With the WikiLeaks revelation, the issue is more than likely to continue into 2011.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), who sits on three appropriations subcommittees, has been a staunch ally of Israel in the House of Representatives. A former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Rothman has always been vocal about his support for the Jewish state, which has translated into numerous votes for military appropriations for Israel.

After the Mavi Marmara affair in June, Rothman came out firmly in support of Israel’s actions, telling the Standard that, “There is some regret over the loss of life, notwithstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Rothman also got into a proverbial spitting match earlier this year with Boteach, who alleged that the congressman did not do enough to keep the Libyan U.N. ambassador out of the mansion next to Boteach’s home. Rothman maintained that the original agreement from the 1980s, when Libya bought the mansion and Rothman was mayor of Englewood, decreed that the U.N. ambassador could use the home, although details were murky. This policy, Rothman said, had been agreed to by the State Department and there was therefore nothing he or the United States could do — particularly since Libya and the United States have since normalized relations — to prevent the ambassador from using the house.

Boteach also accused Rothman of being an apologist for President Obama’s policies, which many have regarded as being not in Israel’s favor. Rothman has on several occasions praised Obama for being what he called the most supportive president of military cooperation with Israel in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee appropriated $217.7 million — the highest amount on record, according to Washington sources — in funding for joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, and according to Rothman, the Defense Subcommittee has allocated more than $750 million in federal funds for the Arrow and David’s Sling anti-missile systems since 2007.

Recently, Rothman voted for the inclusion of more than $200 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program in a congressional spending bill. The funds were later removed by the Senate (see story, page 8).

Rothman was also a signatory to a letter to Obama calling for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. In November’s elections, Rothman won his eighth term in the House.

The weather made news this year. In March, a storm we called “an ill wind” left thousands of people without power and toppled trees. Two Teaneck men, Ovadia Mussaffi, 54, and Lawrence Krause, 49, were killed by a falling tree as they walked home from Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic congregation, after Shabbat. (The shul, by the way, which meets in a private home, broke ground for a building in November.) Both men were described as friendly, sweet, and generous. Their friends and family — indeed, the whole community — were devastated by the loss.

The Standard asked a number of local rabbis to share their thoughts about the tragedy. For their answers, go to www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/12658.

Of local Jewish institutions, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly was hardest hit by the storm and had to close, but it was up and running in a few days. People thronged it, said its executive director, Avi Lewinson, because they had “cabin fever and wanted to be able to do something.”

And, of course, we’ve all been affected by this weekend’s blizzard. All the schools, day and public, were closed on Monday, as were many, if not most, offices. As of Tuesday, we were still digging out from under mountains of snow.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in January that toughened fines for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The bill, signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in one of his final acts in office, was spurred by the crusade for pedestrian safety, and against drivers who talk on their cell phones, of Andrea DeVries of Paramus, whose son, Daniel, was killed in a pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008 by a driver who, witnesses said, was talking on his cell phone.

During a legislative breakfast at DeVries’ synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she met Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-37), who invited her to testify before the Assembly.

“It made that bill [to toughen fines] come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said of the testimony after Corzine signed the bill into law. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

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. This law, she told the Standard, is just “a baby step.”

At the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane in Teaneck stands a tree that, at more than 80 feet, is the fourth largest red oak in the state, according to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. That tree, which is also estimated to be more than 200 years old, was at the center of a summer fight between the Union for Traditional Judaism and preservationists.

The tree sits on the corner of the property belonging to the UTJ, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. In July, UTJ leaders decided to remove the tree, citing safety concerns that were corroborated by an arborist the union had hired. Protests erupted around town as environmentalists, as well as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), sought to preserve the tree; two other arborists hired by Teaneck reported that the tree could, in fact, be preserved.

The matter soon ended up before the Teaneck Township Council, where protesters vainly demanded that the township block the tree’s removal by buying the property. Protesters alleged that UTJ wanted to tear down the tree only to increase the value of the land, while UTJ’s leaders and bankruptcy attorney argued that safety of passersby was the paramount concern.

In August, 333 Realty, a real estate development agency, won a bankruptcy auction for the property for $1.4 million. The company soon rescinded its original offer, in light of publicity surrounding the tree, and negotiated a lower price with UTJ. Before the bankruptcy court could approve the new price, however, the property legally had to go back to auction.

The Puffin Foundation also stepped into the picture with an offer of a $200,000 grant to help the new property owners preserve the tree. But 333 Realty would not exceed its new offer of $1.2 million and Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox congregation that meets in the UTJ building, won the October auction.

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institution of Traditional Judaism, have since moved to a new location on American Legion Drive in Teaneck, while Netivot Shalom plans to expand its programming in the building and preserve the tree.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a frequent Jewish Standard newsmaker, made this year’s list by bringing a group of imams and other U.S. Muslim leaders to concentration camp sites.

An Englewood resident who is director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding, Bemporad called the Aug. 7 to 11 trip to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany “a breakthrough in many respects, because … we took imams like [Yasir] Qadhi, for example,” who 10 years ago called the Holocaust a hoax. (Bemporad led the trip, which was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, with Prof. Marshall Breger of the Catholic University of America.)

“The main point,” he said, “is that … they are using this experience in their services and talking to their people — that’s talking about tens of thousands of people.” He added, “They want Jews to speak in mosques about this reality so they can unite with us to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has very specific ideas about how the Jewish community should treat people who are homosexual. In July, he released his “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which called for compassion and respect. The statement has received more than 140 signatures from Orthodox rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals from around North America, including several from North Jersey.

“For years we have spoken with other friends in the rabbinate and in Jewish education about the growing recognition that they have had students who later came out as homosexuals,” Helfgot told the Standard in July. “We also have had friends, here and there, who came out and know parents who struggle with this with their children.”

“We kicked around the reality of this and the question of what the community, synagogue, and schools should be doing to affirm what we believe in terms of Jewish law [while also asking] ‘Is there a place for these people to be within our community? Is it simply either/or?’”

According to the statement’s preamble, “Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

“The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.

“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”

Helfgot is now religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

To read the full statement, visit www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/14319.

Since the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the issue of bullying has grabbed headlines. After hearing testimony from bullying victims, the New Jersey Legislature recently passed the so-called Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which will tighten penalties for bullies in public schools, require better reporting of bullying in public schools, and, its sponsors hoped, deal a massive blow to the entire bullying phenomenon in the school system.

State. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) spearheaded the legislation in the Senate, while Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) championed it in the Assembly. Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, helped arrange some of the testimony that ultimately convinced legislators to pass the bill.

Neuer was also a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.

While the bill was moving forward before Clementi’s death, the incident reinforced for some legislators why such legislation was needed.

Parents of day-school students continue to gripe about the high bills they must pay for their children to get private Jewish and secular education. These bills can reach higher than $50,000 per student, not including extra fees, building funds, and books. In 2009, a group of local rabbis, educators, and parents created Jewish Education for Generations to tackle the so-called tuition crisis. Its first project, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, aka the kehilla fund, has in its second year distributed hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars to eight area day schools, Orthodox and Conservative, based on student populations from within the catchment area of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the community.

In 2009 the kehillah fund distributed almost $200,000 to the schools and in 2010, fund-raisers collected and distributed $525,000. JEFG leaders declared May to be NNJKIDS Month and pushed collections in Jewish businesses throughout the area, and organizers are planning to hold another NNJKIDS Month in May or June.

NNJKIDS has formed partnerships with the Avi Chai Foundation, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, UJA-NNJ, and northern New Jersey Orthodox and Conservative synagogues.

“NNJKIDS was never meant just to raise money,” said Gershon Distenfeld, NNJKIDS’ treasurer. “It’s about a way to get the schools together to pursue a range of initiatives, and that work continues.”

The distributions remain small, but North Jersey’s day schools reported that tuition rates for the 2010-11 school year were mitigated by at least $200 per student because of the donations.

For information about the fund, visit www.nnjkids.org.

So many young people in this community did noteworthy things this year — including winning prestigious contests and organizing drives for this or that cause — that it is impossible to list them all. (As Garrison Keillor says of the mythical Lake Wobegon, “All the children are above average.”) But the deeds of two, in particular, fit criterion No. 5: “They may have prompted a course of action”: In October, 21-year-old Ari Sapin donated bone marrow to a 29-year-old man with leukemia, a selfless act that may inspire others to sign up for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (http://www.giftoflife.org).

Another Ari, Ari Hagler of Bergenfield, used his Dec. 10 bar mitzvah to launch Shabbat Gilad as a way to call attention to the continuing plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Close to 150 shuls, schools, youth groups, and Jewish centers participated from all over the United States as well as from Israel, Canada, and Australia. For the list of participants, go to www.shabbatgilad.com. Let’s hope that Shalit will be freed in 2011 and there’ll be no need to name another Shabbat for him.

The Jewish Standard itself made news in 2010, sparked by a same-sex marriage announcement. After conversations with some members of the community who strongly opposed the move, the paper issued an apology and pledged not to publish such announcements again.

But then a media deluge began — people from near and far wrote and called in support of or against such announcements, and the paper has been revisiting its policy. We have published thoughtful op-ed pieces on same-sex marriage from across the Jewish spectrum and have met with leading representatives of communal organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which is Orthodox; the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is composed of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis; and with Jewish Queer Youth, a gay Orthodox group.

This has indeed been a “teachable moment,” and people across the area have been listening and talking to one another as never before about what it really means to be a diverse Jewish community. We have been listening as well, and will continue searching for a way to serve all segments of our community until we get it right.

 
 

RYNJ scholarship fund richer by $500,000

Yeshiva credits reception’s success to new communal attitude

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey’s annual scholarship reception Sunday night raised more than half a million dollars — a three-quarters increase over the amount raised last year.

Mordy Rothberg, the school’s vice president of development, attributes the fundraiser’s success to a new communal attitude toward supporting day school education.

“We’re a recipient of all the work the community has done to make awareness that Jewish education is not just a parental obligation, but a communal obligation,” he said.

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The organizers of the RYNJ scholarship reception, board members Mordy Rothberg, left, and Menachem Schechter, right, flank one of the evening’s speakers, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel. courtesy RYNJ

“During these tough economic times, there’s a real big focus on giving locally and supporting Jewish education. One of the benefits of the community setting up NNJKids” — the umbrella fund for Bergen County’s day schools — “is that we’re really making Jewish education a priority.”

Rothberg serves on the board of the parent organization of NNJKids, Jewish Education for Generations, as a representative of the yeshiva, in which his five children are enrolled.

The economic climate has also meant that “unfortunately, scholarship recipients are at an all time high,” said Rothberg, with the school awarding more than $1 million in scholarships.

“The community is committed to giving a quality education to every single family regardless of their ability to pay. I think the community as a whole is really stepping up and saying this is a communal obligation and a communal responsibility,” he said.

The school saw a significant increase in parental participation for the fundraiser, with 275 families contributing, up from 211 last year. The school has 982 students from about 425 families. About 120 families receive scholarships.

In recent years, the scholarship event has morphed from a catered dinner to a dessert reception organized and catered by parent volunteers.

“Our cost, including invitations and food, was less than $3,000,” said Rothberg.

 
 
 
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