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Jews ponder the gubernatorial contest

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 14 August 2009
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At Tuesday night’s gathering with Gov. Corzine are, from left, standing, Meir Stahl, Leon Kozak, Mayor Michael Wildes, Dr. Ben Chouake, Mayor Elie Katz, Josh Greenbaum, and Senator Loretta Weinberg. Seated from left, are Rabbi Menachem Genack, Gov. Jon Corzine, and Dr. Munir Kazmir.

Like other groups in New Jersey, Jews are concerned about issues such as unemployment and health care. Some, however, cite additional concerns, such as the high cost of day-school education.

In a recent meeting with the Republican gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, that issue took center stage, said Howard Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.

The OU executive arranged the Aug. 3 meeting in West Orange between the candidate and some 40 Orthodox rabbis, educators, and synagogue leaders. A similar meeting with Gov. Jon Corzine is in the works.

“The Jewish community — the Orthodox community, particularly — is a swing vote,” said Beigelman. “People are still paying attention to the conversation. It remains to be seen” how they will vote.

Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Fair Lawn’s Ahavat Achim has a slightly different take. If Jews constitute a swing vote, he said, “we don’t know it.”

Goldstein — who said he grew up in Brooklyn “with a well-oiled political machine” — said it was his sense that “Jews [there] knew how to get their voices heard. I don’t sense that here.”

While some rabbis no doubt are more politically connected than others, he said, “I hear a lot of chatter but have no sense that we unite or identify our needs and vote as a bloc.”

Goldstein agreed with Beigelman that the cost of day-school education was uppermost in the minds of those who attended the Aug. 3 meeting.

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From left, Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Cong. Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn with Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie and the OU Young Leadership division’s Jason Goldstein.

“A big issue in my congregation and in the community at large is the difficulty of the day school financial situation,” said Goldstein, noting the difficulty of meeting tuition obligations, “especially in families with multiple children.”

“It’s one of the big issues we discussed,” said Goldstein, noting that in addition to participating in grass-roots initiatives, the community is “looking to Washington or to Trenton for any sort of assistance — any legal means to work with the government to help alleviate pressure on the community.”

While the community does not generally look to the government to solve its problems, he said, “when it comes to education, we more acutely feel a sense that we wish the government could step in, since we pay taxes but don’t send our children to public schools.”

Goldstein pointed out that the day-school financial issue is directly related to concerns about the difficult economy.

“It’s felt more acutely in the unfortunate economic circumstances right now,” he said.

He noted as well that “there is no congregation that has not seen people out of work,” either because they have lost their jobs or suffered cuts in their employment.

“We’ve certainly seen that in our congregation,” he said. “Whatever can be done to bolster the situation, to find jobs, to bring business here” would be greatly appreciated, he said, “no matter what the party.” Indeed, he said, he plans to attend meetings with Corzine when they are organized.

Beigelman explained that “one of our [OU’s] signature policy issues is tax credits, corporate or personal.” A bill now stalled in the legislature would provide tax credits to corporate donors who fund scholarships, he said, adding that participants at the meeting urged Christie to support the legislation.

“He said he supports that legislation and could work with the Democrats on that,” said Beigelman, adding that those who attended the meeting with Christie were also concerned about recent cuts in technological funding for private schools, which the OU has been fighting to restore.

In addition to education, the Orthodox leaders raised the issue of homeland security “and the need for our institutions to be protected,” said Beigelman, pointing to last week’s bomb threat against a Long Branch synagogue. He added that emphasis on security “ebbs and flows but is very much back on the agenda” after the shooting of the guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the alleged attempted terrorism in Riverdale, N.Y.

Beigelman said the Orthodox community is also interested in energy efficiency, not only for reasons of environmental health and national security “but as a way to help synagogues and schools save money.”

He noted that participants at the Aug. 3 meeting raised the issue of the energy retrofit grant program included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The provision permits faith-based and other nonprofits to participate equally in the program. “They asked if the state could similarly open energy efficiency programs to all, to both protect the environment and stimulate the local economy,” said Beigelman. “[Christie] agreed the programs “should be open to all and would help in establishing New Jersey as a green jobs center.”

Also of concern to the Orthodox attendees is “preserving religious freedom,” said Beigelman, pointing to laws signed by Corzine in April 2008 guaranteeing religious accommodations to observant people of all faiths. The laws require, for example, that alternate testing dates be provided for students if exams are scheduled on days of worship.

“These laws can always use strengthening,” said Beigelman.

He noted as well that “New Jersey is one of the only states without a tax deduction for charitable donations. One of our priorities would be for the state to enact this,” he said.

Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, hosted an Englewood parlor meeting on Tuesday evening at which 21 guests discussed issues of interest with Corzine and his running mate, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Chouake said that a similar meeting with candidate Christie is being planned by another NORPAC member, and two other members have said they will host additional functions for the governor.

The NORPAC head said he and his wife had personally chosen to host Tuesday’s event because “Gov. Corzine has an excellent record on our issues, and Sen. Weinberg is a leader on our issues.”

In a letter inviting NORPAC members to the event, he noted that “Governor Corzine has over the years showed his support for Israel in Congress and continues to do so now ... [signing] legislation in 2008 making the New Jersey-Israel Commission a permanent entity within the New Jersey Department of State [and] eliminating the need for reauthorizing the Commission by Executive Order every five years. Furthermore, and more significantly, the new law emphasizes the importance of the New Jersey-Israel ‘sister state’ relationship.”

Chouake noted that because of NORPAC’s concern with Israel, attendees “mostly focused on Israel relations and thanked the candidates for their support in the past.” In addition, he said, they offered their points of view on the current U.S.-Israel relationship.

At the meeting, the governor briefly summarized measures he has taken on the budget and on developing energy independence, Chouake said.

“It’s a difficult time,” said Chouake. “I was very impressed. He’s a modest guy. He talked about things he has been doing that we weren’t aware of. The more people know about what he has accomplished, his deep understanding of the issues, and his ability to execute them, the more they will want him to continue in office.”

Chouake said Corzine also talked about education and, “given the separation of church and state, what the state can do to help.”

For example, said Chouake, Corzine said it would be a priority for him to restore cuts for technology to private schools “when the budget gets more flexible.”

“He also agreed that security needs are much greater at day schools” and acknowledged that protecting these schools is an obligation of the state, said Chouake.

“Those are legitimate ways of assisting private schools,” he added, “legitimate ways the state can help.”

Explaining his support for the governor, Chouake said that while Corzine might have used his wealth for personal ends, “he decided to use his fortune to help make the world better, to go into public service.” In addition, he said, “he’s always been sensitive to religious issues,” such as making kosher food available to Jews in prison and ensuring that observant students aren’t compelled to take tests on Shabbat.

“He’s a mensch,” he said. “And Loretta [Weinberg] is fabulous, bringing to the table integrity, wisdom, passion, and devotion to her constitutents.”

Chouake said the meeting went an hour longer than planned.

“I think the governor just enjoyed being there. He wanted to hang out.”

 
 

Unseemly wrangling

 

NORPAC plans mission to make the case for Israel

Ben ChouakeOp-Ed
Published: 16 April 2010
(tags): norpac, ben chouake, iran
 
 

Record delegation from NORPAC advocates for Israel in D.C.

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Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) meets with a delegation from NORPAC.

At 4:30 a.m. last Wednesday, while most people were still dreaming in bed, 1,040 people were getting ready to join the NORPAC Mission to Washington. The non-partisan North Jersey political action committee supports the U.S.-Israel relationship by advocating on key issues, including foreign aid, Palestinian incitement, the Middle East peace process, and Iran sanctions.

Twenty-four buses pulled up to the Washington Convention Center in the late morning to be greeted by a lineup of speakers from Congress as well as a keynote speaker. The participants flooded two ballrooms and began the program by singing The Star Spangled Banner, Hatikvah, and in recognition of Yom Yerushalayim, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

After an introduction by Dr. Richard Schlussel, the mission chair, speakers included Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), and Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) Dr. Mort Fridman, NORPAC vice president, introduced the keynote speaker, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

Following the speeches, 450 members of Congress — including 95 senators — held private meetings with NORPAC participants, who advocated on four issues.

The first issue was the 2011 foreign aid request for Israel, which is expected to be $3 billion. Of that aid, 70 percent is in the form of credits to be spent in the United States, supporting high-tech defense jobs.

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Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren addresses the group.

“This aid is more of an investment than an expense,” said Dr, Ben Chouake, NORPAC president. “Given Israel’s strategic location on the Mediterranean with access to the Red Sea, and other vital shipping lanes, it is imperative that Israel continues to serve as a port of call for our military and intelligence operations,”

Participants noted to members of Congress that the United States is slated to provide a $550 million aid package to the Palestinians in the disputed territories and Gaza. They wanted assurances that the Palestinian Authority would be held accountable for the allocation of the funds, inasmuch as more than $7 billion of aid to the Palestinians cannot be accounted for. NORPAC members also advocated that U.S. aid be conditional on ending anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in Palestinian news broadcasts, publications, and schools.

The participants urged the lawmakers to support the U.S.-led peace process, under which Arab states and the Palestinians must accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel. According to Chouake, “Although the current Israeli government has accepted the concept of a two-state solution and has made countless other concessions, Arabs and Palestinians refuse to even recognize a Jewish state. Peace cannot possibly be achieved when one of the parties is unwilling to recognize the other.”

The last item on the NORPAC agenda called for urging legislators to encourage the process to proceed and to support the final version of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2009.

Different versions of this bill have been passed by the Senate and House and are now in reconciliation. Mission members stressed the importance of the bill’s passage in order to send a clear message to Teheran that its current course toward nuclear armament cannot stand.

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Rep. Eric Cantor was one of the speakers

According to Chouake, who said that NORPAC put the Iran Sanctions bill on the map three years ago, it is critically close to passage. He added that members of Congress from both parties agreed that time is running out to address this existential threat to the world and, in consensus fashion, pledged to resist attempts to weaken or delay the bill.

The group heard concluding addresses by Reps. Eric Cantor (R-W.V.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), and Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Schlussel said of the mission, “We were all gratified at seeing so many of our members being received so graciously by our nation’s leaders.”

For more information on NORPAC and the mission, go to www.norpac.net or call (201) 788-5733.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: Political poker

New Jersey’s elected officials on both sides of the aisle appeared steadfast in their support of Israel after last week’s flotilla raid as Jewish leaders continued to lobby on behalf of the Jewish state.

“The most important thing that we as Americans can do,” said Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and former president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “is let our elected officials know that we feel strongly that Israel’s insistence on inspecting goods that are being brought into Gaza is entirely justified. If the tendency by some in the United States to curry favor with the Muslim world trumps the absolute requirement for fairness and support for the only democratic regime in that area, then we’re giving up the moral high ground.”

It is not in America’s best interests, Cole continued, to weaken in its support of an ally — in this case Israel — lest other allies begin to feel they cannot count on U.S. support.

The State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents New Jersey’s federations in Trenton, is pressing state legislators to support Israel. Its director, Jacob Toporek, issued an open letter to Gov. Christie and the 120-member state legislature last week outlining the reasons for Israel’s blockade and its actions. Almost immediately, he said, he received a call from Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County, who said she would introduce a resolution supporting Israel based on the letter.

“That’s a terrific response, unexpected, and we’re very pleased by it,” Toporek said.

“It’s all a public relations game. This open letter and resolution would be very, very helpful.”

Christie’s office acknowledged the letter on Wednesday but had no comment at that time.

“Hopefully as time passes and the outside world sees how Israel is really treating groups trying to bring in outside aid,” Toporek said, “they’ll realize what happened is a confrontation set up by those supportive of Hamas and who intend to put Israel in the worst light.”

NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel lobby, has been calling members of Congress to emphasize that Israel’s blockade is more of an arms embargo on Hamas, said the group’s president, Ben Chouake. Response on the Hill has been very positive, he told The Jewish Standard.

“They fully understand that Hamas is a terrorist group, that they’ve been overtly aggressive to the civilian population of Israel; they oppress their own people, and a flotilla of militants provoked violence against Israeli soldiers who gave them adequate warning and were peacefully trying to enforce an arms quarantine,” Chouake said.

At least among New Jersey’s representatives in Washington, NORPAC appears to be getting its message across.

“My colleagues understand that Israel has a legitimate right and important need to protect its citizens from rockets and guided missiles being brought to Gaza,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) told the Standard on Wednesday. “There is some regret over the loss of life, not withstanding 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.”

Asked why President Obama has not firmly come out in support of Israel in this incident, Rothman credited the president for preventing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel and calling for an international inquiry.

“In diplomacy, it is often the case that the most powerful and effective operations occur behind the scenes and that is what’s happened here,” Rothman said. “In my opinion — and in the view of the good guys as well as the bad guys around the world — actions always speak louder than words. Sometimes soothing words are possible along with quiet diplomacy, but sometimes they are not.”

Rothman’s colleagues in Washington issued their own statements supporting Israel’s actions.

“Israel has every right to defend itself and enforce its blockade against the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said in a statement sent to this newspaper. “The organizations operating the flotilla made their intention to violate the blockade clear and refused Israel’s repeated offers to process the aid through appropriate channels. Clearly, there were people aboard the lead ship who were intent on violence and sparked the tragic events.”

In a statement to the Standard earlier this week, Sen. Bob Menendez outlined the necessity for Israel’s blockade.

“If the blockade were to be broken,” he said in the statement, “it would be impossible to tell which vessels were carrying humanitarian supplies and which were carrying deadly rockets. The bottom line is that the attempt to prevent materials that could be used against Israel from reaching Hamas is of vital interest to Israel and to its national security, and I fully support it.”

The senator went on to emphasize that the international reaction to last week’s incident could legitimize Hamas, which would undermine the peace process.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said that it was regrettable that lives were lost in the raid but praised the bipartisan support for Israel in both houses of Congress. He affirmed Israel’s “right to protect its citizens.”
“It is crucial for the United States to stand beside Israel during these tumultuous times and I am heartened by the bipartisan Congressional support for Israel’s recent actions,” he said in a statement to this newspaper. “I believe the strategic relationship between our two democratic governments will continue to withstand the threats and actions of terrorists who seek to create a rift between our two nations.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) pointed to the need to keep weapons out of Gaza.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its borders and to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons and missiles that it has proven it will use to attack innocent Israeli civilians with little restraint,” he said in a statement to the Standard on Tuesday.

Pascrell took a more sympathetic tone toward the people of Gaza, pointing out what he called “the ongoing humanitarian crisis” there. The current situation there, he said, is “unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“I am pleased the Israeli government has shown signs that it will consider modifications to their blockade,” the statement continued. “I believe that we can allow humanitarian goods to enter the territory while still ensuring that weapons are not imported and Hamas is not resupplied.”

Breaking from his colleagues, Pascrell called for the creation of an independent commission to conduct an impartial investigation of the flotilla incident.

“We are grateful that the leadership of the United States has been supportive in this matter,” Chouake said. “They well recognize the need for Israel to defend itself against the terrorist group Hamas and it is important to prevent arms from reaching these terrorists.”

 
 

Why NORPAC is supporting a challenger

 

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.”

 
 

MKs: New peace initiative to rely on international law

Knesset members — one a Druze — in Englewood

Two Israeli parliamentarians and a political activist told some 35 people last week at a gathering in Englewood of their concerns about attempts to delegitimize Israel.

Ayoob Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee and deputy minister for regional cooperation, is a Druze member of the Knesset for the Likud Party. (The Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious community, serve in the Israel Defense Forces.)

Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev is a member of the Knesset from the Shas Party, which he cofounded in 1984. He spoke to the attendees in Hebrew; his address was summarized in English by Karen Pichkhadze, executive director of the National Organization for Political Action, which sponsored the event at a private home.

The MKs were with Shoshana Bekerman, director of the Jerusalem-based Knesset Caucus for Judaism and Global Ethics. They plan to present the Jerusalem Initiative for Peace in the Middle East to Congress and the United Nations. The brainchild of Ze’ev, who chairs the caucus and who worked on it in cooperation with Kara, it seeks to combat the delegitimzation of Israel.

Speaking at the home of Irene and Robert Gottesman, Bekerman said that the delegitimization campaign started in Europe and has spread to the United States. The fight against it, she said, “is a tougher battle that any of the wars we have had to face.”

For Orthodox Jews, she said, the right of all Jews to Israel is based on the Torah, but today “you have to talk the language of international law, as our claims have to be based on international law,” which has given Jews legal instruments throughout history to make their case.

Some of those documents are from the 1937 Peel Commission, which suggested the partition of Palestine, and the 1923 British Mandate for Palestine, which favored the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” there.

The latest document is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Bekerman said, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 after 20 years of formulations. One hundred and forty-four countries voted for it and four against it, including the United States. Israel did not participate in the formulations.

The declaration purposely did not define the term indigenous, she said, but the United Nations does have a “working definition” of it.

According to that definition, indigenous people have a connection to the land through religion, history, language, culture, and economics.

“We definitely fit that description,” said Bekerman.

However, she added, Palestinians have been claiming their rights as indigenous people but Jews have not made use of the declaration because they lacked knowledge about it.

That lack, she said, was also evident among the politicians the MKs and Bekerman visited in Washington during their trip, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who told them they had never heard about the document before.

Calling Israel an “occupying power” is a misuse of the term and manipulation by groups that have received money from leftist and Muslim organizations, Bekerman said, and also historically, morally, and legally wrong.

The Jerusalem Initiative, on the other hand, bills itself as “an innovative proposal presented within the framework of the two-state solution announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and is intended to bridge the gap between the Israeli government, the Quartet, and the Saudi Initiative.”

It urges the Quartet to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital based on the indigenous right of Jews to the city and calls for maintaining the status quo regarding its population. It also accepts that an eventual Palestinian state may have its parliament in the Arab sector of the city.

The document asks the Quartet to recognize the rights of Jewish settlements, which should not be uprooted without the consent of the “indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the settlement.”

According to the project, the issue of refugees from the Middle East must be resolved in a way that includes recognition of the rights of those displaced from Arab countries, including Jews, Christians, and other groups.

Kara, the Druze MK, was critical of several of Israel’s past policies and said the Oslo accords “gave the criminal Palestinian leadership that was in Lebanon and Tunisia the legitimacy to be leaders in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.”

Peace in the region is far off, he said, as Israel has not found a partner or someone to lead an eventual Palestinian state.

Ze’ev said that his ancestors came to Israel from 10 different Middle Eastern countries, “leaving behind everything they had, leaving empires behind to come naked to our country, where we didn’t demand everything.”

But now, Ze’ev said, “we are fighting against people who are coming to the country demanding everything they can possible get for something they did not work for.”

According to Ze’ev, Israel needs members of Congress to understand the position it is in and the fact that “you can’t negotiate with enemies; it is impossible to do so with someone who believes you should not exist.”

Asked about the Jerusalem Initiative, Ben Choauke, NORPAC’s president, said, “You need every tool available to increase the standing of Israel before world opinion and the United Nations itself.”

The Initiative was presented in Paris in July and will be presented at the European Union Parliament in the near future.

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From left are Knesset members Ayoob Kara and Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev, and NORPAC President Ben Choauke. The MKs spoke at a NORPAC gathering in Englewood last week. Daniel Santacruz
 
 

Making a reservation for the Tea Party, and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

With a little more than a month to go before November’s mid-term elections, a new player has emerged on the field causing ripples in the Republican world and a mix of worry and relief among Democrats.

We speak, of course, of the Tea Party, the grassroots movement of protests that’s been sweeping the nation since early 2009. A number of Tea Party candidates have fared well in recent Republican primary elections, beating out GOP-favored opponents.

Most notably, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller upset Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary for her Senate seat, and Christine O’Donnell beat out GOP-favored U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary last month.

“The national Tea Party movement is the embodiment of political activism,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said in a statement to The Jewish Standard. “Based on the results of recent primary elections, it’s hard to deny the influence the Tea Party movement has had on politics the last year. If the past is any indication of things to come, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tea Party movement will have an impact on the elections in November and beyond.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood-based Israel political action committee NORPAC and a registered Republican, believes the Tea Party candidates are too far to the right to win in the general elections. While NORPAC focuses solely on candidates’ records on Israel, the Tea Party has put forward a cast of unknown candidates that has made life more difficult for the PAC to quickly determine their positions.

“Sometimes people are overly enthusiastic and trend toward candidates unvetted and poorly qualified,” he said.

The Tea Party victory in the Delaware primary has assured Democrat Chris Coons a victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, according to Chouake. Castle, a former two-term governor, was the GOP’s best hope at winning the open seat, he said.

“The likelihood of the Senate switching majorities in this cycle has become slim because of the influence of the Tea Party in the Senate primaries,” Chouake said.

Tea Partier Sharron Angle, a former Nevada state representative, won the GOP nomination to face Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in November, which, in Chouake’s opinion, almost guarantees the senator a victory.

“Sharron Angle is probably the weakest candidate in the field, at least according to the polls,” Chouake said. “While we’re neutral on the Tea Party issues, we’re happy to see Harry Reid has this best chance at re-winning his seat because he’s a good friend on U.S.-Israel relations.”

Reid visited Englewood on Sunday for a NORPAC fund-raising event — closed to the press — that drew about 30 people and raised between $25,000 and $30,000 for the senator’s re-election bid.

“On our issue he’s tremendously supportive,” Chouake said. “He has a deep understanding of the problems the Jews have had throughout history.”

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Reid is confident in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to win a peace agreement because he has support from Israel’s left and right wings, Chouake said.

Regarding Iran, Chouake said that Reid preferred to avoid military action but all options had to remain on the table because a nuclear Iran is the worst-case scenario.

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans blocked Democrat-sponsored legislation that would have overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A 56-43 vote defeated a $726 billion defense spending bill that included a pay raise for troops and a repeal of the controversial policy that blocks openly gay soldiers from serving.

Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. Reid voted against the bill, citing a Senate rule that allows him to reintroduce the legislation later if he votes with the majority.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) condemned Republicans for blocking the legislation. “This bill provides our military with new equipment and authorizes pay and health programs for our brave men and women,” he said in a statement. “This bill would also authorize the long overdue repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ No American should be barred from serving in our military simply because of their sexual orientation.”

 
 

Unifying factor in 2010 election: Never before

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Tea Partiers rally against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid March 27 in the Senate majority leader’s hometown of Searchlight. Mark Holloway

WASHINGTON – Talk to veteran campaign watchers about this year’s congressional races, and within seconds they will tell you that they’ve never before seen elections quite like these.

“We’ve never seen a cycle where there’s been this many races this close to an election and you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” said Joy Malkus, the research director at the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, or JACPAC, a group that directs funding to candidates who are pro-Israel and moderate on social issues. “And I’ve been doing this since 1982.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee, agreed.

“This one has taken twists and turns that surprise almost all of us that follow these events,” said Chouake, who lives in Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this — in my lifetime.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the rules of the Jewish fund-raising road remain the same: Stick with your friends and get to know unknowns as fast as possible.

In fact, the only change might be to append a “more-so”: There are many more friends at risk, and there are a lot more unknowns. An anti-incumbent surge already has had an impact in the primaries, ousting a clutch of incumbents in the Senate, where races generally are much more expensive than in the House of Representatives.

“The thing that has created the greatest demand for money in the pro-Israel world are all these open Senate seats,” said Lonny Kaplan, a veteran pro-Israel giver who is based in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs and is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A greater demand and, according to insiders, a surprisingly greater supply, considering the economy’s narrow straits. Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has never seen money flowing like this in a non-presidential election year.

“This is the largest effort our leaders have made in a midterm — ever,” he said.

Here are some races to watch in this very watchable season:

Endangered incumbents: The triumvirate

A number of pro-Israel incumbents are at risk in the Senate. Some already have been or are almost being written off, among them U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Others at risk are rallying in the final weeks and have attracted a late burst of pro-Israel attention, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Reid, the majority leader, is facing a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenger. Reid is considered critical by the pro-Israel community because he has taken the lead in helping to shepherd through Iran sanctions legislation. He’s also seen as having advanced pro-Israel defenses, most recently in a letter with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pressing President Obama to designate the Turkish group behind the Gaza Strip aid flotilla as terrorist.

If Reid goes, and if the Senate changes hands, its pro-Israel cast is not likely to change: McConnell is also solidly pro-Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the chamber’s most stalwart Israel defender (and a Jew from Brooklyn), likely would replace Reid.

Yet pro-Israel insiders say it remains a priority to keep in place a party leader who has been a proven champion of Israel.

“I’ve worked very hard for Harry Reid’s campaign, and the pro-Israel community has been very, very supportive of him,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very tough race. From my perspective we have a very friendly incumbent — it’s not hard to pick a side there.”

Boxer, a Jewish candidate who is facing former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is likewise considered important because of the recent trend among liberal Democrats to question Israeli policies.

“She’s very liberal but also a leader,” said a donor who is close to top Democrats and did not want to be further identified. “She puts her name on pro-Israel legislation.”

Getting to know you: the Tea Partiers

Reid’s race is also considered critical also because he is facing Angle, who like most of the candidates backed by the Tea Party movement is friendly to Israel but also seeks budget cuts across the board. That makes her anathema to groups like JACPAC that are concerned about social services.

The Tea Party also makes some pro-Israel conservatives nervous because some in the movement want to slash foreign funding, although they have promised to work out a way to maintain funding for Israel. Some say that reveals a misunderstanding of the holistic nature of foreign aid: If aid is cut across the board, it signals an isolationism that can only harm Israel in the long run even if it benefits from short-term exceptions.

“The pro-Israel community has the challenge of keeping up foreign aid overall” if Tea Party candidates score major successes, said an insider associated with AIPAC.

That effort to keep up foreign aid already is under way, and pro-Israel insiders report warm conversations with Angle in addition to Mike Lee, the Republican candidate in Utah whose Tea Party insurgency unseated longtime incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and Ken Buck, who is challenging Colorado’s Bennet.

Other Tea Party candidates have kept their distance from the pro-Israel community. They include Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, a Republican who is leading in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Paul’s association with his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose isolationist polices have resulted in one of the worst pro-Israel records in the House, as well as the younger Paul’s reluctance to parry outside of his inner circle, have conferred upon his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, the rare status of favored pro-Israel candidate in an open race. The pro-Israel donor community as a rule attempts to split the difference in such races, not wishing to alienate either side.

“Conway has great position papers on all of our issues — Israel, [reproductive] choice, and separation of church and state,” JACPAC’s Malkus said. “Rand Paul is not good on any of our issues.”

Unlikely challenges to incumbents — and unlikely incumbent

House Democrats facing challenging races across the country fall into two categories: Those who just months ago were seen as sure bets, and those who beat the odds to win in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats scored victories over a weakened Republican Party. In 2008, those underdog Democrats were buoyed by voters enthusiastic about presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A typical candidate who used to be seen as safe but now is in jeopardy is Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who defeated his current opponent, Republican Allen West, by 10 points in 2008. Klein has strongly supported Israel in a heavily Jewish district that includes patches of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

West, however, has posed a formidable challenge this time, in part by linking Klein to a president perceived as less friendly to Israel than his predecessors, and in part because of anxieties among retirees over reports that Obama’s health-care reform will suck funds from Medicare, the government-funded insurance plan for retirees. An African-American Iraq war veteran, West also has an Achilles’ heel: Most recently he was associated with a biker gang that does not admit Jews or blacks as members.

Another Florida Jewish congressman is typical of the other column. In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), facing an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, swept in in a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.

Grayson, one of the most outspoken critics nationwide of the Republicans, is now in trouble, with outside Republican-affiliated groups pouring money into negative campaign ads. He has offset the blitz by raising four times as much as his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, in individual donations, stemming from the joy his politically incorrect broadsides bring the Democratic base.

Grayson has accused Republicans of wanting the uninsured to die. Nonpartisan campaign watchers criticized Grayson recently for a TV ad that edited remarks to make Webster appear as if he were endorsing New Testament commands that wives should submit to their husbands. In fact, Webster was advising Christian fathers that they should ignore the commandments in question.

Which pro-Israel are you?

Two major campaigns have split the pro-Israel community: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) vs. Alex Giannoulias for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) vs. Pat Toomey for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

JACPAC is backing Sestak because of the organization’s twin missions of supporting Israel and moderate social policies. Toomey, Malkus notes, voted against foreign aid more often than not when he was a congressman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On the other hand, Sestak has been targeted by right-wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel for his associations with the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street.

By and large, however, J Street associations have not figured large in the campaign, said Kaplan, who is backing the Democratic incumbent Rush Holt in New Jersey.

JACPAC is staying out of the Kirk-Giannoulias race because of Kirk’s leadership role on pro-Israel issues in the House and his record as a Republican moderate. NORPAC’s Choauake referred to Kirk’s seminal role in shaping the enhanced Iran sanctions legislation that passed over the summer.

“He’s brilliant and hard working; he’s a mover and a shaker, “ he said of Kirk. “He can get stuff done — he knows how to strategize to get to the finish line.”

Races to watch? Try people to watch

Pro-Israel and Jewish money sometimes goes to candidates not because they need it, but because the community sees a future with the person in question.

That’s the case with Kelly Ayotte, a Republican leading in the open race for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, and Chris Coons, a Democrat in the same position in Delaware.

Ayotte “is someone who’s going to get into the Senate and do well,” Chouake said. “She’s been supported by Democratic and Republican governors as attorney general, which means she must be highly respected. She’s going to be a prime candidate for [the] executive branch if they’re looking for a young Republican woman.”

Coons, until now a little-known county executive, is also respected, said the pro-Israel insider close to Democrats.

“He’s very much up on the issues, very foreign policy attuned,” the insider said. “He pronounced [the name of Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly.”

Reach out to the outreachers

Asked why he was backing Ayotte in the New Hampshire Senate race instead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a Jewish congressman with a solid-pro-Israel voting record, NORPAC’S Chouake’s answer was simple: “She called me. He didn’t.” JTA

 
 
 
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