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DeVries case spurs state to target driving while distracted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Day schools laud Ridgewood principal for Facebook stand

It seems like everybody these days is on Facebook — well, almost everybody.

Anthony Orsini, the principal at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, made worldwide headlines last week after he sent an e-mail to parents urging them to take their children off the social networking site. Speaking to The Jewish Standard earlier this week, Orsini said the general reaction from the local community has been one of gratitude. Some parents have heeded his advice while others have ignored it, he said, but his e-mail succeeded in getting people to talk more about Internet safety with their children.

“I was simply imploring them to look out for the safety of their kids,” Orsini said. “I also made very, very clear that obviously it’s a family choice and I respect any choice a family makes.”

The Standard turned to area day-school leaders to see if they agreed with the principal’s actions.

At Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, Facebook is blocked on all of the school’s computers. Social networking, said Robert Smolen, general studies coordinator and middle school director, is meant to be face to face.

“We know that the Ridgewood principal is correct,” he said. “The use of the Internet for communication that can be very negative and bullying and provocative is something we are not in favor of. We have gotten feedback from time to time about children using it inappropriately and taken them to task for that.”

Smolen acknowledged that Facebook can be used positively. But children, he said, don’t always keep things in perspective, and the site can have a negative impact and lead to cliques.

A recent “South Park” episode lampooned those who get so caught up with the site that their non-virtual relationships are defined by their popularity status on Facebook. In the episode, the main character Kyle befriends a third-grader named Kip Drodry who has no other Facebook friends. Kip is ecstatic, but Kyle watches as his own friends count drops because of his association with this perceived outcast.

At Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the sixth- and seventh-graders receive formal education in Internet use, said Larry Mash, principal of SSDS’s middle school.

“Our position is we encourage smart use by our students and we encourage careful oversight by parents,” he said. “The parents need to be aware of where their kids are on the Internet and how much they’re using the Internet.”

The Moriah School in Englewood holds a program every year, with local police, on the dangers of Facebook. The school has in the past urged parents not to let their children use the site, but realizing that’s not always realistic, the school asks parents to monitor their children on the Internet, said principal Elliot Prager.

“What a child does in his or her free time, if it involves another child in the school [negatively], Moriah will take all necessary steps, including expulsion from school if necessary,” he said.

Last year Moriah instituted a new cyberbullying policy, considering cyberbullying an offense whether it takes place in or outside of school. After letters about the policy were sent home the school issued a handful of suspensions for violations, but has not had to respond as harshly this year.

“From what we can see and what we know, the policy has had a very positive impact on the behavior of the kids,” Prager said.

Arthur Poleyeff, general studies principal at high school Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, not only agreed that middle school students should stay off Facebook, but added that high school students should not use the site either.

“There is very little benefit for students being on Facebook in middle school or high school,” he said. “Parents should take control over what their kids are doing online and not allow them to have computers in their bedroom where they’re locked away all day and night.”

Gerrard Berman’s Smolen urges parents to closely follow what their children do on the Internet. Facebook, he said, is just one of many opportunities children have to interact online and if it’s taken away, they can easily find another vehicle.

“Parents have given their children a tool, and the children need to have an accountability for that tool,” Smolen said. “IPhones, iPods, and iTouches all have Internet capability. It’s like giving them the keys to the car and letting them go wherever they want.”

Orsini said he has heard from more than 100 parents about his e-mail. Some have disagreed with him but most have been respectful. He is amazed, he said, that news of his request has grabbed international headlines.

“It hit a nerve,” he said.

 
 

Consortium ensures revival of education program

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Richard Michaelson, Allyn Michaelson, instructor Bette Birnbaum, and Roz Melzer examine an ancient Israelite coin in a 2007 Melton class.

Melton is one of those incredible programs,” said Frieda Huberman, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s director of school services and of the Florence Melton Mini-School. “It’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Clearly, that view is shared by others. When the two-year adult education program was scaled back this past year because of cuts in funding, a group of graduates banded together to launch what has proved to be a successful rescue effort.

“It came out of the minds and hearts of Melton alumni,” said Huberman. “They wanted it to continue.”

The Melton loyalists — spurred by Sharon Weiss, a member of Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon — created a network of synagogue liaisons to reach out to their respective shuls, seeking financial support for the program. Thanks to their efforts, a consortium of some 20 synagogues and two JCCs has joined with UJA-NNJ to fund the program for the foreseeable future.

An educator herself, Weiss said, “I know great teachers and great curricula when I see them. I was taking a Melton class last spring when I heard the program was in jeopardy. I was concerned mainly because the program had such a strong impact on me and I was afraid that this wouldn’t be available for other lifelong learners.”

Weiss, with several other Melton graduates hailing from Beth Rishon, Temple Israel in Ridgewood, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, met with then Melton director Rena Rabinowitz “to get a sense of what our options were.”

“We felt strongly that we should give it a try,” she said. “We felt it was unconscionable not to make an attempt to see what we could do.”

Armed with a list of graduates, together with information about their synagogues, the group conceived the idea of a consortium, asking Melton graduates to arrange meetings between synagogue leaders and those pitching the consortium plan.

“We created a PowerPoint presentation and budget and set up appointments with heads of synagogues,” said Weiss. “The liaisons had a strong influence, talking about the impact the program had on them. It worked out fabulously. We now have enough financial support to offer the program.”

Weiss said the consortium is still a work in progress and she expects that more synagogues will “come aboard.” She said she is not worried about attracting students, since there is already a waiting list.

“I felt very passionate about it because of how it changed my life,” said the retired high school biology teacher. “It helped me understand my place on the Jewish continuum. I was brought up as a cultural Jew but with no understanding and appreciation of the shoulders on which I stand.”

“I have a responsibility,” she said. “I never understood that. I’ve found my Jewish voice,” she added, noting that not only did Melton inspire her to visit Israel but it empowered her to take leadership positions within her synagogue.

Helping to restore the Melton program entailed “full-time involvement,” she said, but it has been worth it. “Not only will we get learners, but we’ll get people who can become leaders.”

“I’m one of many,” she pointed out. “We couldn’t have gotten [so many] liaisons unless people cared.”

Melton graduate Susan Lieberskind, one of the graduates who helped create the consortium, said that once she realized the key to teaching her children to love Judaism lay in her own actions, “Melton became a ‘requirement.’”

Still, added the Hillsdale resident, “participating in adult Jewish education so that my children see that learning is a lifelong endeavor is only part of why I signed up for Melton. Being Jewish is an integral part of my life and I wanted to know the ‘why’ behind the various things I do.”

“Individual synagogue classes are great, [but] Melton provides a sophisticated, pluralistic curriculum and an opportunity to learn with a broader base of community members,” she said. “It makes new meaning of previous Jewish experiences and increases a student’s connection to the Jewish community, creating role models and leaders.”

Lieberskind noted that her Melton education has not only provided her with a better Jewish foundation but has given her “confidence to pursue leadership opportunities in the Jewish community.” One of her classmates recently completed a term as synagogue president, she said, while “a member of my original class went on to be UJA-NNJ president. There is no question that the presence of Melton students makes for a better community.”

According to UJA-NNJ’s Huberman, there will be three Melton 1 classes in Fall 2010, to be held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake. Students will attend two hours a week for 30 weeks. As regards instructors, she said, the program will draw on “the phenomenal Melton teachers who taught in the past.”

Calling UJA-NNJ the “anchor” of the program — which she expects to attract between 100 and 200 students — she pointed out that federation is providing staffing for the program as well as serving a fiduciary role.

“The details are still evolving,” she said, adding that the fall program will include one Melton 2 class as well as post-Melton graduate classes. The program will be open to the community.

For additional information, visit www.ujannj.org/meltonschool, call (201) 820-3914, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Tomas Sheleg and Luna Road bring light to Haiti

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Tomas Sheleg stands next to the water tank built by the JDC.
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A typical street in Port-au-Prince, where people buy food from farmers who live outside the city, while “garbage is all over them, all around them, and sewage is flowing everywhere.” TOMAS SHELEG

Seeing the light” is not an abstract concept. It is a hard reality, with spectacular implications, says Fort Lee resident Tomas Sheleg.

Sheleg, originally from Israel, traveled to Haiti in July, installing light fixtures that not only garnered gratitude but, he says, saved lives.

“There are lots of robberies during the night. People in the camps are living in pitch black and girls are being raped,” he said. “It’s a common thing since the earthquake. No one understands the scale” of what is happening there, he said, adding that television images don’t show the full horror of the situation.

Founder of the solar lighting company Luna Road, the former Ridgewood resident said the idea for bringing his light panels to Haiti came up during a conversation with Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.

“We started talking,” said Sheleg. “I showed him one of my products and he was very interested. The idea was to use it in a school in Rwanda to help villages there.”

Then Recant mentioned Haiti, which, he said, needed immediate help.

Told that a specific camp was the site of five rapes in one week — occurring most frequently in the enclosed area where the young girls, 12 to 16, went with a bucket of water to bathe — Sheleg decided to take action.

“Our product is unique,” he said. “It’s small and easy to install.” He thought it would be “an amazing solution” to that problem.

“People were hearing the girls scream but they didn’t go to help because it was too dark,” he said, pointing out that the Port-au-Prince camp, containing some 6,000 people in an area half the size of a football field, had no source of light. So, he said, he decided to produce a few units and rush them to Haiti.

“I flew with the units and joined a representative there from the JDC,” he explained, noting that the Joint Distribution Committee was there to help set up schools and provide food.

“The panels were donated by us — Luna Road — to the JDC,” which covered some expenses, such as shipping.

Sheleg said he was “shocked” by what he saw, especially in Port-au-Prince.

“Some of it is completely destroyed,” he said, adding that while he speaks some French, the predominant language of the country, he was unable to talk directly to the people, using a translator instead. Still, he noted, “you can see that they are very hopeful people. You don’t see their sadness and distress but [rather] a sense of hope.”

Camp residents were very grateful for the light, he said.

“The morning after the first night [with the light] was amazing. You could really feel how happy they were.”

Sheleg said the light took only a half-hour to install and “we could do thousands in a week.” He’s now speaking with other organizations in Haiti interested in having the units put in.

“For the cost of one street bulb you can install 10 of my lights,” he said. “So for the same money, you can help 10 times more people.”

Luna Road was interested from the start in reaching out to needy populations, he explained.

“We were trying to create something cheap enough so everyone could get it,” he said. “Solar technology is cutting edge, but for some it’s inaccessible. So we integrated that technology to make it accessible for third-world countries. We’re Israelis,” he said. “We saw a situation and said, how can we fix it?”

He noted that many of his ideas came from visits to Israel, which he called “the feeding group for any startup today.”

Paying tribute to the JDC, he said the organization had also built a water tank at the camp he visited.

“It’s like a faucet,” said Sheleg, explaining that every other day, fresh water is brought in on a truck.

“They do amazing work; I was very impressed,” he said. “I’m happy to know the Joint is there to help Jews all over the world, but not only our own. It shows that our Jewish spirit goes the extra mile.”

Sheleg, who had already been to the United States several times, said he came again in 2006 through Zahal Shalom, established more than 10 years ago to bring disabled Israeli veterans to New Jersey. Soldiers stay as guests of local families, spending two weeks visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., and participating in community events.

“It creates an interesting dynamic between Bergen County residents and veterans from Israel,” he said.

According to its website, Luna Road — which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of “high-tech ‘cat’s eyes’” — was founded to spread the use of solar technology and is “determined to help bring night-time road safety to drivers all around the planet.” Luna Road lights, cell-phone size solar cells, trap the sun’s energy during the day for use at night.

“We believe in saving lives, preserving the environment, and beautifying night-time roads around the globe,” he said, adding that — as he learned in Haiti — light can save lives in more ways than one.

“We will give the units at cost to help the people of Haiti and other NGOs who are looking to do good.”

 
 

Weathering Irene

Two Jews among 33 deaths, but for most, storm was a costly annoyance

Larry YudelsonWorld
Published: 31 August 2011
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The parking lot of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood was turned into a river, “with actual white rapids at some points,” said its rabbi, David Fine. Courtesy Rabbi David Fine

For some in the Jewish community, Hurricane Irene was a soggy inconvenience.

For others, it became a moment to extend a helping hand — in at least one case, tragically.

Throughout the tristate area, tragedies were at a minimum, but the few tragedies that there were nevertheless were major ones for the families involved.

David Reichenberg, a 50-year-old Orthodox Jewish father of four from Spring Valley, N.Y., died saving a father and his six-year-old son from a downed power line. Reichenberg came into contact with the live wire and was electrocuted. He was one of at least two Jews who were reported killed by the storm.

The other, Rozalia Gluck, 82, was trapped in a Catskills motel that was swept away by flood waters during the storm. Authorities recovered her body late Sunday.

By late Monday, 33 deaths in 10 states were attributed to Hurricane Irene, The Associated Press reported.

Reichenberg's death came after he stopped to help a Jewish boy and his father who had been viewing damage outside their home in Rockland County, N.Y. The boy had touched a metal fence electrified by a fallen wire. Reichenberg pulled the two from the fence, but could not escape himself, according to an eyewitness.

Reichenberg was buried Sunday night. The injured boy was reported to be in critical but stable condition as of Monday. His father suffered only minor injuries.

Even before the storm struck, the Jewish community attempted to prepare for the worst.

Officials offered both practical and religious counsel in preparation for the hurricane. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) issued hurricane preparation guides. The Orthodox website Vos Iz Neias {Ed. Note: it means "What's New?") posted halachic guidelines issued years ago by the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and others for what to do on the Sabbath in the event of a hurricane.

Lindsay Goldman, the director of UJA-Federation of New York's J-11 Information Referral Center, reported that the philanthropy had advised its partner agencies to activate their emergency protocols, many of which were created only in recent years by federation grants, and were co-coordinating agencies to assist one another. As of Monday morning, she said, all agencies had reported that they were open.

The URJ and B'nai B'rith International both opened Hurricane relief funds to collect donations for hurricane aid. Rhonda Love, the director of B'nai B'rith's Center for Community Action, said that even though this disaster occurred in the densely Jewish East Coast, aid will remain consistent with past natural disaster relief efforts — based on need, not creed. "We'll work where there's any opportunity to help," Love said.

The committee that will allocate the URJ funds is currently reviewing damage reports from congregations but will give according to the needs of "congregations, Jewish communities, or larger communities," a spokesman said. Those decisions will be made in the next week or two, the spokesman added.

 
 

Reasons for gladness and sadness post-Irene

_JStandardEditorial
Published: 02 September 2011
 
 
 
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