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Tuition crisis spurs new community fund

 
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The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County last week unanimously voiced its support of a community fund to raise money for day schools struggling with rising costs and skyrocketing tuitions.

Following the vote, the Northern New Jersey Tuition Crisis Committee, the group of day school representatives and rabbis that proposed the kehilla fund, its unofficial name, filed incorporation papers to create Northern New Jersey Jewish Education for Generations Inc.

The nonprofit organization will manage the fund — to be called Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, co-chair of the Northern New Jersey Tuition Crisis Committee, is spearheading efforts to set up a communal fund for day school tuition.

“This is a major step in educating the community as a whole to the fact that Jewish education is a communal issue rather than simply a parental issue,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, co-chair of the Northern New Jersey Tuition Crisis Committee and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah. “We’re trying to move away from the tuition-based model alone to a model of broad-based support.”

The 23 rabbis of the RCBC, representing all Orthodox synagogues in Bergen County, agreed to dedicate an upcoming sermon in each congregation to encouraging regular donations to the fund through a Website expected to launch the first week in June.

The rabbis will also appoint “implementers” to lead efforts in their synagogues to promote contributions. The Orthodox Union will provide fliers and other printed materials to draw attention to the funds within the synagogues.

The idea for a community fund was put forward at an OU conference on the tuition crisis earlier this year, and the organization advised the tuition committee in developing the fund.

The money raised, Goldin said, will be used to aid scholarship programs in order to reduce the tuition burden. The solution to the crisis, he said, lies in changing the way the wider community views day school education.

“The purpose is to raise as much money as possible,” said Gershon Distenfeld, a member of the tuition committee and a board member of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, “but more importantly [also] to get as close to 100 percent participation as possible to demonstrate that the funding of our schools is really a communal obligation.”

As such, the volume of the donor base will be a higher measure of success than the size of the donations in the beginning, he said. Organizers initially plan to ask for a minimum of $30 a month from donors.

“Even an unemployed person can do a few dollars a month,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, director of the OU’s Department of Day School and Educational Services. “The Talmud speaks about how even poor people who get charity should give charity. There is a very basic heartfelt Jewish value in this model.”

The tax-deductible donations will be pooled bimonthly and then divided among elementary- level day schools within the catchments area of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes Bergen County and Wayne in Passaic County. Distribution will be determined based on the number of students at each school.

“This whole effort is aimed at lessening the burden on local families, so we think it’s most appropriate to allocate based on the number of local kids in each school,” Distenfeld said.

Zucker pointed to the government’s system of property taxes as an example of how the system should work. Property taxes fund the public school system, and every homeowner pays regardless of whether they have children in the schools. Jewish educators must create a similar sense of responsibility for the day schools within the larger Jewish community, he said.

“We benefit from the presence of the day schools in the community,” Zucker said. “It enhances the essential nature and flavor of the Jewish community.”

The fund is geared toward the elementary schools, organizers said, because of their generally lower cost than high schools, and because they tend to have more local children. Families are more willing to send their children to high schools in New York, such as Ramaz or the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway. Likewise, area yeshiva high schools have more students from outside the county than the elementary schools.

At Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, for example, 45 percent of the students come from outside the county, said Rabbi Yosef Adler, the school’s rosh yeshiva, the religious leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael, and a member of the RCBC.

Even though his school will not benefit from the fund, Adler supported the initiative, calling it “laudable.”

The average annual cost of one year of elementary-level day school falls between $13,000 and $15,000. That number increases well above $20,000 on the high school level. Orthodox families tend to be larger than average, with three or more children — all of whom usually attend day school through the end of high school. For a family earning $200,000 a year — considered wealthy in government tax brackets — the cost of education can be overwhelming.

The kehillah fund will not solve the tuition crisis, but it is a good first step, Distenfeld said. Every dollar raised by the fund is a dollar the schools do not have to charge in tuition, he added.

“The impact is going to be on funds available for scholarship, which will mitigate future tuition increases,” he said.

Although the tuition committee includes representatives from the Solomon Schechter day schools of the Conservative movement, NNJKIDs will distribute funds only to Orthodox schools, because Orthodox rabbis are leading the fundraising in their shuls.

“Since [the fund is] operating through the shuls, the revenue collected in Orthodox shuls will go toward the schools that have a religious affiliation with those shuls,” Zucker said, noting that a parallel track through Conservative synagogues will be added at a later time.

“Conservative and Reform synagogues can use the exact same model for affiliated schools,” he added. “This is replicable. We’re very happy to share the model for the non-Orthodox schools.”

Other initiatives are under consideration, including a broader community fund and discussions with UJA-NNJ about seeking out large donors, Goldin said. Schechter would reap the benefits of these components once they are launched, he added.

NNJKIDS, the rabbi said, is “the first step to the creation of an overall tuition fund in the community.”

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Everybody’s on the bus

Bergen, other local counties send 1,500 to lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill

The relationship between Israel and the United States might be somewhat strained right now, so at least 1,500 concerned Jews from around the area traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to plead Israel’s case.

Many of the members of that Norpac delegation are from Bergen County.

“It was very gratifying,” said Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood. Norpac brought 33 buses to the nation’s capital on May 13.

“We cut off registration on May 4, the deadline date,” he said, noting that while the organization has been known to extend the deadline, this year, as the number of would-be attendees steadily grew, that was not possible.

“The turnout was really impressive,” said Dr. Chouake, adding that the large number of legislators who cleared time in their calendar to meet with members of his group was impressive as well.

 

The North, the South, the Civil War, and us

In Teaneck, Princeton rabbi to examine the war’s roots, its results, and its effects on the Jews

Maybe you think that we fought the Civil War to stop slavery.

Maybe you think that the causes of the war were entirely economic, and had nothing to do with slavery.

Maybe you think that good and evil were clear in the Civil War, and that the North — that would be us — represented unsullied virtue.

Well, you’d be wrong, according to Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The North was as morally culpable as the South in the great vice of slavery. There were no angels. He will discuss his understanding of American history at length and in detail during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m., in a talk he’s called “An Impartial Jewish View of the War of Yankee Aggression.” The talk coincides with the 150th anniversary of the war’s end.

 

A band of sisters

It makes sense, really. There was music everywhere. They were a family immersed in music, four sisters who sang together for years, a talented songwriter, and dreams for the future that always included music.

What else could the Glaser sisters do?

“I always wanted to be a singer in a band,” said the eldest sister, Faige Glaser Drapkin, 34, who, with her sister Chaya, one year younger, helped make that dream come true.

Chaya, too, wanted music to be “a big part of my life.”

Much of it had to do with the link between music and family. “When I saw the Mamas and Papas on Ed Sullivan, I actually thought they were a family,” she said. “I loved their harmony, spirit, and colors, and it looked like they loved what they were doing! I knew that I wanted in on that beautiful fun too.

 
 
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