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We name the newsmakers of 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian. This law, she told the Standard, is just “a baby step.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

Teaneck tree, shul staying put

Rededication set for venerable oak

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This plaque will be planted near the giant red oak to commemorate those who fought to keep it rooted in Teaneck. Courtesy The Puffin Foundation

The tremendous tree whose uncertain fate stirred the passions of Teaneck’s green activists last year has a new lease on life, as does the synagogue that now hosts it.

Rooted at 811 Palisade Ave., the former site of the Union for Traditional Judaism and the Institute of Traditional Judaism, the tree was at the center of a town-wide debate on whether it could safely stand over Teaneck’s main drag, Cedar Lane. Netivot Shalom, the modern Orthodox synagogue that won last fall’s bankruptcy auction of the property, decided to keep it rooted to the property.

Thanks to a conservation easement made possible by a donation from the Puffin Foundation, the tree has come under the protection of the Bergen County Department of Parks. Puffin’s president, Perry Rosenstein, and Teaneck green activist Wally Cowan negotiated the easement with the parks department, while Martin Sarver, Puffin’s attorney, negotiated with the shul. Netivot Shalom and the Puffin Foundation will hold a rededication ceremony on Friday, May 6, to celebrate the tree’s salvation.

“We’re very happy to partner with the Puffin Foundation and Bergen County and we’re happy to do our part in the preservation of the tree,” Netivot Shalom’s president, Pamela Scheininger, told The Jewish Standard last week.

The tree is estimated to be between 250 and 350 years old and stands about 80 feet tall while measuring almost 19 feet around. Last year it was named to the state’s Big Tree list and declared the fourth largest red oak in New Jersey. While the fate of the property hung in limbo in bankruptcy court, Perry and Gladys Rosenstein of the Puffin Foundation stepped forward in October with an offer of up to $200,000 to the then-undetermined new owners to pay for a conservation easement to protect the tree.

“What we’re trying to do is draw the attention of Teaneck and the community at large [to the fact] that we’re so busy saving so many things, it’s time we saved things in our own country,” Perry Rosenstein told the Standard last week. “We saved the polar bears, we saved the reptiles, it’s time we saved something that’s part of our history. That’s what motivated us to save this tree.”

The tree dates back to at least the Revolutionary War, but after UTJ declared bankruptcy last spring its leaders decided to remove it, arguing that its aging limbs posed a danger to passersby. Critics, however, argued that the reason for its planned removal was to increase the property’s value.

When UTJ was preparing to remove the tree last summer, Cowan spearheaded protests that eventually led to UTJ’s decision to leave the tree’s fate to the next property owner. Netivot Shalom bought the building during a bankruptcy auction in the fall. Rosenstein praised Cowan and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg for leading the fight for the tree’s preservation.

The tree holds special memories for the senator, whose late husband Irwin led efforts to save it some three decades ago when a bank sought to tear it down to make way for a parking lot. Now when Weinberg and her children pass by, they affectionately refer to it as “Dad’s Tree.” Irwin Weinberg will be commemorated on a plaque that will be unveiled during the dedication.

“I am forever indebted to Wally Cowan, who took up the fight that my husband left off a number of years ago, and certainly to Gladys and Perry Rosenstein for finding the resources,” Weinberg said. “Everyone who drives up and down Cedar Lane will be able to look at that tree with a little bit of respect both for its age and its magnificence.”

While the tree’s fate hung in limbo, so, too, did that of Netivot Shalom, which was faced with the possibility of dispossession. Netivot Shalom had rented space in UTJ’s building for several years but complications and lawsuits arose last year after a lease dispute.

 
 

Rabbis, cemetery owners, legislators continue closed-door talks

New Jersey Senate okays rabbi to sit on cemetery board

Time passes slowly in the New Jersey cemetery world.

Three years after his name was first presented to Gov. Jon Corzine for consideration, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor has been appointed to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates the state’s non-religious cemeteries. To be considered a religious cemetery, the property must be owned and operated by a recognized church or synagogue. Most Jewish cemeteries are not considered religious under state law.

Kornsgold’s appointment, which was finally confirmed by the State Senate last week, comes as representatives of the northern New Jersey Jewish community and the cemetery industry have been meeting to see if the two sides can reach agreement on contentious issues without the need for legislative action in Trenton.

The meetings have been convened by Assemblyman Gary Schaer and have been hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. The first meeting took place around a year ago. The most recent was held Tuesday.

Schaer declined to discuss the meeting’s deliberations. “There’s been tremendous discussion,” he said, adding that further comment “will be harmful to the process.”

Most of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting — about 10 — agreed with his no-comment policy. The other legislator participating, however, State Senator Loretta Weinberg, voiced some skepticism concerning the prospect of negotiating an agreement.

“I’m less optimistic than some,” she said after the meeting. It is a question, she said, “of how much we could and would do legislatively, and how much is done on an agreement of goals outside legislation.”

In 2008, Weinberg first introduced a bill that would address one of the major concerns of the Jewish community: the high cost of opening a grave on Sunday. The bill would bar fees beyond actual cost of labor for Sunday interments. Another would require cemetery companies to file annual financial reports with the state.

There is a large gap in Trenton between introducing a bill and the first legislative hurdle, a committee hearing.

Weinberg said she has arranged with the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nia Gill, to meet next month with a group of rabbis to hear their concerns. Gill, according to some, has been a stumbling block to any efforts to reform the system.

Weinberg’s involvement in the cemetery issue, and her legislation, came in the wake of a February 2008 meeting convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the then-UJA Federation of Bergen County. The meeting brought local legislators together with representatives of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and the New York Board of Rabbis. At that meeting, the rabbinical boards and JCRC issued a joint statement calling for an overhaul of New Jersey’s oversight of the cemetery industry.

Schaer was also a participant in that meeting.

Nearly four years later, the appointment of Kornsgold to the cemetery board may be the first concrete accomplishment of the process begun by the JCRC and continuing in the current meetings held under its auspices.

Kornsgold was asked to serve on the board by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis because of his location, near Trenton. In the years since, however, the cemetery board has relocated. When he attends his first meeting on the board next month, it will be in Newark.

Kornsgold is one of two public representatives on the 10-member cemetery board. Three are representatives of state officials, and five are selected by the cemetery industry itself.

This makeup of the board was criticized in a statement issued by participants in the 2008 meeting, among them Schaer.

“Essentially, the foxes are in charge of the hen house,” wrote Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, in a column for this newspaper earlier this year. Engelmayer now serves as interim editor of The Jewish Standard.

Rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center / Congregation Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park, Engelmayer chaired the February 2008 meeting and led the fight for cemetery reform when he served as NJBR president from 2008-2010.

“The appointment — finally — of Jay Kornsgold to the cemetery board changes almost nothing from a practical standpoint,” Engelmayer said for this article. “But it does mean that the community now has someone to turn to on the board who will listen to its concerns and put those concerns before the board. It also means that if the board chooses to ignore legitimate complaints, there is someone on the board who will help put the spotlight on that.”

 
 

Religion and foster care

Should parents take on children from other faiths and traditions?

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 22 June 2012

A complaint from a Muslim constituent has led the New Jersey legislature’s sole Orthodox Jewish legislator to introduce a bill that would mandate that children in foster care be placed with their co-religionists “to the maximum extant practicable.”

But one local observant Jewish foster mother to Christian children worries that the bill would make life even harder for children needing foster care and the adults who wish to care for them. She believes that better enforcement of current guidelines, which require respecting a child’s religion, along with more formalized efforts by the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services to seek religiously compatible foster homes, would suffice.

“A child’s religious and cultural backgrounds are significant aspects of determining the best interests of the child,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, a Democrat who represents the 36th District. Schaer drafted the bill and sponsored it in the Assembly.

“That’s why it’s so important that the placement of a child into foster care or adoption should be consistent with their religious and cultural backgrounds, unless it’s proven by convincing evidence that such placement is not in the best interests of the child,” he added.

Foster care is the initial step DYFS takes when it decides that it is not in a child’s best interest to remain with his or her parent, and it is considered to be temporary. But when the birth parent is unable or unwilling to address the issues that led to abuse or neglect a judge can terminate his or her parental rights, enabling the child to be adopted.

Schaer drafted the bill after being approached by Aref Assaf, president of the Arab American Forum and a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger’s website. Assaf had written about a young Muslim child whose Christian foster family changed the child’s name, took him to church, and finally converted him.

“Even when his parents were allowed supervised visits, DYFS disallowed the parents from taking the child to the nearby mosque and threatened at times to end the visits. DYFS repeatedly ignored the parents’ wishes that the religious dietary restrictions be observed by the foster family,” Assaf wrote. He contrasted the New Jersey law with New York State’s requirement that children be placed in the custody of individuals or agencies “of the same religious persuasion as the child.”

Orthodox Jewish groups support Schaer’s measure.

“We commend Assemblyman Schaer for crafting this important piece of legislation,” Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, who represents the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs in Trenton, said. “We believe it is vital to the welfare of a child to be raised in a religious environment consistent with that of his or her parents. Having a child placed in a foster home of a different faith can be both traumatic and confusing.”

The Brooklyn-based Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which provides foster care and social work services, primarily to the Orthodox community, also supports the measure.

Foster care “could be one of the most traumatic periods in a child’s life and the placement with a family that provides the environment to sustain a child’s religious beliefs can have a profound positive impact,” Derek Saker said. Saker, Ohel’s director of communications, lives in Passaic. “Taking a Muslim child and placing him in an agnostic home — or a Jewish home for that matter — adds to the confusion of the child.”

In New York State, he said, a government agency contacts Ohel if there is a Jewish child who needs foster care. Ohel and similar Muslim organizations “have for decades been trying to get a license to operate in New Jersey,” he added

In May, an Assembly committee approved Schaer’s bill by a six-to-one vote. It has yet to come to a vote of the full Assembly. From there, if it passes it would go on to a Senate committee, and then to the full Senate, where it is sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican who represents the 25th District. Schaer hopes the measure will be taken up in the fall legislative session and passed before the end of the year.

One Jewish state legislator expressed reservations about the measure as it is drafted. “I think the bill has some problems in it,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who represents the 37th District.

“Will this somehow mean that some children cannot be placed in adoptive families because there is some kind of an extra barrier?” she asked. She noted that current law requires the state to make “a reasonable effort” to maintain a child’s religious upbringing. The proposed bill would require that DYFS prepare a statement of facts when placing a child with another religious faith. “That adds a whole lot of bureaucracy,” she said.

She also wants to make sure “that there is nothing in this bill that could prevent gay couples from adopting a child. Would a Jewish gay couple or a Catholic gay couple be okay?”

Foster and Adoptive Family Services, an organization of New Jersey foster parents, opposes the bill, saying it would “severely restrict the pool of potential families for any particular child.”

One observant Jewish foster mother agrees with that critique. “I support taking religion into strong consideration,” says Tovah Isaiah Gidseg, a Teaneck resident who is raising two non-Jewish foster children. “I just don’t support requiring same-religion placement in all or even the majority of cases, the vast majority of whom are non-practicing Christians.

“This means adoption for Jewish families is just going to be that much harder. Few kids in the system are Jewish, and there is not really a shortage of Jewish foster or adoptive families.

Gidseg said the bill is “well intentioned.

“DYFS needs a formalized way to deal with the needs of children of minority faith. I just think [this bill] is a bit far reaching and misguided and will potentially harm the ability of Jewish families to be foster and adoptive parents.”

Gidsig said that the state makes “tremendous attempts” to keep children in the care of their birth families or extended family. Thirty-five percent of children in New Jersey foster care are in such “kinship” placement, one of the highest rates in the country, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“The definition of ‘kinship’ in New Jersey extends to close friends, neighbors, and members of a child’s religious community,” Gidsig said. “My family has been considered as a ‘kinship’ placement for Orthodox Jewish children before, despite not having a close relationship with the children, because DYFS understands that keeping an Orthodox child in a religious home is important. Jewish children in New Jersey, especially those in Orthodox communities, rarely enter the formal foster care system, and when they do they are almost always placed in Jewish homes.”

That is not to say that the system could not be improved. “Here in Bergen County, the foster care home finders and caseworkers generally know which foster families are Jewish and will go to those families if a Jewish foster child enters the system,” she said. But it may be different in counties that do not have large Orthodox populations. “There seems to be no central list of Jewish foster families available to caseworkers, so there’s no way for a DYFS worker to know which families are Jewish besides those who they personally are acquainted with or who their co-workers might be familiar with,” Gidsig said. “From what I’ve been told, the main way they know which homes are Jewish is by word of mouth among the caseworkers. This system is highly informal and this can be a real problem, because it results in Jewish children sometimes unnecessarily being placed in faraway counties before the local DYFS office discovers that they actually had an available Jewish home in their own area.”

Gidseg said that the original case that sparked the bill, where the child was stripped of his Muslim identity, was a violation of DYFS policy.

“DYFS already makes it legally incumbent upon all foster families to honor and maintain a child’s faith. We must agree to this when we become licensed as foster families and we can lose our licenses for being religiously coercive in any way. We were asked at length during our home study how our Jewish faith would impact our fostering and how we would honor the racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds of foster children. While I certainly believe that it’s very difficult for a religious Jewish child to maintain their faith outside of a Jewish home, I do not believe the same is equally true for children of every faith and denomination. This has been borne out in the experience of myself and other Jewish foster families I know who foster/adopt non-Jewish children.

“Most of the Jewish foster parents I know have found that the children placed with them are almost exclusively from nominally Christian, nonreligious backgrounds, and usually the parents are not upset that their children are with a Jewish foster family.

“Why, then, should these children only be placed in Christian homes?” Gidseg asked.

“Why is a Jewish home that is willing to make sure the children get to celebrate Christmas (even if it’s in the home of a non-Jewish friend or family member), or who finds someone to take the children to church if they so request, or that allows the children to practice their traditions, be considered less of an appropriate placement?

“Instead of making such a placement an outright violation of policy, DYFS could instead provide more support and education to foster families and caseworkers with regard to cultural and religious competency and how to make sure children’s’ traditions are honored in their foster families, and encourage birth families to talk openly about their preferences for their child’s placement early in the placement process. DYFS should also begin to maintain updated statewide lists of foster families of minority faiths that they can use as a reference if looking for a placement of a child who is Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc.”

The proposed bill, Gidseg said, would seriously affect Jewish families’ ability to adopt New Jersey children, even if parents had lost their parental rights, and had not indicated that they cared about their children’s religion.

“In most cases I know of, if they have asked for a same-religion placement they have received one if it is available,” she said.

“At the point that adoption is finalized, a Jewish family who adopts through the foster care system has the right to pursue a conversion for their child to Judaism. This is not a right that should be removed, as the adoptive family becomes the full legal parents and therefore the ones to make religious decisions for their child.”

 
 
 
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