The road to increased state support for Jewish day schools runs through voting in Tuesday’s uncontested primary elections.
That’s the proposition being made by Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, who heads the New Jersey political office of the Orthodox Union. (Formerly the Institute for Public Affairs, its name is being changed to the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.)
Since August, Pruzansky and a team of two staffers and large roster of volunteers has been working to increase turnout in voting districts with large Orthodox populations. They have been working under the banner of NJ Votes for Tuition Affordability, which brings together the OU, lay leaders from across the state, and more than two dozen Jewish day schools, including all area Orthodox schools and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which is Conservative.
The NJ Votes team have pored over voter registration and synagogue membership lists looking for potential voters they could register. (They didn’t find very many. “Our community is a very involved community,” Pruzansky said.) And they have assembled a list of potential voters, whom they hope to call before this election.
The biggest response to the phone call before the coming primary is surprise that there is an election.
“You don’t see campaign advertisement. You don’t see lawn signs. Nobody has a clue there’s an election,” Pruzansky said.
In large measure, that’s because in many cases candidates are running unopposed. The State Assembly and Senate are both up for election in November, as is the governor, but in many places – including the 37th and 38th legislative districts, which cover Bergen County – the party has chosen the candidates, and no one has challenged them.
That’s no reason for voters to stay home on Tuesday, Pruzansky said.
“It’s important for the community to show their numbers by voting and showing their involvement in the political process,” he said. “We have to show elected officials that they can count on us to be part of the process.”
Typical turnout for an uncontested primary is 7 percent of registered voters, he said, but “We’d like to see 25 or 40 percent” in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods, such as the West Englewood section of Teaneck. “Any significant increase over 10 percent shows the impact of our efforts.”
On the NJVotes website, the group takes credit for a success last month in Edison, where turnout in an Orthodox district for school board election reached 23 percent – nearly five times that of other districts.
Pruzansky wants state legislators to take the Orthodox and day school community seriously.
“Our main issue is tuition affordability,” he said.
Pruzansky hopes that the state budget might include an extra $20 or $40 in per-student payments to private schools for technology and for school nurses.
His real ambition for state assistance to day schools is much larger.
“Non-public school parents can’t afford to live in the state of New Jersey with their high taxes and the high tuition,” he said. “Why shouldn’t our kids receive some funding for secular education? We want the state to undertake to make education equal for all families, for all students.
“That’s our end game. That’s where we want to go. Hopefully, by increasing our presence in the state, by voting, legislators will take that seriously. We have to start the dialogue. It’s a process, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he says.
Besides the voting drive, he has been organizing meetings between legislators and constituents. Last Sunday, a breakfast at the Young Israel of East Brunswick drew two state assemblymen, including Peter Barnes III, a Democrat who is the majority whip.
With two staffers, Pruzansky believes his is the largest full-time Jewish get out the vote effort.
College students have been volunteering. And within synagogues, volunteers have led the phone drives.
He has also talked to Yachad, the OU program for the developmentally disabled, to find Yachad participants who could help input data.
“It was a win-win. We were looking for assistance, and we were able to give them vocational help,” he said.
He has begun recruiting high school students as well.
“Many high school students are involved in AIPAC and NORPAC, it’s time they get involved on state issues,” Pruzansky said.