Bringing politics closer to home

Bringing politics closer to home

Ridgewood shul boasts two elected officials

New freeholder Tracy Silna Zur with Ridgewood’s Mayor Paul Aronsohn, left, and Rabbi David J. Fine. Johanna resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

While the phrase “shul politics” conjures up images of congregants arguing heatedly over issues from clergy to prayer books, at Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center politics and synagogue life intersect in a different way.

Not only can the synagogue claim Ridgewood mayor Paul Aronsohn as one of its own, but on November 6 another congregant, Tracy Silna Zur, won a seat on Bergen County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders.

For his part, Temple Israel’s Rabbi David J. Fine, is pleased to have them as members of the shul.

“While congregations in the D.C. area will often have senators and members of Congress in their ranks, having local politicians in shul is, in a sense, more special because with local politicians, the relationship with the constituency is so much more immediate,” Fine said. “We at Temple Israel in Ridgewood are honored to have Mayor Aronsohn and Freeholder Zur as part of our congregation, as they bring honor to the Jewish community as well as the wider polity.”

Fine said he has always been inspired by the saying of Hillel, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” When he graduated from rabbinical school some 14 years ago, he said, “we each had to choose a favorite quotation from the vast corpus of rabbinic literature, and that was what I chose. Judaism teaches us to be always involved and engaged in the public good. I am thrilled to be able to work together with Mayor Aronsohn and Freeholder Zur towards that good, and in setting an example for others.”

In speaking with the Jewish Standard, both politicians cited their desire to serve the community as the major impetus for their political involvement.

“I love Ridgewood, and I love public service,” Aronsohn said. He grew up in Fort Lee, where he attended high school. After years spent in Washington, D.C., and New York, he came back to New Jersey, ultimately settling in Ridgewood. Elected to the village council in 2008, he was re-elected in 2012 and chosen as mayor then.

While technically the position is not full time, “it feels like it,” Aronsohn said. His day job – director of executive communications at Bristol-Myers Squibb – takes him to Princeton four days a week.

“It’s not easy, it’s a juggling act,” he said. Fortunately, a lot of the village work can be done at night, when most meetings are held. Still, to stay current, “I carry my iPad, return emails, and step out to make phone calls.”

Aronsohn’s political resume is impressive.

Graduating from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in political communication in 1982 and a master’s in political science, again from GW, in 1992, he went on to work for the Clinton administration in the areas of foreign policy and national security.

He also had an opportunity to serve three American ambassadors to the United Nations: Madeleine Albright, Bill Richardson, and Richard Holbrooke.

The UN community did not treat Israel well, Aronsohn believes; but “the United States always has been one of Israel’s staunchest, most reliable supporters” there, and all three ambassadors under whom he worked focused on that problem. Under Holbrooke, he said, the United States was able to help change the policy that made Israel the only country precluded from joining a regional group.

“We were able to fix that,” he said. “As an American Jew, I took great pride in that effort.”

Moving back to New Jersey, he spent a year as communications director and spokesperson for former Governor James McGreevey. Then, in 2006, he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 5th District.

Since 2008, Aronsohn has served on the Ridgewood Village Council.

“I started off in national and international affairs, then state, then local. I knew I loved public service, but when I joined the council, it was my first time as an elected official,” Aronsohn said. “I’m surprised by how much I love it – from parking issues to budgets. I love working with people, and this gives me an opportunity to do it even more closely.”

While his work on the Ridgewood council has involved him in areas from commerce to citizens’ safety, his proudest achievement has been the creation of the Ridgewood Community Access Network, a local group formed to address disability-related issues.

“Disability is a personal issue for me,” he said. “My sister has significant physical disabilities, and this has informed my thinking over the years.”

Since joining the council he has run monthly meetings dealing with various aspects of this issue, from educational initiatives to parking access to programs for special-needs children.

Aronsohn credits Jewish values with influencing his political and personal outlook.

“Part of Jewish identity is commitment to family, community, and public service,” he said. “But I’d have to say that the most profound impact [came from] my father. He was a World War II veteran who taught me about patriotism, sense of country, and service.”

Aronsohn said that one of his goals is to get local residents more engaged in the process of government, “to make it more transparent, more user-friendly. It makes it more challenging when more people come and express their views, but at the end of the day, it will be a better community.”

The mayor, who lives with his wife, Marie, and stepchildren Anna and Luke, described Ridgewood as “one of the most inclusive places I’ve ever lived.

“We’ve got a vibrant interfaith community, with four interfaith services during year,” he said. One of those gatherings commemorates the Holocaust.

Noting the importance of having a supportive family, Aronsohn said that “when you live a public life like this, demands are felt by the entire family. My family has been 110 percent behind me.”

In addition, he said, the entire family has a commitment to public affairs. He met his wife when she was a journalist for New Jersey Network; his daughter, Anna, is a student activist; and his son, Luke, is a history buff – “watching every history documentary.”

Tracy Silna Zur, who was sworn in as a Bergen County freeholder last week, is equally passionate about public service. The longtime Franklin Lakes resident, who grew up in Woodcliff Lake, credits her strong communal commitment to her family.

“We had it with our Wheaties,” she said, reeling off some of the positions held by her father, Daniel Silna, who has been president of UJA-NNJ (now the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey), the Bergen County YJCC, and Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake.

Zur has been active in her own right, serving JFNNJ as a Women’s Philanthropy board member, sitting on the board of the Gerrard Berman Day School, and volunteering for Alternatives to Domestic Violence and Meals on Wheels.

She also learned important lessons from her grandfather, who emigrated to Palestine from Latvia and later moved to the United States.

For him, “love of our country” was critical, she said. “He told us that we were fortunate to live in America, and in communities that are tolerant. Our job is to make sure that they continue to thrive.”

Noting that her father served on the council in Woodcliff Lake, Zur said she “grew up seeing that you can make a difference; that being involved and engaged was important. It was a way to internalize the whole concept of tikkun olam, to make the community better.”

Like Aronsohn, she described her new job as technically being part-time. But, she said, “I feel it will be what occupies most of my days.”

She already is quite busy. A prosecutor for the city of Hoboken, she also works with the Rutherford law firm Fahy Choi. This in addition to raising three children – ages 6, 10, and 15 – together with husband Bobby.

A lifelong Bergen County resident, Zur holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Fordham University. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University.

While Zur has been involved in New Jersey politics – she was legal counsel and scheduler for Rep. Bill Pascrell in 1997- this is her first elected office.

“I was a judge in municipal court for five years,” she said. “When the term ended, I decided to go back to graduate school for public administration. The government side of things was the part I liked best – where you get to make a difference in people’s lives. Government service was a way of doing that on a broader scale.”

Before serving as a judge, she was a public defender in Englewood, “so I certainly was always involved and engaged with government in some way. I’ve also been involved in a supportive role, helping other qualified and competent individuals get elected.”

Zur said her husband and children have been totally supportive of her political aspirations.

“My daughters were giving out flyers and going with me to parades and events,” she said. “My husband manned the fort to make sure nothing was falling through the cracks at home.” Her extended family – parents, cousins, and nephews – helped out as well.

Zur said that with her election as a county freeholder, there are now three women on the seven-member board.

“Women have come a long way,” she said, paying tribute to State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, whom she called “tremendously supportive.”

“Women bring a lot to the table,” Zur said. “There’s a certain perspective we can vocalize and insights we can bring to the board. As for challenges,” she laughed, “I’m sure I’ll learn.”

She did note, however, that women in politics tend to have “Rolodexes that aren’t as deep” as those of men, and they are often called upon to negotiate challenges related to family life.

Still, she said, “I have a family that’s with me 100 percent, so I’m well situated to take challenges at full throttle.”

Zur said the freeholder board meets every Wednesday night. She will chair three different committees – law and public safety, health services, and planning and economic development. She will also serve as liaison to Bergen Regional Medical Center and the county board of social services.

“It will end up being a full-time job.” she said. “I’m not delusional. It will require a lot of work. I’ll do my homework ““ reading through everything, formulating opinions, delving into all sides of an issue. [But] this is the kind of work I’m passionate about, making a difference for people in Bergen County.”

Zur described the Board of Freeholders as a “county legislature, providing services for all 70 towns and doing wide-ranging work” from overseeing law and public safety issues to making decisions about education, special needs services, and public works.

“There are so many different areas in which the county is involved and providing services,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity. All 905,000 residents of Bergen County are my constituents.”

The new freeholder said that she brings to her new position the skill of being a “good listener – one of the most important things in government.” She plans to have an open-door policy, to learn “what the people need and what their priorities are. It’s the beauty of our democratic process of government.

“Throughout the campaign I gave out 20,000 business cards with my cell phone number on it,” she said. “I plan to be present at community events and interface with different constituent groups, different ethnic and religious communities, and have a dialogue about issues in the community.”

Among her priorities will be dealing with the relationship between county police and the sheriff’s department, strengthening the Bergen Regional Medical Center and Bergen Community College, attracting businesses to the county, and providing for such groups as seniors and children with special needs.

Zur commended the county’s response to the wave of anti-Semitic acts that occurred during the past year. But, she said, “the Jewish community is diverse and is benefited by all [county] services,” such as rides for seniors and meals on wheels. For example, she noted, “We all want safe parks to play in and access to special services for those who need extra help.”

She noted that Rabbi David Fine performed the invocation at her swearing-in ceremony.

She said she “loves the congregation, not just because of its focus on educating my children Jewishly but for being socially cognizant,” engaging in such projects as interfaith park cleanups.

“It fulfills us spiritually as well,” she said.

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