It’s not strictly true that the Jewish community has the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre to thank for the two laws signed by Governor Phil Murphy last week in a ceremony at Yeshiva Beis Hillel in Passaic.
That’s because Passaic is the home town of Gary Schaer, the lead sponsor of one of the bills and the only Orthodox Jew in the state legislature.
In fact, both laws — one of them doubles the amount of money given to non-public schools for their security needs, the other extends the scope of state security grants to non-profit institutions — were referred to their appropriate State Assembly committee in the week before an anti-Semitic white nationalist murdered seven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27.
But there is no doubt that in the wake of the deadliest attack on a Jewish institution in American history, New Jersey’s elected officials wanted to do what they could to make the Jewish community safer. Both bills passed unanimously in the state Assembly and Senate.
“It was a great day,” Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Englewood (Assembly D-37) said of the signing. Ms. Huttle was one of the co-sponsors of the non-profit security bill, A-3906, that amended the law about a three-year pilot security grant program that was enacted in 2017. That program was modeled after the federal Homeland Security non-profit grants that have helped many area synagogues and Jewish schools fund security upgrades. The state version sought to complement the federal grants by providing funds outside the urban areas delineated in the federal program, and by letting institutions use the grants to hire security personnel — something the federal program doesn’t allow. The law neglected to include grants for non-personnel expenses. Now, the grants can be used for “target hardening equipment,” Ms. Huttle said. “Cameras, bollards outside of buildings, cybersecurity programs maybe.” Additionally, the grant size has been raised to $50,000 per institution; it had been just $10,000. The new law did not increase the $1 million allocated to the program in this year’s budget.
By contrast, the school security bill, A-4597, was an unusual supplementary bill that added $11 million to the state budget. It raises the amount the state pays to non-public schools for security needs from the $75 per capita in the budget signed on July 1 to $150 per student — and allocated the $11 million to pay for the increase. More than $400,000 of these additional funds will flow to the Jewish day schools of Bergen County. Overall, around 150,000 of New Jersey’s schoolchildren attend non-public schools; that is about 10 percent of the state’s student body.
“We’re almost up to parity here,” Ms. Huttle said. Public schools receive more than $200 for each student for security. “Keeping our children safe is a number one priority,” she said.
The school security bill has been a priority of Teach NJ, the local division of the Orthodox Union’s political arm, which has been working to increase funding for religious schools in states across the country. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has played a central role in funding the Teach NJ office across the state.
“In this day and age, security has to be primary for all of our citizens,” Jason Shames said. Mr. Shames is CEO of the North Jersey federation. “The work is moral and justified and the right thing to do.
“This is part of our overall effort to work more closely with our elected officials,” he added; and the importance of the issue for the federation reflects the fact that in Bergen County, “about 40 percent of our Jewish K-12 kids go to private schools.
“We’re very grateful to the governor and other elected officials for seeing the need for security for all of our children.”
Lobbying for the additional school security funding began in July, after a request for an increase failed to be approved through the regular Trenton budget process.
“Each year we try to get increases on all our line items,” Nathan Lindenbaum said. Mr. Lindenbaum is co-chair of Teach NJ. Besides the security line item, the state budget allocates money for technology, textbooks, and school nurses. But there was no increase in the 2019 budget. “We were very disappointed,” Mr. Lindenbaum said. “We decided we were going to continue to press.
“The unfortunate political facts are that Jewish people died to create the political environment to make this happen. We doubled down and used the climate as best we could once it did happen.”
Sam Moed, Teach NJ’s other co-chair, described the school security funding increase as the group’s “most significant achievement so far, in raw dollars and from a political point of view. It built upon three years of efforts, both in increasing funding year over year and in building relationships across communities in the non-public sector and with political leaders.”
Leaders of Catholic and Muslim private schools were at the Yeshiva Beis Hillel signing. “We were all collaborating,” Mr. Moed said. “Similarly, within the Jewish community this has been a very broad coalition across denominations. That’s been a lot of the power behind its success.
“We’ve been bringing New Jersey’s political leadership into the non-public schools so they can see the amazing things that go on. We’ve had events in Jewish day schools, in Catholic schools, a couple in Muslim schools.”
Mr. Moed said Teach NJ also has worked to increase political activism within the day school community. “They have become active with the elected officials across the state,” he said. “Lay leaders, educational leaders, religious leaders, parents, students in school have made calls and written letters. It has engaged our communities and families and kids in the political process, which is enormously important from the perspective of our civic role.
“Give credit to the political leadership in New Jersey. They have been open to a dialogue around these issues. They understand the importance of providing security, healthcare, technology, etc. to non-public schools. We never advocate that this is at the expense of public schools. We want public schools to be fully funded.”
So what’s next for Teach NJ?
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Mr. Moed said. “It’s the responsibility of states across the country to equitably fund public and non-public schools in all areas where that’s appropriate. That’s a long journey ahead from where we’re all starting from. In New Jersey specifically, a few years ago, if you looked at the areas where there was funding for public and non-public schools, there was about $180 per capita for non-public schools compared to over $500 for public schools. Now there’s about $320 per student. We’re closing the gap. We absolutely believe there should be parity. We’re also looking at other opportunities to bring more resources to non-public schools in areas like STEM.”
Teach NJ has been reaching out to its supporters, asking them to thank their elected officials for the funding increase.
“We want the legislators to know that the community is aware of what’s going on. Just as we rail and complain against them, we will show hakarat hatov” — that’s Hebrew for gratitude — “when the right things happen. It’s very important that the community become more politically active and aware. In order to win the game we have to be in the game. Our community is not playing enough. People don’t communicate with their legislators enough. People don’t vote enough. We’re still voting in embarrassingly low percentages. For example, in precincts 10 and 11 in Teaneck, which are heavily Orthodox, the participation is not what it should be.
“I’m not telling people who to vote for. They just have to vote. The politicians know who votes and who doesn’t.”