Jews ponder the gubernatorial contest

Jews ponder the gubernatorial contest

At Tuesday night’s gathering with Gov. Corzine are, from left, standing, Meir Stahl, Leon Kozak, Mayor Michael Wildes, Dr. Ben Chouake, Mayor Elie Katz, Josh Greenbaum, and Senator Loretta Weinberg. Seated from left, are Rabbi Menachem Genack, Gov. Jon Corzine, and Dr. Munir Kazmir.

Like other groups in New Jersey, Jews are concerned about issues such as unemployment and health care. Some, however, cite additional concerns, such as the high cost of day-school education.

In a recent meeting with the Republican gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, that issue took center stage, said Howard Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.

The OU executive arranged the Aug. 3 meeting in West Orange between the candidate and some 40 Orthodox rabbis, educators, and synagogue leaders. A similar meeting with Gov. Jon Corzine is in the works.

“The Jewish community – the Orthodox community, particularly – is a swing vote,” said Beigelman. “People are still paying attention to the conversation. It remains to be seen” how they will vote.

Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Fair Lawn’s Ahavat Achim has a slightly different take. If Jews constitute a swing vote, he said, “we don’t know it.”

Goldstein – who said he grew up in Brooklyn “with a well-oiled political machine” – said it was his sense that “Jews [there] knew how to get their voices heard. I don’t sense that here.”

While some rabbis no doubt are more politically connected than others, he said, “I hear a lot of chatter but have no sense that we unite or identify our needs and vote as a bloc.”

Goldstein agreed with Beigelman that the cost of day-school education was uppermost in the minds of those who attended the Aug. 3 meeting.

From left, Rabbi Uri Goldstein of Cong. Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn with Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie and the OU Young Leadership division’s Jason Goldstein.

“A big issue in my congregation and in the community at large is the difficulty of the day school financial situation,” said Goldstein, noting the difficulty of meeting tuition obligations, “especially in families with multiple children.”

“It’s one of the big issues we discussed,” said Goldstein, noting that in addition to participating in grass-roots initiatives, the community is “looking to Washington or to Trenton for any sort of assistance – any legal means to work with the government to help alleviate pressure on the community.”

While the community does not generally look to the government to solve its problems, he said, “when it comes to education, we more acutely feel a sense that we wish the government could step in, since we pay taxes but don’t send our children to public schools.”

Goldstein pointed out that the day-school financial issue is directly related to concerns about the difficult economy.

“It’s felt more acutely in the unfortunate economic circumstances right now,” he said.

He noted as well that “there is no congregation that has not seen people out of work,” either because they have lost their jobs or suffered cuts in their employment.

“We’ve certainly seen that in our congregation,” he said. “Whatever can be done to bolster the situation, to find jobs, to bring business here” would be greatly appreciated, he said, “no matter what the party.” Indeed, he said, he plans to attend meetings with Corzine when they are organized.

Beigelman explained that “one of our [OU’s] signature policy issues is tax credits, corporate or personal.” A bill now stalled in the legislature would provide tax credits to corporate donors who fund scholarships, he said, adding that participants at the meeting urged Christie to support the legislation.

“He said he supports that legislation and could work with the Democrats on that,” said Beigelman, adding that those who attended the meeting with Christie were also concerned about recent cuts in technological funding for private schools, which the OU has been fighting to restore.

In addition to education, the Orthodox leaders raised the issue of homeland security “and the need for our institutions to be protected,” said Beigelman, pointing to last week’s bomb threat against a Long Branch synagogue. He added that emphasis on security “ebbs and flows but is very much back on the agenda” after the shooting of the guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the alleged attempted terrorism in Riverdale, N.Y.

Beigelman said the Orthodox community is also interested in energy efficiency, not only for reasons of environmental health and national security “but as a way to help synagogues and schools save money.”

He noted that participants at the Aug. 3 meeting raised the issue of the energy retrofit grant program included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The provision permits faith-based and other nonprofits to participate equally in the program. “They asked if the state could similarly open energy efficiency programs to all, to both protect the environment and stimulate the local economy,” said Beigelman. “[Christie] agreed the programs “should be open to all and would help in establishing New Jersey as a green jobs center.”

Also of concern to the Orthodox attendees is “preserving religious freedom,” said Beigelman, pointing to laws signed by Corzine in April 2008 guaranteeing religious accommodations to observant people of all faiths. The laws require, for example, that alternate testing dates be provided for students if exams are scheduled on days of worship.

“These laws can always use strengthening,” said Beigelman.

He noted as well that “New Jersey is one of the only states without a tax deduction for charitable donations. One of our priorities would be for the state to enact this,” he said.

Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, hosted an Englewood parlor meeting on Tuesday evening at which 21 guests discussed issues of interest with Corzine and his running mate, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

Chouake said that a similar meeting with candidate Christie is being planned by another NORPAC member, and two other members have said they will host additional functions for the governor.

The NORPAC head said he and his wife had personally chosen to host Tuesday’s event because “Gov. Corzine has an excellent record on our issues, and Sen. Weinberg is a leader on our issues.”

In a letter inviting NORPAC members to the event, he noted that “Governor Corzine has over the years showed his support for Israel in Congress and continues to do so now … [signing] legislation in 2008 making the New Jersey-Israel Commission a permanent entity within the New Jersey Department of State [and] eliminating the need for reauthorizing the Commission by Executive Order every five years. Furthermore, and more significantly, the new law emphasizes the importance of the New Jersey-Israel ‘sister state’ relationship.”

Chouake noted that because of NORPAC’s concern with Israel, attendees “mostly focused on Israel relations and thanked the candidates for their support in the past.” In addition, he said, they offered their points of view on the current U.S.-Israel relationship.

At the meeting, the governor briefly summarized measures he has taken on the budget and on developing energy independence, Chouake said.

“It’s a difficult time,” said Chouake. “I was very impressed. He’s a modest guy. He talked about things he has been doing that we weren’t aware of. The more people know about what he has accomplished, his deep understanding of the issues, and his ability to execute them, the more they will want him to continue in office.”

Chouake said Corzine also talked about education and, “given the separation of church and state, what the state can do to help.”

For example, said Chouake, Corzine said it would be a priority for him to restore cuts for technology to private schools “when the budget gets more flexible.”

“He also agreed that security needs are much greater at day schools” and acknowledged that protecting these schools is an obligation of the state, said Chouake.

“Those are legitimate ways of assisting private schools,” he added, “legitimate ways the state can help.”

Explaining his support for the governor, Chouake said that while Corzine might have used his wealth for personal ends, “he decided to use his fortune to help make the world better, to go into public service.” In addition, he said, “he’s always been sensitive to religious issues,” such as making kosher food available to Jews in prison and ensuring that observant students aren’t compelled to take tests on Shabbat.

“He’s a mensch,” he said. “And Loretta [Weinberg] is fabulous, bringing to the table integrity, wisdom, passion, and devotion to her constitutents.”

Chouake said the meeting went an hour longer than planned.

“I think the governor just enjoyed being there. He wanted to hang out.”

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