OU advocates for tuition aid

OU advocates for tuition aid

Orthodox groups bands together to lobby Trenton for help paying for school

The Bergen County delegates from the Orthodox Union’s advocacy mission to Trenton included, from left in the back row: Sam Heller of Fair Lawn; Dr. Paul Ferbank of Ridgefield Park; Josh Pruzansky, OU Advocacy-NJ’s regional director; Rabbi Mordechai Glick of Bergenfield; and Bernard Mintz of Fair Lawn. In the front row, from left, are OU’s advocacy fellow, Sophie Felder; Sophia Gordon of Passaic; and Marta Feldenbaum and Deborah Shapiro, both of Fort Lee.

The OU Advocacy Center – formerly known as the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs – has added “mini-missions” to its outreach efforts. Among the first group to take advantage of this opportunity were local advocates from Bergen County, who traveled to Trenton on February 20.

Participants included 12 delegates from Teaneck, Bergenfield, and Fair Lawn, said Josh Pruzansky, OU Advocacy-NJ’s regional director.

Such missions are vital, Mr. Pruzansky said, because “legislators know that anyone who comes all the way down there must really be committed to the issues they’re advocating for. And they know that these people are representing others, so it’s like a mission of 500. It resonates with them.”

With thousands of bills proposed each session, “90 percent don’t go anywhere,” he said. When people advocate for a particular bill, it stands a “better chance of getting closer to a committee.”

For their part, delegates get to see “democracy in action,” Mr. Pruzansky continued, noting that people tend to focus on Washington, D.C., and forget about state and local government, “where many of the issues that concern them most are decided.”

“Seeing state government in action is an eye-opener,” he said. “They’re very impressed meeting with legislators whose names they only see on the ballot. They feel good. They advocate and are being listened to.”

While other states – including New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida, as well as Washington, D.C – have OU advocacy programs, Mr. Pruzansky, who has been involved in Jewish communal work for more than 20 years, said that New Jersey was the first state to adopt the program; the state’s office opened in 2011.

National advocacy efforts, now spearheaded by Nathan Diament, the OU Advocacy Center’ executive director – have been waged for decades, said Roz Singer, OU’s national communications director, but “within the past two to three years, we’ve been expanding exponentially with state offices.”

One of the New Jersey office’s prime concerns is tuition affordability, Mr. Pruzansky said.

“The largest expense of [Orthodox] families in New Jersey – after mortgages and health care insurance – is day school education,” he said, pointing out that he is targeting special education as well, working to ensure that school districts have the ability to assign students “to special education schools that may be religious. The cost for those families is astronomical. We want to help them find a way to alleviate that burden.”

The advocacy program “has absolutely seen results at the state level,” he said. In 2013, the New Jersey region successfully secured $1.4 million in technology aid and $200,000 for health care in Jewish day schools.

According to a statement from OU, New Jersey Jewish day schools receive less than $100 from the government per child in basic services such as technology and nursing. As part of its 2014 legislative agenda, OU Advocacy-NJ seeks to increase that amount and help pass a special education bill that will permit district funding for programs and services for special needs students in religious schools.

“The thrust of advocacy work [is the premise that] every child should be treated the same way, regardless of which school they go to,” Mr. Pruzansky said. “The idea that private school students should receive the same funding for health, security, and safety is beginning to resonate.”

“Day school affordability drives most of our work,” he said, but other issues – such as religious liberty, communal safety and security, energy efficiency, and the security of Israel -also are high on the group’s agenda.

Mr. Pruzansky said the OU has been active in helping to create nonprofit security grant programs that provide money for “target hardening,” allowing nonprofits to use the grants to ensure the safety and security of their buildings. Efforts are made each year to ensure that the program remains funded.

Ms. Singer said that since Superstorm Sandy, “we’re working on getting FEMA funding for houses of worship. The center is also promoting an energy bill, similar to security grants, that would provide grants to nonprofits to make their buildings more energy efficient.”

“We’re working with allies in Congress,” Mr. Pruzansky said, stressing that his group “works on both sides of the aisle. We’re nonpartisan. We’ve got partners and allies on both sides.” In addition, his work in Trenton is often done in conjunction with the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, the New Jersey Catholic Conference, and “with any group where people have similar issues.”

So far, the New Jersey office has launched two mini-missions. During its February 20 visit to Trenton, the Bergen County delegation met with Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), who is a co-sponsor of the special education bill, Tim Eustace (D-38), Gordon Johnson (D-37), Holly Schepisi (R-39), Patrick Diegnan (D-38), Upendra Chivukula (D-17), Nancy Pinkin (D-18), Gilbert Wilson (D-5), and Senate President Stephen Sweeney.

According to Arielle Frankston-Morris, OU Advocacy NJ’s associate director of community engagement, most participants in the Bergen County mission were members of OU Advocacy’s retiree network, which is co-sponsored by Staje, “a Jewish organization dedicated to fostering a culture of meaningful and purposeful living among retirees and empty-nesters.”

She said that working together, the two groups offer both educational opportunities for seniors as well as volunteer opportunities suited to individual members’ talents and expertise.

“We want to make sure that retirement-age American Jews have the opportunity for more personal growth and communal giving in those years,” Ms. Frankston-Morris said, noting that she recently ran an advocacy event for this group in Teaneck.

She added that to further OU’s advocacy initiative, she works with schools and synagogues throughout the state “to drum up support for what we’re working on, getting support for Jewish issues.”

“We’re in touch with all the day schools,” she said, noting that this includes Schechter schools as well as Orthodox institutions. Synagogues interested in day school education, though, tend to be Orthodox, she said. “We meet with the leadership and talk about recruiting individuals in the community who might be interested in taking part” in the programs. She also relies on social media as well as word of mouth.

“The response has been really good,” she said. “Once community education takes place ““ once somebody is convinced that the local government and state legislature have the power [to respond] to our needs – it’s so easy.

“There are so many active people willing to give of themselves.” In this regard, she said, Bergen County is “amazing.”

Ms. Frankston-Morris said there are different ways to be involved in advocacy, beyond going to Trenton to lobby. She cited holding communal leadership meetings with legislators in their districts, attending educational sessions to learn how to engage in advocacy, and helping coordinate opportunities in schools and synagogues to engage the legislature.

“We’re also committed to educating the community about the positions of legislators, especially during election seasons,” Ms. Singer said, stressing that while the group does not endorse candidates, it does work to make their positions known to members.

For further information, go to ouadvocacy.org or email nj@ouadvocacy.org. To register for a mini-mission, call (201) 248-6148.

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