The Orthodox Union is ramping up its New Jersey political activism, hoping to influence legislators to increase state funding for Jewish day schools and alleviate what it calls a crisis of tuition affordability.
“The OU sees the government funding piece as an opportunity to build and support schools,” Maury Litwack, director of political affairs for the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, said.
A year ago, the OU hired Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of America to lobby in Trenton and direct the New Jersey division of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs.
Now it is hiring two new staffers to raise the Orthodox community’s political profile at a grassroots level. Arielle Frankston-Morris will help local rabbis and congregants develop relationships with their local elected officials, and Eric Kaplan will focus on increasing voter turnout in November and beyond.
Pruzansky said that in the last legislative elections, which were in 2011, Orthodox neighborhoods in Teaneck and Englewood saw voter turnout of around 25 percent, roughly the same percentage that voted throughout the state, in what was a record low turnout statewide.
“While those numbers might be around the state average, the potential to make a statement that our community is involved can be made by simply having more people come out to vote,” Pruzansky said. “If we were able to get a 50 percent turnout, you can bet that the elected leadership will take notice.”
Last month, Pruzansky heralded the inclusion of a $20 per capita technology grant for the state’s private schools in the state budget. But another measure, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, now seems dormant until after the November election, following Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s refusal to advance it for a vote.
As the bill now is drafted, it would provide scholarships for private schools to up to 20,000 students, a quarter of them now enrolled in private schools, in specified school districts that include the heavily Orthodox districts of Lakewood and Passaic, but not the richer Jewish communities in Bergen County.
Elsewhere across the country, the OU has been involved in successful legislative efforts that are bringing money into day school coffers.
In April, the OU joined in helping to pass what has been described as the nation’s largest voucher program, in Louisiana. It was introduced and promoted by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. The measure gained the support of the state’s non-Orthodox Jewish community, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of New Orleans.
The OU also has set up offices in Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania in the last six months. According to Litwak, this reflects the priorities of the OU’s president, Dr. Simcha Katz of Teaneck.
“This is a primary part of his presidency,” Litwak said.
While the OU is making this a signature issue, Pruzansky said that state aid to day schools, and the increased voter participation that would make it happen, is not “simply an Orthodox issue. Every community that has a day school should feel the need to get out and vote. Achieving our goals will help all non-public schools and their families better afford an education that we feel best suits the needs of our children.”
‘Community Federation’ partners with OU
The new New Jersey hires are being underwritten in part by a group of Monmouth County Jews calling themselves the Community Federation of New Jersey, supporters of Jewish education from the Syrian Jewish community of Ocean Township and Deal.
“We’re really just a group of individuals who came together and are trying to influence politicians, let them know that Jews vote, that education is something close to our heart,” Michael Arking, the federation’s liaison with the OU, said.
“This idea of an affordable yeshivah education is close to my heart on a personal level. I feel that Jews are disappearing, and I feel that education is the answer to that,” he said. “It’s a real challenge to young families. The cost ofeducation is just a tremendous burden on communities and families. It drives people to take their children out of yeshivah and put them in secular schools. I don’t see how this burden can continue on.”
In March, the community federation convened a meeting of representatives of day schools statewide to discuss political action. Subsequently, at least some area schools sent out emails to their parent bodies highlighting the importance of voting in local elections.
Outside the Orthodox world, the American Jewish community traditionally has opposed government funding of religious schools. This can be seen in the 2012 policy compendium of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group made up of local Jewish community relations councils and national Jewish organizations.
“The JCPA reiterates its long-standing belief that publicly funded vouchers used for sectarian school tuition costs seriously undermine the fundamental principles of separation of church and state,” the statement reads. A dissent from the OU in the compendium says its members “believe that the Jewish community has traditionally been committed to principles that should lead it to support school choice initiatives.”
This statement reflects discussions on the issue held in 1998. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the legality of voucher programs and have led to their spread. The JCPA has established a committee to reexamine the issue.
In northern New Jersey, the issue was last raised by the Jewish Community Relations Council before the 1998 JCPA discussion, Joy Kurland, the council’s director, said. After an in-depth discussion at the time, the group concluded that it could not support public funding for private schools.
Across the state, the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations has supported aid to day schools for such things as technology assistance, but because of a lack of consensus among its member federations it has no position on the larger and more contentious issue of vouchers.
Also this summer, the OU has launched another effort touching on day school affordability. In conjunction with the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, it has started the Day School Affordability Knowledge Center to spread information about existing affordability initiatives.
“Our concept is to gather information and provide analysis to the community in a very understandable and usable form,” Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the OU, said. “We’re now well underway on our first project.”