Paul Aronsohn of Ridgewood — actually a former mayor of Ridgewood — has a new portfolio.
Gov. Phil Murphy has appointed Mr. Aronsohn to head up the state’s newly created Office of the Ombudsman for Individuals with Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities and Their Families.
In this capacity — according to the news release announcing his appointment — Mr. Aronsohn will be “the administration’s lead advocate and ally for New Jersey residents in need of critical services ranging from early childhood through adulthood.”
The field of disabilities is something that Mr. Aronsohn, an active member of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, cares about deeply. “All three of my siblings have a different range of disabilities,” he said, adding that in particular, the life and experience of his late sister Patricia are a constant reminder of the need for such services.
“Patty was never effectively diagnosed,” he said. She had both cognitive and learning disabilities. “In her 20s, it became physical. She couldn’t walk. She needed a feeding tube.”
Their mother nursed Patricia throughout her life. “Last June, 2017, my mother passed away,” he said. “Three days later, Patricia died. It was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
“The end of her life, she was not verbal, and we didn’t know if she knew that mom passed away. But she must have known. They lived their lives together.”
His “biggest credential” for the ombudsman position, Mr. Aronsohn said, “comes through Patty’s experience and watching my mom’s struggles and challenges.” Indeed, he continued, “Although I have years of professional experience working on disability issues, I believe that Governor Murphy appointed me primarily because of my personal experience. He wanted someone who really understands the challenges faced by families and who fully shares their sense of urgency.”
Among other things, he said, he will work to improve the benefits and compensation for DSPs — direct support professionals — who help with “very difficult, very personal jobs,” such as helping with hygiene and feeding disabled people. “They’re invaluable,” he said.
A former director of executive communications for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Mr. Aronsohn took up his new public advocacy position in April.
“It came about through working with Murphy on disability issues,” as part of the governor’s transition team, Mr. Aronsohn said. He’d been a member of the Human and Children Services Committee for the team, working with families of and advocates for people with disabilities in order to gather recommendations for the incoming administration.
Mr. Aronsohn said that his “profound commitment to public service, to be engaged in your community and in the world around you, is rooted in both Jewish and American values.” He is a founding member of the Ridgewood Community Access Network and a board member of two other organizations that provide disability resources and advocacy — Heightened Independence and Progress, and the Adler Aphasia Center.
“Paul has always been a champion for people with disabilities,” Rabbi David Fine said; Rabbi Fine is the religious leader of Temple Israel. “As a councilman, mayor, and former mayor, he has pushed our village and its citizens to do all we could and imagine further ways to create a society and culture of accessibility. As a respected voice within the Jewish community of Ridgewood, he has promoted a vision of Judaism as a beacon of inclusion and justice.
“I was honored to work with him through his term as village mayor as both leader of the village interfaith clergy and as his own rabbi.”
One of the first things Mr. Aronsohn did during his four-year stint as mayor — which followed his eight years on the Ridgewood Village Council — was to work toward “access for all. I was engaged in everything from educational activities to recreational activities to making improvements to benefit those with special needs, like making the town pool accessible.”
Stressing that his portfolio includes both children and adults with “lifespan disorders,” he estimates that this group includes tens of thousands of people. That includes both people who are or have been enrolled in state programs and others “who don’t go through the system,” including children who receive help through their school district but don’t register through the state. “My focus is on intellectual and developmental disabilities, lifespan disorders, not those that come on later in life or go away,” he said.
Mr. Aronsohn has a long history of community service. After graduating from George Washington University with undergraduate and graduate degrees in political communications and political science, he worked in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Gov. Jim McGreevey, including a stint with the U.S. State Department’s U.S. Mission to the United Nations. “I played different roles,” for the mission, he said, including as an arms control advisor dealing with the control and regulation of anti-personnel landmines.
While his new position is not quite as delicate, he will treat it with the same sense of purpose, Mr. Aronsohn said. His goals “are to help individuals and families navigate the system of support and services, to get what they need and deserve; work with them to improve the system, make it more user-friendly and accessible, to provide what we’re not providing; and make sure that the voices of individuals and their families are being heard in a meaningful way on issues that affect them directly.”
While his office is in Trenton, at least in the beginning he plans to spend much of his time on the road, “meeting individuals and families where they live.” He also will meet with state legislators and advocacy groups. While this new initiative received support from many legislators, he credits Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-37) as a “key driver” of the project.
Right now, he is working alone. “Before we staff up, I want to figure out what role this office should play relative to other disability offices,” he said. “But I want people to know that I’m here for any family out there who needs help.”
Paul Aronsohn can be reached at Paul.Aronsohn@treas.nj.gov.