OU looks to Trenton to ease yeshiva tuition woes

OU looks to Trenton to ease yeshiva tuition woes

After 15 years in Washington, the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs has set up shop in New Jersey.

In June, the OU hired Joshua Pruzansky away from Agudath Israel of New Jersey to become NJ regional director of the IPA.

The OU’s priorities in Trenton are similar to those of the more-haredi Agudah. At the top of the list: state aid for parents of day school and yeshiva students.

“No communal issue…is more crucial than making observant Jewish life affordable for families,” said OU president Simcha Katz upon Pruzansky’s appointment. “The tuition crisis threatens our community’s future. Josh’s addition to the IPA underscores our focus on solving this issue.”

Last month, the OU rolled out its NJ presence with a breakfast in Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael that drew more than 300 people, including more than 30 state legislators and town officials.

The hiring of Pruzansky, a resident of Highland Park, reflects “the OU’s increased investment in advocacy for its community,” Nathan Diament, head of the OU’s Washington office, told the breakfast. “He will work to rally this community to be a force in New Jersey to advocate for its needs.”

At the Sept. 18 “legislative breakfast,” the tuition crisis was the only issue broached by OU officials.

‘A fabulous advocate’

In the battle for state aid for Jewish education, Orthodox organizations are reversing long-standing arguments of the non-Orthodox Jewish community that such aid imperils the separation of church and state.

The Anti-Defamation League, for example, declares that vouchers for students to attend private or religious schools “pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy.”

The issue of school choice and school reform, central to the platform of Gov. Chris Christie, has been absent from the broader state Jewish communal agenda.

The NJ State Association of Jewish Federations “has reviewed that issue several times, but because of the different views in the community itself on…the state and religion issues, we’re basically staying out of that,” said Jacob Toporek, the association’s executive director.

The OU is not fighting this battle alone, however. “We’ll partner with the Catholic community. We’ll partner with the evangelical community,” said Pruzansky.

The Teaneck breakfast itself reflected a partnership with two organizations leading the charge for private school vouchers and public school reform.

Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), an organization lobbying for “parental school choice” in urban areas, cosponsored the event along with Better Education for New Jersey Kids, an organization focusing on school reform. Teaneck’s Cross River Bank was also a cosponsor.

“We have a pretty vast coalition of member organizations and groups that support the [school choice] initiatives, and the OU has certainly been among them, and Josh has been over the years,” said Norm Alworth, explaining why E3, which he heads, cosponsored the breakfast.

After several years of effort, E3 is on the verge of having its first school choice initiative approved by the legislature: the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would allow corporations to receive tax credits for providing private-school scholarships to students in “chronically failing” school districts.

Better Education was founded just last spring by two hedge fund managers, one of whom, David Tepper, was named one of America’s 100 richest Americans by Forbes. A resident of Livingston, he is a major donor to United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

“Dave is a big believer in excellence in public education,” said Mike Lilley, executive director of Better Education’s political action arm, which will be making donations in the upcoming elections for the legislature. “We’re going to be supporting Republicans and Democrats; we want to build a lasting coalition that supports fundamental education reform,” said Lilley.

Currently, the group’s major legislative priority is a bill that would change teacher tenure, requiring that test scores be part of a teacher’s evaluation and making tenure conditional on continued good evaluations.

Better Education’s executive director, Derrell Bradford, previously headed E3, where he worked closely with Pruzansky. “He’s a fabulous advocate for his people and he’s great on all the issues and we’re happy to support him,” said Bradford.

At the same time, Pruzansky said, the Orthodox community has an interest in reforming the state’s public schools.

“We need strong public schools in the state and it’s important that every kid get a strong education,” said Pruzansky. “Public schools are the backbone of success in our society. If some of the ideas of Better Education are helpful in that respect, we can be with them.”

This article was reprinted with permission of New Jersey Jewish Standard, where it originally appeared in the Oct. 7 issue.

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