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Voting for Jewish education

TeachNJ dinner showcases group’s legislative successes

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, left, and Senator Vin Gopal (Zush Photography)
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, left, and Senator Vin Gopal (Zush Photography)

Seven years after the Orthodox Union founded Teach NJ to help bring state aid to the Jewish day schools that are the heart of the OU’s community, 360 people gathered at a Teaneck synagogue for the organization’s dinner.

It was May 24, a wonderful spring evening, and the food for the dinner buffet was served outdoors, alongside tables with teens from the Frisch School in Paramus and Yeshiva Beit Hillel of Passaic showing off their high-tech projects.

Inside, Katie Katz, Teach NJ’s executive director, explained the organization’s genesis.

“Parents are being crushed by the high cost of tuition, overwhelmed by the pressure to make it all work,” she said. “This enormous strain impacts every choice we make. From the careers we choose to how many children to have, to what kind of home we can afford, and so much more.

“But we know that we have no choice in a society where 75 percent of young Jewish adults intermarry, and the number of antisemitic acts in New Jersey is at a record high. A safe quality Jewish education is something that we are not willing to compromise on.”

Teach NJ’s focus on lobbying has paid off in steadily increasing state allocations to private and parochial schools, according to Ms. Katz. The $135 million the state granted this year is “unprecedented and groundbreaking,” she said. But political advocacy in Trenton only works if members of the community for which she advocates are voters.

“We ask you to vote in every election, because elected officials really do pay attention to the people who vote,” she said. “Never miss another election, including the June 7 primaries.”

Sam Moed, one of Teach NJ’s founders and its chair, described the group’s goal. “Our state should equitably support the funding of our schools as well as all nonpublic schools to the fullest extent possible,” he said.

This year’s budget allocation for security, nursing, textbooks, and STEM teachers for non-public schools is “roughly a $50 million increase since TCNJ was established,” Mr. Moed continued.

“We are not alone in this work. We work in partnership with a strong coalition of non-public school organizations. We have many allies in the Jewish, Catholic, Islamic, and other non-public-school communities.”

He noted the presence at the dinner of Leila Shatara, president of the Council on Islamic schools in North America, and Alana Berman, the director of Jewish Community Relations at Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Frisch students show off their Innovation Fair projects

Assemblyman Gary Schaer of Passaic, a Democrat and longtime representative of the 36th district, is the only Orthodox Jew in the state legislature, and probably the only legislator with grandchildren now studying in Jewish day schools. He has been a high-profile advocate on behalf of those schools.

As Ms. Katz had done, Mr. Schaer noted that the dinner took place in the immediate aftermath of the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, which had happened earlier that day.

“If there’s anyone in this room who doubts the need for security funding for every religious school, Islam, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, there’s something wrong,” he said. “Days like this reaffirm our commitment to that which we know is absolutely necessary and vital.

“Seven years ago, there was no category in the state budget for security aid for non-public schools,” he continued. He said that he wants the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to increase the per-capita security funding for these schools from “$185 per child to $200 per child,” which would “be an increase of $4 million, bringing $33 million from the state of New Jersey to non-public schools” for security.

Mr. Schaer said that while Governor Phil Murphy has proposed that the state budget security funding for non-profit institutions, including synagogues and Jewish community centers, be increased from $2.2 million to $2.75 million, he is pushing for it to be increased to $5 million.

A separate bill that he expects to be passed and signed into law soon will require that every non-public school in the state place its blueprints online, so police and other officials can see them. “So if God forbid police need to enter a school, they know exactly where everything is located,” he said.

And to continue improving classroom education, Mr. Schaer said he is seeking to raise the budget for STEM funding, which brings specialized public school teachers into non-public schools to raise the level of science, technology, engineering and math education, by $5 million. “These are vital components and our Jewish children deserve absolutely no more or no less than their public school compatriots and friends.

“It’s tremendous that you vote,” he concluded. “It’s even better when you vote as a bloc. We’ve managed to do that in some communities; we need to do it in more. We need to come together.”

Mr. Schaer was followed at the podium by State Senator Vin Gopal, the first Indian-American to serve in the state legislator. A Democrat, Mr. Gopal represents the 11th district, which includes the town of Deal, the center of the state’s Syrian Jewish community. At 37, he is the youngest member of the state senate.

“Teach NJ has educated me a lot on the issues of non-public education,” he said. “We’ve seen, unfortunately, just a dramatic increase in hate crimes and antisemitism over the last several years.

The Yeshiva Beit Hillel robotics team and their robots

“I’m thinking back to even five, 10, 15 years ago and how different it is right now,” Mr. Gopal continued. “People are angry. You go on to Facebook, you go on Twitter, people are fighting with people they don’t even know. They’re saying awful things about friends, neighbors, sometimes based on their race, religion, gender. It’s really a troubling time, and I really look to organizations like Teach NJ to help lead us out of this, because we need to be led out of this.”

Mr. Gopal was born and raised in Monmouth County, where he still lives. His parents immigrated from India in the early 1970s.

“I used to visit my grandparents, God rest their souls, in southern India every year,” he said.

“On the way back, for five years, I would visit a different concentration camp site in Europe. I traveled by myself. And I would go into these camps and there was just a lack of humanity that I felt. It brought tears and emotions to me because I wondered how people could be just so evil. I’m not saying that we’re getting there. But I’m saying that we are in a really bad time in our country right now.

“Each and every day in my district, in Deal and Ocean Township, I get calls about antisemitism,” Mr. Gopal continued. “People are scared. With everything going on in our state and our country, there is not a reason right now not to increase security funding and make sure that every child gets the religious education they deserve, equivalent to the public education system, without fear.”

Ayala Kramer of Teaneck, a 10th grader at that town’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, was among the honorees at the dinner.

Ayala “participated in a leadership role at the Virtual Mission to Trenton, helped with our year-end fundraising campaign, and will be interning for us this summer,” Ms. Katz said.

The award “was a surprise for me,” Ayala said in video shown at the dinner. “My parents always taught me growing up to be involved in the community and to do chesed.

“As a child who goes to Jewish school, Teach NJ is so important to me, because I love Jewish school and learning Chumash. And they make it so much easier to do that, because they make it so much more accessible to our parents.”

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