July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Respected Leader Who Straddles Two Different Worlds — Assemblyman Gary Schaer

Assemblyman Gary Schaer’s (D-36th district) path in communal leadership in New Jersey started, amusingly enough, when he attended the wrong meeting.

He had ample experience in Jewish community activities in his youth, having participated in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization during his high school years and in the American Zionist Youth Foundation in college. Yet he was a relative novice to adult communal life when he moved with his wife and family to Passaic 36 years ago. He took an interest in his children’s school, Yeshivat Beit Hillel (now known as YBH), and decided to attend a PTA meeting. When he got there, he found himself in a room full of women. Undaunted, he stayed and listened to the group’s discussions.

The next day, Schaer got a call from the school’s president, who advised him that the school’s PTA was a women-run organization and the place where men got involved was on the board of directors (Note: This was 35 years ago). The president invited Schaer to the next board meeting and he went to it. His interests and talents aligned well with the work of the board and in short order he was invited to serve on the board. A year later he was asked to become president of the school, a position he assumed proudly. This meteoric rise was just the first of many in Mr. Schaer’s impressive career in communal service.

Gary Schaer grew up in Pennsauken, N.J., a town located near Cherry Hill. His parents both came from New York and relocated in search of a more suburban setting. His father worked in the wholesale liquor business and his mother was a homemaker who raised Gary and his two brothers.

Schaer remains close with his brothers. His older brother is now a psychologist in the Detroit area and his younger brother is an attorney in the Philadelphia region.

Schaer attended public school in his youth and when it came time for college he selected American University in Washington, DC. He majored in political science and international relations and, while in school, he met Donna Subkowsky, who was attending Georgetown University. The two dated and married in 1975, initially choosing to live first in New York City and then on Roosevelt Island.

Schaer started his career in the financial sector and served as a broker and financial advisor for 22 years, investing funds for pensions and profit sharing plans. Donna began a career as an educational administrator and currently serves as a principal of secular studies for a yeshiva in Monsey, after having served in similar roles in yeshivot in New York and New Jersey. As their family grew, they decided to move to the suburbs in New Jersey. They visited a few communities and elected to resettle in Passaic.

Schaer remembers that the frum community he moved into 36 years ago was much smaller and close knit than it is now. “When we moved in, we received four challot and three bottles of wine for that Shabbat. People were so happy to have another new family arrive in town.”

The frum community was poised for growth and in the years to come many more families moved to town. The Orthodox community grew and with that growth, they experienced some of the challenges facing Jews in large urban areas.

Schaer recalls that two issues in particular troubled the frum community at the time: taxes, “which were strangling people who lived there,” and home burglaries on Friday nights.

Along with two other frum men in town, Schaer decided to run for a position on the city council in 1994 to address these and other issues. Schaer was no stranger to politics in Passaic, having previously been appointed by then Mayor Joseph Lipari to serve as a member of the board of the Passaic Authority.

The group of three won the election and a year later, a fourth member of the frum community ran and won a seat. This resulted in four frum members of the community serving on the council—Schaer, Chaim Monk, Daniel Schwartz, and Benny Jakubovic—giving them a majority vote. He and the others on the council quickly got to work on the issues that animated their activism.

Schaer’s work has earned him the admiration of his colleagues on the council, which led to his serving as Acting Mayor in 2008 and his current role as City Council President, a position he has held intermittently since he joined the Council.

Schaer’s accomplishments on the Passaic City Council also attracted statewide attention and in 2005 he was asked to run for the New Jersey State Assembly. What made this pivotal moment unique is that representatives of both the Democratic and Republican state parties asked him to run for the Assembly seat. Passaic’s nonpartisan form of government allows people to run for office in city government without declaring a party affiliation. Though the Frum members of the Council had, a year after their election, become affiliated with the Republican Party, their work was so effective and sufficiently non-partisan so as to attract the interest of both parties.

Schaer thought about the opportunity and realized that while he is fiscally conservative, many of his social views tend to “lean to the left.” He decided to run for the Assembly seat as a member of the Democratic Party.

Before finalizing his decision, Schaer consulted with his wife and was pleased to receive her full endorsement of the move. “My wife has always been extraordinarily supportive of virtually everything I’ve wanted to do,” said Schaer, who has always been involved in community organizations.

Schaer understood, in running for the Assembly seat, that he had to work with all the communities in his district, and gain their support, not just work on behalf of the observant Jewish community he lived in. As he describes it now: “Passaic is the only frum community in my district and accounts for just six% of my votes in Assembly races. If I only concerned myself with Jewish issues, it wouldn’t work. I need to address issues that affect all New Jersey citizens.”

Schaer entered the race for the Assembly seat in the 36th District, representing Passaic in Passaic County and 14 towns in North Bergen County, and campaigned heartily. He won the election and has held the seat ever since.

When Schaer arrived in Trenton to begin serving as an Assemblyman, he had a conversation with then-Assembly Leader Joseph Roberts that has stayed with him. Noting that Schaer was the first Orthodox Jew to be elected to the New Jersey State Assembly, Roberts remarked that he would be representing two districts—District 36 and the ‘district’ of all Orthodox Jews across the state.

Schaer acknowledged that his dual role puts him under a unique spotlight, terming the challenges “immense” because he’s “assumed to be representative of the community as a whole.” As Schaer described it, his novel status requires a constant balancing act.

In his role as Assemblyman, Schaer has successfully proposed and obtained passage of a number of acts of legislation that advance the religious freedoms of and protections for Jews and people of other faiths in the State. He is particularly proud of his efforts to bring state aid to students of non-public schools (such as Yeshivot) for essential needs like security, nursing, technology, textbooks, and transportation.

Schaer noted that before he started working in this area, there were no funds devoted by the State of New Jersey to students in non-public schools. Now, in the current budget year (FY2020), the State provides $150 per student in non-public schools for security aid and an additional $2 million dollars for facility hardening grants through the NJ Office of Homeland Security. He said that NJ Governor Phil Murphy has been extraordinarily supportive of efforts in this area, as have the leaders in the NJ State Senate and Assembly.

Assemblyman Schaer sees three major issues facing the Jewish community in state government. First, security is paramount. “This can’t be overstated,” said Schaer. “If you cannot address this, you will not have a community. It is against the principles of America for a community to live in fear and danger (without help from the state to address it).” Second, religious families need financial relief. Schaer said we need to find ways for the state to get involved in efforts to relieve the serious financial pressures on religious parents, wherever it’s constitutionally allowed. And third, Orthodox Jews should pursue getting elected to municipal and statewide elected offices. “It is vitally important for the community to have a seat at the table. If we want our views represented, we need frum people in these roles,” said Schaer.

Schaer’s approach in governing is to work with other groups to serve the common good. He sees this as the most reliable way to address the needs not only of frum families but also families of other faiths. In this vein, he points proudly to two awards (of dozens) that decorate the wall of his office in his district office in Passaic—one from the Agudath Israel of America’s NJ office and the other from the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) of New Jersey.

Schaer’s drive to coalition building goes beyond faith based groups. It is this drive that led him to cosponsor the recently passed bill that enables the State to provide drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, an act of legislation that was of particular importance to the Latino community and immigration advocates. “We must build bridges,” Schaer emphasised. “We must keep in mind that we in the Jewish community are numerically very small. We only succeed when we work across the spectrum.”

Schaer’s star continues to rise in Trenton. In 2012 he was appointed Deputy Assembly Speaker and continues to serve in that role. He served as chair of the Assembly Budget Committee 2014-2017. And recently he was appointed by the Assembly Speaker to serve as Policy Chair, an influential role that allows him to review the roster of proposed bills in the Assembly, trouble-shoot concerns that may arise with different bills, and make recommendations on which bills to advance.

Schaer is reflective about the difficulties and rewards of his work. “Serving in government is a 24/7 challenge. Everything you do is examined. Our community can be quite wonderful and also sometimes very difficult as well. Sometimes, I’m accused of being transactional and pragmatic. No doubt that may be the case. I believe I’ve stood up for the right things. When I didn’t, it was only because of my lack of ability.”

“I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received from my family, many Rabbonim, and from my remarkable staff. And you can not imagine the inner pride I get when people approach me and thank me for things we’ve done or tried to accomplish.”

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