The staff of the Orthodox Union’s Teach NJ program, a grassroots advocacy program that has had significant success in recent years in terms of increasing funding allocations for nonpublic school students, called an emergency meeting last week. Held at the OU New Jersey headquarters in Teaneck, it was attended by community rabbis, school heads, school executive directors and lay leadership. The goals were to address the alarming rise in threats to public safety for Jewish residents of New Jersey, and present the view from the legislature from Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic). Teach NJ staff then outlined a plan for a grassroots advocacy effort for New Jersey state nonpublic school allocations and community security grants to be increased exponentially.
Currently, the state allocates $150 per nonpublic school student annually for security. (Public school students receive a very wide range of allocations, depending on the nature of the communities they live in. For example, students in inner-city Paterson receive over $400 per student for security, while students in more suburban communities might receive less than $40.) The state also allocates $1 million in funding for the New Jersey Nonprofit Security Grant Pilot Program, which encompasses funds that can be used by Jewish organizations and synagogues to improve security. Teach NJ will push for a per-student increase from $150 to $250 per student, and for the $1 million grant program to be increased to $10 million.
Schaer began his presentation by noting that the “kumbaya” moments that involved many politicians talking in recent weeks about the need for intercultural understanding and to condemn anti-Semitism were important but lacked specific, directed goals. In an era of unprecedented threat, Jewish institutions have to take concerted action to get necessary resources to fight anti-Semitic threats.
Schaer spoke honestly about his recent conversations with Gov. Phil Murphy about the shocking incidents of anti-Semitic activity in the region, and, Schaer said, told him: “We’re going to tackle this anti-Semitism problem and we’re going to beat it.”
Schaer shared his reaction: “I happen to be very close to the governor. I looked at him and said, ‘Governor, this problem is 5,000 years old. All the best to you in terms of finding solutions, but long term-short term: We need money.’”
In support of Teach NJ outlining a multi-pronged plan of action, Schaer pleaded with the leaders present at the meeting to lobby in big numbers to increase security funding. “Our schools, synagogues and other communal institutions remain highly vulnerable and those that use them feel targeted and frightened,” he said.
The three-step plan will begin on January 28, with an action alert. Teach NJ will distribute the security funding action alert to congregation members, parent body lists and students. This will include a web link where individuals can go to send a form letter to their representatives, asking them to support the increase in funding. The action will take less than five minutes. While many might ask how a form letter could possibly be seen as important, Schaer said that legislative staff count the number of letters they receive on each topic as a way of noting whether an issue is of widespread importance or not, and they often vote accordingly.
Second, community rabbis will designate Parshat Bo, February 1 and 2, as a community-wide security Shabbat. From the pulpit, they or their designee will mention Teach NJ/OU’s work and the need for increased funding for security programs in drashot and after-davening announcements. They will also follow up after Shabbat with congregants to remind them to use the web link to contact their legislators.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, of Congregation Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck, who also serves as president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC), attended the security meeting and shared his support for speaking about the grassroots effort from the pulpit. “We can only expect our government to make our security a priority if we will make it a priority. We have a voice in our democracy and are responsible to use it,” he told The Jewish Link.
Finally, all community leaders are being asked to sign on to a joint letter being sent to the governor, State Senate Leader Steve Sweeney and State Assembly Leader Craig Coughlin, which outlines the funding goals and urges the state leadership to pass and sign the legislation.
Those seeking further information about talking points, the action alert or the Parshat Bo Community Security Shabbat, please contact Renee Klyman, Teach NJ’s grassroots director, at [email protected].
By Elizabeth Kratz