One big question observant Jews face as they engage in the political process is: How do you work closely with people of different faiths and different beliefs?
This question was the focus of the January 12 event of the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park, a grassroots organization that conducts an annual series of public events with noted speakers addressing topics of interest. To explore this topic, they invited two New Jersey municipal leaders who are strong role models in this area.
Mohammed Hameeduddin was elected as Teaneck’s first Muslim councilman in 2008. He became mayor in 2010 and served until 2014. The township council reappointed him as mayor in 2016 and again in 2018. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of an Indian Muslim family, and attended Rutgers University. Married, and the father of two sons, he owns the HW Title Agency in Hackensack.
Elie Katz, a member of the Teaneck Orthodox community, was first elected to the township council in 1997. He is a lifetime member of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps and cofounder (with Reverend Daniel Meys of the Teaneck Assembly of God) of the Teaneck Helping Hands Food Pantry. He graduated from TABC and Touro College. Married with three children, he is president and CEO of National Retail Solutions in Newark.
Moshe Kinderlehrer, co-publisher and co-founder of The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Link of the Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut and The Jewish Link Media Group, moderated the discussion.
Mayor Hameeduddin credited his start in Teaneck politics to two Orthodox Jewish Councilmembers, Adam Gussen and Elie Katz; Gussen urged him to apply to take a position on the planning board in 2006 and Katz encouraged him to run for council two years later. He said that he has learned to “take people as I find them, to try to find common ground whenever possible and to work with people to meet their needs.” His hope is that “we are planting seeds, where people can look at each other and not just through religious eyes.”
Deputy Mayor Katz believes that he and the mayor share a proactive approach and try to go wherever there is a concern or problem, whether it be at a shul, a mosque or a church in town. He stated that because of their close working relationship, the mayor can motivate him to work even harder for their town.
He shared the story of how one night, during a winter storm, the mayor called him and said, “What are you doing?” Katz said he had just responded to emails from 30 residents who lost power and now he (Katz) was getting ready to go to bed. The mayor urged him to come outside and join him to search for a PSE&G truck to help residents. Katz came outside and the two men drove around. They soon found a PSE&G truck and persuaded the driver to come to Teaneck and work on restoring power to residents.
Mayor Hameeduddin talked about the impact that a Shalom Hartman Institute-sponsored trip to Israel had on him and how he learned to better understand the State of Israel and Zionism. He said that he believes that most people in the U.S., on all sides of Middle East issues, “just want to live decent lives, raise their children and get along.” As he sees it, within the Muslim community, 80 percent have “moved on,” while perhaps 20 percent “haven’t moved on.” “And it’s the 20 percent who try to bully the 80 percent.” He said as well, “There’s no foreign policy in clearing snow or picking up leaves.”
Deputy Mayor Katz extolled the support he has received in the Muslim community, stating that the local mosque is usually the first to hold a kick-off event for his campaigns and the first to hold a victory party for him. Both men cited, as one of their proud moments, the Police Vehicle Loan Program created by the township council after the Pittsburgh tragedy; this program stations unused Teaneck Police Vehicles at local houses of worship.
Central New Jersey community members who attended the discussion gave it lots of praise. “I think politicians on the national level could learn a lot from these guys,” said Aaron Epstein. “Because they both have such great attitudes, I’m sure that even if a foreign policy issue came up that they disagreed on, they could deal with it.”
Josh Fine, a Highland Park Borough Council member and member of the Orthodox Forum planning committee, said, “I was glad that both Mayor Hameeduddin and Deputy Mayor Katz stressed that the key to effective municipal governance is for locally elected officials to serve all residents and not just cater to the demographic to which they belong.
Susan Hornstein remarked: “It was refreshing to hear a discussion of politics that focused on people’s actual needs and didn’t just devolve into partisan issues.”
Mark Abraham, chair of the Orthodox Forum, stated afterwards: “This year, the Orthodox Forum’s events have been looking at our involvement outside of our insular community. With this program we wanted to explore what issues are involved with Orthodox Jews actively engaged in government. What we witnessed was a refreshing look at two public servants who defy labels and even model how citizens from different backgrounds can cooperate to make government work the way it should.”
By Harry Glazer