July 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Hundreds of Yeshiva Students Engage With NJ Legislators on Teach NJ Virtual Mission

Teach NJ, part of the Orthodox Union’s national Teach Coalition, held its second annual Virtual Mission to Trenton last week, involving 16 yeshivot and day schools from across New Jersey and an estimated 900 students. The students were very much the heart and soul of the effort, with a limited number of Teach NJ staff and volunteers and school staff helping to guide their exchanges with New Jersey legislators.

The program on Zoom began with Teach NJ Field Director Maya Joyandeh inviting each school contingent to offer a shout out to signal their presence. Teach NJ Executive Director Katie Katz spoke with the attendees, recalling how she participated in a lobbying mission to Washington, DC, when she was a student at the Frisch Yeshiva and remarking that “this experience had an enormous impact on me.” She told the students: “You have an enormous opportunity today, to share your concerns with elected officials,” and noted that the students’ impact could be quite significant, as many people don’t know who their elected officials are or ever speak with them.

Katz then introduced guest speaker Justice Richard Bernstein, the first blind justice elected by Michigan voters to the Michigan Supreme Court. Bernstein is a noted advocate for those with disabilities who also serves as a volunteer for the Teach Coalition. Despite his visual disability, Bernstein has completed numerous physical fitness competitions, including 10 Ironman challenges. Bernstein told the students that “those who walk among us who understand what it’s like to struggle will go on to accomplish great things,” and encouraged them to take advantage of all the opportunities they have in high school, such as participating in the mission.

The virtual mission then shifted to small-group meetings between contingents of yeshiva students and select legislators. According to Teach NJ, there were 15 New Jersey legislators and three staffers meeting with different yeshiva groups in the virtual mission. In the Virtual Mission to Trenton Guide sent out before the event, Teach NJ encouraged students to first build rapport with and show interest in the background of the legislator they were meeting. Then, students were to make three “asks”: for greater funding for school security, for increased transportation funding and for continued support of the STEM program that supports public school teachers offering classes in yeshivot.

In two small-group sessions observed by this reporter, the students appeared poised, well prepared and focused on the game plan suggested by Teach NJ. Five students from Heichal HaTorah met with Assemblyman Brandon Umba and politely inquired about his background. Six students from Yeshivat Noam asked questions to get to know Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger, learning about his background as an
archeologist and former six terms as mayor of Middletown. They then respectfully presented the day’s three requests, which he seemed to receive with interest.

Closing out the meeting with Assemblyman Scharfenberger, Teach FL Executive Director Daniel Aqua noted that New Jersey’s STEM project for nonpublic schools is considered a national model in the Teach Coalition and is greatly admired.

The Virtual Mission then reassembled all the attendees and introduced three concluding guest speakers. Assemblyman Gary Schaer advised students to keep in mind that one of the primary tasks of a legislator is to be reelected, so people meeting with them should find a way to make their requests relate to the legislator’s district. Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer thanked the students for their advocacy and thanked the legislators participating in the mission, stating “We appreciate your openness to continue the discussion, on how to support these nonpublic school parents and their children.” Senator Vin Gopal, who now chairs the New Jersey State Senate Education Committee, praised “the incredible work of Teach NJ” and said “I’m honored to work with you.”

Three post-event reactions attest that the virtual mission appears to have made a strong impact on all involved.

“The Mission to Trenton is more valuable than you realize,” said Barbara Rubin, principal of the middle school at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, in an email to Teach NJ staff at the conclusion of the mission. “Allowing children to be heard and meet with real legislators is a gift you have given us. Our students and teachers were deeply touched by Justice Richard Bernstein’s message. He is proof that we can all accomplish so much by addressing our strengths and not allowing our challenges to rule us. His message that the world is wide open gave chizuk to so many. Adolescence is a particularly difficult time for children. Their self doubt often appears; Justice Bernstein gave them his ‘eyes’ to the future.”

Asked why she enjoyed participating in the Virtual Mission as part of the contingent of students from the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, seventh grader Orly Avraham of Edison said: “Because it was a cool experience. We got to meet with an assemblyman. We got to make a difference for other schools. We made an impact because we talked to them and asked them to give more money to nonpublic schools for security, STEM and bussing. It was for all schools, not just ours. We learned as well about how TeachNJ started. And I also learned how important it is to speak up when you need something.”

“I became involved in TeachNJ because, while we all recognize that the cost of tuition is a major problem facing the American day school/yeshiva community, TeachNJ is rolling up their sleeves and working to find a real solution,” said Steven Starr of Hillside, whose children attend the JEC in Elizabeth. “I think this was an incredibly powerful event, not only in terms of advocating for our issues as New Jersey legislators put together the state budget, but also an opportunity for our students to learn ‘outside of the classroom’ about our state government in a meaningful way. I am incredibly grateful to Katie Katz and the Teach NJ staff for their professionalism and dedication to this critically important cause.”


Harry Glazer welcomes feedback on this news story and suggestions of other news to cover. He can be reached at [email protected].

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