May 29, 2024
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May 29, 2024
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New Jersey State Budget Hailed by Jewish Leaders

Jewish leaders lauded the 2024 New Jersey state budget, which provides new or increased funding in areas critical to the community, including Holocaust survivors, seniors receiving kosher Meals on Wheels, transportation for non-public school children and security, among others.

“It was an 11 out of 10,” said Harris Laufer, director of the Jewish Federations of New Jersey. “We got everything we asked for, and in some cases, we even got more than we asked for.”

The areas where that generosity played out were: the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, where federation asked for $6 million, but $7 million was appropriated; the Holocaust Survivors Assistance Program, $525,000 was requested and $650,000 was budgeted. For the first time ever specific funding of $1 million was set aside for kosher Meals and Wheels.

Throughout the process Laufer said legislative leaders and governor Phil Murphy indicated they are open to providing for the Jewish community’s needs.

“We got a lot of the items we advocated for and we were very involved in the process for some of these items,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director of Agudath Israel of America, adding some of the items will have a “huge impact” on the community.

“If someone were to ask me to rate this budget on a scale from one to 10, I would say this budget is about a five-and-a-half to a six,” he said in a virtual program. “Overall it was a good budget, it was a decent budget. We definitely came out ahead of where we were in past years. Some key items were increased significantly. Others not as much, but overall we did okay.”

Rabbi Schnall said overall there was a $12 million increase for yeshivas through various programs including increased funding in non-public school busing, technology, nursing and security.

Both Harris and Schnall, who praised Federation for its role in securing the new funding for Meals on Wheels, said the new appropriation was a significant benefit for the community.

Harris said as of the 2020 census there were 2000 Holocaust survivors in the state. The state Department of Human Services oversees the Holocaust survivors program under which local Jewish family services provide programs in socialization, assistance and finding resources.

One of the items that did not make it into the budget was universal free lunch for all New Jersey students regardless of ability to pay. The proposal, which would have incrementally made free lunches available over a five-year period, has been passed by the Assembly’s Agriculture and Food Security Committee.

“Obviously this would have helped a lot of families throughout our kehillas, many families who are ineligible for free lunches but are struggling and have to pay lunch fees to yeshivas,” said Rabbi Schnall. “In some families it could be thousands of dollars a year they would have saved.”

He said although some schools have as many as 20-25 % of their students eligible to receive subsidized lunches, they don’t offer them because there are still not enough students to make it worthwhile for the yeshiva to go through the paperwork and administrative burden involved.

The federal government has long funded free meals for students whose family income falls below 130 % of the federal poverty level and reduced price meals for those between 131 and 185 % of that level.

Last year the state enacted a law that raised the eligibility level to 200 % of the poverty level, instead of 185 %. If passed the new bill would initially raise the threshold for free lunches to 250 %.

Significantly, non-public school students would now be included in the program, said Rabbi Schnall, who was optimistic the bill would be enacted. Harris said he expects the bill to be voted on by the end of the year.

“Although the excitement of universal free lunch did not happen this year, the increase probably will happen,” said Rabbi Schnall, with non-public children being “part and parcel of the conversation.”

Rabbi Schnall also highlighted the positive impact the increased funding for non-public school busing will have for students who attend day schools and yeshivas. Currently the state caps bus contract bids at $1,022 per pupil, but under the budget that will rise to $1,165. If a bid came in above the per-student cap, the route couldn’t be approved and parents got a $1,022 check per child in the mail to arrange their own transportation. Many parents pooled their money and hired private vans.

However, Rabbi Schnall noted the additional $143 per child may allow those in towns like Manchester, Toms River or Jackson who send their children to school in Lakewood to have routes established that are profitable for the bus companies.

Rabbi Schnall said it would have “a very significant impact” on a Jewish community like Lakewood, which operates a bus consortium. Of the 50,000 students served, about 20,000 do not receive subsidized transportation because they live less than two miles for elementary age children or 2.5 miles for high school age. Those parents are being charged $240, but due to rising inflation and the bus driver shortage Rabbi Schnall said the consortium was anticipating parents receiving that courtesy busing would see a “significant” increase.

“But because of the increase in funding it is very possible we will not need to increase costs,” he said, “or even if there is an increase it will be a very modest increase compared to what it would have been.”

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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