Sheila Lefkowitz doesn’t necessarily consider herself a community activist. But she is certainly someone who cares deeply about her community and the people who live in it—and its future.
Lefkowitz, a 20-year resident of West Orange, has been troubled for many years by what she has perceived as apathy and fear on the part of some community members.
“People feel that their voice doesn’t matter,” she said in an interview with The Jewish Link. “But one voice has a lot of power, and many voices together, even more. … Some residents have told me that they are afraid to speak out on local issues or sign their name to a petition, lest they be judged harshly and singled out.”
Lefkowitz has been working behind the scenes for months but, after attending a recent township council meeting where pro-Palestinian speakers from outside of the township spoke up to advocate for cancelling the planned April 26 Israeli flag-raising ceremony, she knew it was time to bring her work to the forefront. She contacted Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, morah d’atra of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, and Ilan Rosenrauch, shul president, and invited community member Rachel Hersey and others to officially form Grassroots, a new committee to address Jewish concerns at the local level.
Grassroots’ mission is to “help Jewish voices rise in our community without fear,” said Lefkowitz. “I proposed that Grassroots keep an ear out for important issues in real time so we can address them head-on. We had been talking about this idea of forming a grassroots committee, and this disturbing display of antisemitism at the council meeting gave us the push we needed. I thought to myself, ‘If not now, when?’”
Grassroots will kick off after Passover with its first meeting to craft an official mission statement. Lefkowitz envisions Grassroots as starting at AABJ&D with synagogue volunteers and community allies. “I hope Grassroots will support other synagogues to start their own Grassroots committees. My dream would be that the Grassroots committees will work together on a goal to support the formation of an official West Orange Jewish Heritage Organization.”
Rabbi Zwickler supports the formation of this committee. “Sheila is a passionate ambassador for our community to the greater West Orange township at large. With her honesty, authenticity and warmth she is the perfect person to steer this important endeavor, representing our community’s values and strengthening our connection with township leadership and our fellow residents,” he said.
Harvey Bell, one of the committee members, said: “The Grassroots committee at AABJ&D is important. [We] value listening, understanding and exploring solutions to the local Jewish community’s concerns. Now more than ever, when antisemitism in the United States rises to unprecedented statistics, a grassroots committee is a vital step to combat feelings of isolation and fear.”
Hersey, who was also at the March township council meeting, is working to introduce a resolution to combat antisemitism and hate with the help of township councilmember Susan Scarpa.
“The protestors [at the meeting] even recommended that the town council endorse the BDS movement, a movement designated as a racist organization by the U.S. Congress,” Hersey said. “When I requested that the council stop the hate speech, I was silenced and threatened with removal from chambers. … It was in that moment that I realized this rising antisemitism and hate speech in the name of free speech must be addressed by a strong statement from our Jewish community and allies.”
Scarpa said: “I feel strongly that it is important to condemn all forms of racism, bigotry and antisemitism. I hope that we can write a resolution that will help us move forward together.”
Grassroots is also focusing on the Jewish value of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
“We want to start an intergenerational group at the Toby Katz Civic Center at Degnan Park,” Lefkowitz added. “It is a project that promotes Jewish values. We want to facilitate a positive culture here in West Orange where Jewish voices will be heard and will matter. There is great value in transmitting our Jewish heritage from generation to generation.”
Lefkowitz hopes to accomplish that with the help of Rosary Morelli, a longtime West Orange resident, nonagenarian and political activist in local government, who had been a lifelong friend of Toby Katz, z”l. Morelli stated that she “remembers the tenacity and sincerity of Toby Katz, a Holocaust survivor, former councilwoman and dear friend, who was a staunch advocate for our seniors in West Orange.”
The committee is also working to get enough signatures on a petition to enable legislation creating a 1,000-foot buffer between any future cannabis dispensaries in the township and houses of worship and schools.
Maria Vera, a West Orange resident and high school counselor, said, “I plan to gather more signatures on a petition urging the West Orange council to approve a 1,000-foot buffer between cannabis dispensaries and houses of worship and schools, and I welcome the support of Grassroots.
“We just don’t want these dispensaries near our schools and houses of worship,” she added. “For some, creating the buffer is rooted in family values and for others it is a religious value. I hope that Grassroots will find ways to help citizens feel comfortable with signing a petition or speaking out at town hall meetings.”
Roz Moskovitz is a member of the pedestrian safety board who owns business real estate in the township and is a member of Chabad of West Orange. She has been working on this issue with Lefkowitz as well. Moskovitz said, “The entire council is clearly taking notice and recognizing that we are not going away. … I am excited to continue working with Sheila and join Grassroots.”
“I strongly support the 1,000 foot buffer for cannabis dispensaries,” said Brent Draper Scott, a member of the West Orange Zoning Board. “We have seen lines on sidewalks stretching for blocks in other towns. As a parent of two young sons, I don’t want them having to navigate around and possibly walking in the street [to get around the lines]. Further, the proposed Pleasant Valley Way (PVW) location has a large Jewish population. The residents use the sidewalks extensively.”
“Anything that is of any Jewish value in our community needs our support,” Lefkowitz reiterated. “Tikkun olam, repairing the world—our community needs to support it. It will make a difference. Your voice will be heard. It starts with just one voice.”
Grassroots is looking to expand its core, and Lefkowitz welcomes members of the community to get involved.
To sign the petition supporting the buffer, visit https://chng.it/YNL5vYv8WF
Remember to come out and support the West Orange Jewish community at the Israeli flag-raising on Wednesday, April 26 at 5 p.m. at the Township Hall building at 66 Main Street.
By Jill Kirsch