BY MICHAEL ORBACH
Josh Pruzansky, New Jersey Regional Director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union
Assemblywoman Connie Wagner
Two years ago, an unlikely friendship began in an elevator in the New Jersey Statehouse.
Josh Pruzansky, working for a Jewish organization that was pressing for more government funding for the Garden State’s private school sector, met Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, a Democrat and a longtime supporter of the public schools — she had worked as a guidance counselor in the New Jersey school system for over 35-years.
The two managed to civilly discuss their differences, and launched a friendship that on Feb. 20 led to an event at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus. The event was an evening with Assemblywoman Wagner, organized by New Jersey Voters Organized for Tuition Affordability and Educational Support (NJ VOTES), a new initiative of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) that aims to connect voters to their legislators.
“It’s important that the community meets legislators,” Mr. Pruzansky said, as he introduced Ms. Wagner to the audience. “It’s important for us to discuss issues in an open forum and understand how we can bridge the gaps to provide funding for our schools. What was impossible a few years ago is becoming possible now.”
Since that meeting in the statehouse elevator, Assemblywoman Wagner rose to become a member of the committees of education and higher education and Josh Pruzansky became the New Jersey Regional Director of Public Policy for the OU. Recently, the two have found opportunities to collaborate on several pieces of legislation. Assemblywoman Wagner pushed for an amendment to New Jersey law that would allow a special needs child to attend a private religious school; currently, she is working to restore nursing and technology funding to New Jersey yeshivas. She cited their meeting as one of the steps that led to her support.
“It was his kindness in listening two years ago,” Ms. Wagner explained.
She explained that after she learned more about the financial situation of tuition-paying Jewish parents, she gradually saw a different side to the issues. She cautioned that while change was possible, it wouldn’t happen immediately, especially in a time of financial turmoil.
“You do have the power, but it takes time,” she emphasized. “You have to vote.”
Increasing Orthodox voter turnout is the goal of the OU’s NJ VOTES project.
“The OU is involved in political matters on the state, local and national arena,” explained Maury Litwack, the Orthodox Union's director of state political affairs, in an interview the day after the Yeshivat Noam event. “One trend we see is that, unfortunately, our community's engagement with local and state politicians is typically underwhelming. If we're noticing this lack of civic participation, you'd better believe that the powerful politicians who can impact our community needs are noticing it as well.”
“We can no longer be satisfied with a 25-percent voter turnout,” Mr. Pruzansky said. “It’s almost more important to vote in local and state elections than the national one,” he said. “We have a say in what they’re going to do.’
The final speaker of the evening was Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, rabbi of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, as well as the director of education for International NCSY. He began by noting the importance of Jewish education, but admitted that the topic of tuition had given the Jewish community what he called “crisis-fatigue.”
Worse, he added, students were aware of the financial and emotional cost that paying for private schools puts on parents.
“We are often more public about our consternation than we mean to be,” he said.
But Jewish education, he concluded, wasn't simply about the education.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, rabbi of the Young Israel of Clifton-Passaic and director of education for International NCSY
“We’re so proud of our students in Bergen County. Our graduates are at the forefront of medicine, law, business and politics….” he said. “It’s not a question of what they’re learning but what they’re going to become.”
A lively question-and-answer session followed the discussion. When Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, a major supporter of yeshiva day schools, and a member of the audience, suggested legislation that would allow yeshivas and private schools to take advantage of some of the online resources available to public schools, Assemblywoman Wagner readily agreed.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You just created a bill.”
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