Bergen County Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D) was recently hosted at Yeshivat Noam at an event 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). The group aims to connect voters to their legislators. Before going into politics, Wagner, a public school supporter, worked as a guidance counselor in the New Jersey school system for more than 35 years.
“It’s important that the community meets legislators,” said New Jersey Regional Director of Public Policy for the Orthodox Union Josh Pruzansky, 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.”
Wagner is a member of the committees of education and higher education. She and Pruzansky have collaborated on several pieces of legislation, including pushing for an amendment to New Jersey law that would allow a special needs child to attend a private religious school. Now she is working to restore nursing and technology funding to New Jersey yeshivas.
During the course of the evening, Wagner told the group that as she learned more about the financial situation of tuition-paying Jewish parents, she realized that there was more to tuition issues than she thought. She told her audience that change was possible, but would take time, especially in the current economic climate. She urged everyone present to exercise their power in the voting booth.
Increasing Orthodox voter turnout is the goal of the OU’s NJ VOTES project.
A day after the event, Maury Litwack, the Orthodox Union’s director of state political affairs said, “The OU is involved in political matters on the state, local and national arena. 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, so that we have a say in what our local legislators are going to do.”
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of education for International NCSY noted the importance of Jewish education, and added that tuition issues 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. “We’re so proud of our students in Bergen County. Our graduates are at the forefront of medicine, law, business and politics. It’s not a question of what they’re learning but what they’re going to become.”
During the question-and-answer session that followed, Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, a major supporter of yeshiva day schools, suggested legislation to allow yeshivas and private schools to take advantage of some of the online resources available to public schools.
Assemblywoman Wagner readily agreed and told him he had just created a draft for a new bill.
To find out more about NJVOTES, visit www.ouipa.org
To find out more about Assemblywoman Wagner, visit www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/bio.asp?leg=296