A South Brunswick rabbi said he has no idea why two former confidants of Gov. Chris Christie joked last August about causing traffic problems in front of his home two weeks before the events leading to the political scandal being called “Bridgegate.”
“I am absolutely clueless,” said Rabbi Mendy Carlebach about why he was singled out. “I am a rabbi and I go about my work as a rabbi.”
In an exclusive interview with NJJN on March 3 with Carlebach and his father, Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, the younger rabbi remained astonished at being entangled in the growing scandal and being drawn into global media attention.
The threat against Carlebach, apparently a joke, was contained in documents supplied to investigators by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to a key position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They contained messages in which he and Bridget Anne Kelly, then a deputy chief of staff for Christie, mulled or at least joked last August about causing “traffic problems” for Mendy Carlebach.
Wildstein indicated that Carlebach “pissed me off,” but gave no indication why the rabbi might deserve the same kind of political retaliation — a manufactured traffic jam — alleged against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee.
Mendy Carlebach is a Port Authority chaplain and director of the Chabad of North and South Brunswick. His father heads Rutgers Chabad and its affiliated outreach centers, mostly in Middlesex County and parts of Monmouth County.
The Carlebachs have always had close relations with governing officials and both have been appointed to the New Jersey-Israel Commission. Both Christie and his Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, were honored at Rutgers Chabad dinners.
Although Mendy calls Christie a “close friend,” he said he had not spoken to the governor since he got dragged into the scandal. Christie, he emphasized, has never requested any favors from him.
Sitting in his father’s office with framed photos of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and others with one or both rabbis pictured with numerous Democratic and Republican leaders, Mendy said he couldn’t recall any interactions with Wildstein. He said he always got along with Kelly.
“I’ve always been treated with such dignity at the Port Authority; I look forward to continuing with them,” said Mendy, who in his position serves three airports and has been called on to help distressed passengers of all religions. “I’m honored and very proud to be a Port Authority chaplain.”
He also serves as chaplain at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, and proudly showed a plaque presented to him last month by the federal Department of Justice for his seven years of service.
The Carlebachs were among four NJ rabbis invited by Christie to watch the 10-year 9/11 commemoration ceremonies at Ground Zero from the still-unfinished One World Trade skyscraper.
“The governor spent a couple of hours mingling with us, along with his wife and children,” Carlebach told NJJN at the time.
This year’s Rutgers Chabad dinner on Dec. 3 honored Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, who has since also been caught up in the “Bridgegate” scandal. It was Baroni who explained that the closure of three traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in September had been intended as a “traffic study,” when subsequent e-mails between Kelly and Wildstein suggested they were intended as political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
In a series of unredacted texts released Feb. 27, Kelly and Wildstein discussed the possibility of causing a similar traffic mess in front of Mendy Carlebach’s South Brunswick home.
The messages showed a photo of Carlebach with House Speaker John Boehner, prompting Kelly to write: “I think this qualifies as some sort of stalking.”
Wildstein: “He is Jewish Cid Wilson.”
Kelly: “You are really so funny. He is. No Doubt.”
Cid Wilson is a Bergen County Democrat with a reported penchant of posting pictures of himself with celebrities.
Wildstein continues that Carlebach “has officially pissed me off,” without saying why.
Kelly responds: “We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?”
Says Wildstein: “Flights to Tel Aviv mysteriously delayed.”
Kelly answers, “Perfect.”
The threat was apparently never carried out.
After the texts were released, Mendy said he was contacted by press from throughout the country and Israel.
South Brunswick Police Chief Raymond J. Hayducka went to Carlebach’s house to tell the throng of press to get off “my rabbi’s” property.
“They even got my cell phone number and my wife’s cell phone,” said Mendy. “I don’t know how.”
Yosef said another son, Rabbi Meir Carlebach, got a call from a reporter while on layover at an airport in Iceland on his way back from Israel. So did his nephew in San Diego, whose two-year-old son is also named Mendy Carlebach.
The clamor had died down by the weekend, said Yosef.
Both rabbis agreed there was an upside to the upheaval: Both saw large increases in attendance at Shabbat services at their shuls.
Yosef, rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel in Wayside, said so many people indicated they were coming in a show of support he had to order extra food for the kiddush.
“We saw people we usually see only on holidays, and they stayed much longer than usual,” said Mendy.