Leaders of New Jersey’s Jewish community are waiting anxiously to learn how Gov. Chris Christie will keep a campaign promise to chop as much as $9 billion from the state’s budget.
The state provides funding for an array of Jewish-run, nonsectarian social service programs, as well as two state bodies, NJ Commission on Holocaust Education and the New Jersey-Israel Commission.
As leaders of these bodies brace for cuts, some are also urging that Christie appoint a gubernatorial liaison to the state’s Jewish community, a role that Mada Liebman played in the Corzine administration.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, predicts “a 10 percent or 20 percent cut” in funding to the kinds of agencies supported by the state’s 12 Jewish federations.
“The agencies may be able to live with a 10 percent cut, but I’m not sure what impact a 20 percent cut might have in the immediate future,” he said.
State Jewish leaders “are fairly much agreed that the immediate priority for us is to see that the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and the New Jersey-Israel Commission are fully funded and viable and at the levels they were under Gov. Corzine,” Toporek said. “We feel both are very important to the Jewish community.
The NJ-Israel Commission receives $130,000 under the current appropriation. The Holocaust education commission receives $159,000.
Others prefer that different programs be protected.
“Certainly we are concerned, particularly in terms of our human services network,” said Stanley Stone, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “The governor has never hid the issue that he may have to cut services to balance the budget. We just hope it can be as minimal as possible.”
Much government funding for Jewish agencies is applied to Medicare, Medicaid, job training, and security programs.
The Jewish Family Service Agency of Central NJ, for example, receives $1.3 million, some 30 percent of its budget, from government sources.
“A lot of state aid is channeled through federal grants and the states have very little discretionary dollars on their own,” said Stone. “The governor can reduce the employee component, which will have an effect on services.”
Like all federation leaders, Stone said he will coordinate budgeting discussions among the social service and educational agencies in the federation orbit.
“One thing we will do when we have a clear sense of where they are going is to sit down with those agencies and see what we have that is non-dependent on state funding and what the impact is going to be,” said Stone.
Reuben Rotman, executive director of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, said 15 percent of his agency’s funds — some $520,000 — comes from county, state, and federal sources. Of that, state funds were used for counseling and legal support to victims of domestic violence. State and county dollars were combined for programs on aging.
Leonard Schneider, executive director of the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, said his agency receives 5 percent of its annual budget through allocations from United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, with the balance of funds from federal and state government contracts, as well as private foundations.
Schneider estimated the JVS, with an $8.5 million operating budget, received “several million dollars” a year from the state.
“At this point it is a little premature for us to gauge what the potential impact of the cuts might be or what various new strategies may mean for us,” he said. “However, the Christie administration has been emphasizing services to employers and job creation — both of which are consistent with services JVS provides. I am hopeful that we will remain in a strong position to partner with the state to continue to deliver services that are critically needed.”
The election of Christie, the state’s first Republican governor in 12 years, has realigned Trenton politics and set off a scramble among Jewish leaders for Republican allies close to Christie. Some are calling for a Jewish community liaison.
“We would make sure the liaison knew of the work we do in New Jersey, where we do a tremendous amount of work on eldercare and many other issues,” said Toporek.
Gordon Haas, cochair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Central federation, would also like to see a liaison designated. “Mada Liebman was always there for us when we needed her,” said Haas. “It is important to have someone to talk to when there is an issue affecting the Jewish community.”
Stone sees the role as helpful, but says access is the key.
“Obviously you would like to have a go-to person, but in my experience some administrations have appointed a liaison who had no clout,” said Stone. “It was nice in terms of public relations, but in terms of substance, you still have to sit down with the key commissioners and key decision-makers to ultimately make that happen. It would be nice but I don’t yet think it is critical.”
Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, told NJ Jewish News, “At this point I’m not really sure” whether Christie will appoint such a liaison. “When he was U.S. attorney, and even now as governor, he stays in touch with constituencies, including the Jewish community. I would expect that to continue. We just got here. Give us a little time to get our feet firmly planted on the ground and maybe we can answer those questions a little better.”
Drewniak was asked about assurances by Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Dist. 21), to NJJN that “there will absolutely be a direct point person liaison who will be designated to the Jewish communities.” He did add that the exactly timing of such appointment was uncertain: “You know,” he said, “they’ve got a little bit on their plate.”
Bramnick, who is Jewish and is one of Christie’s key advisers, is Republican Conference Leader, the second-highest leadership position in the NJ Assembly’s GOP caucus.
“Essentially I’m giving you the same answer,” said Drewniak. “I cannot tell you who it is going to be or when it is going to happen, but for right now, Chris is always mindful of his constituencies. For the time being we’ve got to let it go at that.”
Bramnick, a member of the Assembly’s Budget Committee, has emerged as a key link between Christie and the state’s Jewish community.
“Obviously the government has some really serious billion-dollar problems, but it is surely not in any way ignoring the Jewish community,” he said. “Obviously, I would never allow that to happen.”
Another Republican activist, Steven Klinghoffer of Short Hills, was a strong supporter of Christie’s campaign and said the governor has been given a clear mandate to make “painful” budget decisions.
“I am looking for him to deal with the big issue of affordability in New Jersey,” said Klinghoffer, a former president of UJC MetroWest. “That is going to be the test of his success in his first term, and right now I think he has the mandate to make the kind of cuts no prior governor has had the political will and political power to make.”
Klinghoffer said he thinks it would be “terrible” if the NJ-Israel Commission or the Holocaust education commission were cut, “but the governor is going to have to make a lot of cuts I would not want to see him or anybody else make.
“The reality is we cannot afford the level of state government we’ve had to date. It is going to be very painful.”