Working to shore up votes in a vital community, Gov. Jon Corzine held back-to-back meetings with Jewish voters Oct. 12 — moving from an independent synagogue in Livingston to a meeting in Newark with members of the Orthodox Union.
Both gatherings were off the record and, according to participants, differed widely in areas of prime concern.
Of key interest to the 40 Orthodox leaders who gathered in a crowded room at the Gateway Center was the high cost of day school tuition and the governor’s opposition to tax breaks for parochial schooling.
“The governor is not a fan of vouchers, that is clear,” said Howard Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy.
“He did not play to the crowd at all on that. He got a lot of pushback, but it was very respectful,” Beigelman told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview shortly after the meeting adjourned. “He is committed to finding other ways to lessen the burden, and he strongly supports a state tax deduction for charitable donations.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, who hosted Corzine’s Republican rival, Chris Christie, in August at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, described Corzine as “very receptive to the issues brought up by the Orthodox community.”
Zwickler and other attendees said the governor acknowledged a budget-cutting “mistake” in killing $7 million in technology funds that had been earmarked for computer upgrades at private schools.
“The governor was very candid,” Zwickler said. “He didn’t try to doubletalk. He just presented the financial difficulties of the state.”
While Corzine opposes state aid to religious schools on constitutional grounds, “he said he is open to a commission to study from his perspective what day schools can get constitutionally from the state that they are not currently getting,” said Beigelman. “He would be happy to have more funds for training and allocating security guards in schools.”
“The governor is committed to being helpful where he can,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, a strong Corzine supporter.
Genack, an Englewood resident who serves as chief executive officer of the OU’s Kashrut Division, acknowledged that Christie’s support of school vouchers has wide appeal in the Orthodox community.
“We obviously support tax credits and we wish the governor would, but our view is we want to work with people as we can on the issues that are important to us,” Genack said.
Earlier that morning, at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, property taxes and budget cuts were key areas of interest to the about 50 people assembled in the sanctuary. No one mentioned day school funding.
According to members of his audience, Corzine acknowledged being unpopular with some voters. Putting a positive spin on low approval ratings, he attributed some of it to his willingness to trim budgets, challenge government bureaucracies, and occasionally upset supporters in the environmental and trade union movements.
Defending his record, the governor said property tax rates have been capped for senior citizens, enabling many to continue living in their own homes as they age.
He said he was pleased that the New Jersey-Israel Commission had found a permanent home in the Department of State and that his administration was luring high-tech, environment-friendly businesses from Israel and elsewhere.
He told a questioner that violent crime rates had been reduced across the state, but noted there were not enough funds available for all the prevention programs he would like to see in place.
A two-page campaign handout distributed to audience members before the meeting described Corzine as “an effective and outspoken supporter of Israel and the Jewish community” and a “believer in tikun olam, repair of the world.”
Republican rival Christie had his own private moment with Jewish leaders on Sept. 23, when he met with the government relations committee of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. Like the Oct. 12 session with Corzine, Christie’s was off the record to reporters.
Representatives of the American Jewish Committee attended both sessions.
“I’m glad the governor met with us,” said Allyson Gall, executive director of the AJC’s Metro New Jersey Area. “But I wish the two candidates would do a debate in front of the Jewish community so everybody could compare notes.”
As she left the sanctuary, Merle Kalishman of Livingston, former chair of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s Community Relations Committee, told NJJN, “I like this governor. He is willing to take political risks. I am particularly concerned about all these levels of government; as we’ve seen, they are a breeding ground for corruption. Compared to a state like Maryland, where there are county governments and coordination of all kinds of services, New Jersey is lagging, and he would like to correct that.”
“The CRC is working with all our partners to ensure that the Jewish community is informed on the candidates’ positions of priority to the Jewish community and, more importantly, that people come out to vote on Election Day,” said CRC associate director Melanie Roth Gorelick.
Sheri Weiner, Livingston’s town attorney, described herself as “a very strong supporter of Corzine; he is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. Both are very important to me. And I don’t think Christie has the experience to take us out of this economic mess we’re in.”