Murphy carves out space in ’19 budget for Jewish community

Murphy carves out space in ’19 budget for Jewish community

Proposal includes reinstating exec. director of N.J.-Israel Commission

Jacob Toporek was in high spirits. A day after the executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations met with Gov. Phil Murphy’s newly appointed emissary to the Jewish community, Toporek told NJJN he was “very happy to hear” that the proposed 2019 state budget includes a $400,000 appropriation for Holocaust survivor assistance, as well as $11.4 million in security funds for New Jersey’s non-public schools.

The bearer of these good tidings was Michael DeLamater, Murphy’s director of governmental relations. Prior to Murphy’s taking office in January, DeLamater had served as legislative director of the N.J. State Assembly and as an adviser in Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign. 

Government outreach to ethnic groups is being handled by different state agencies, according to Toporek. DeLamater, who declined to be interviewed, is Murphy’s liaison to the Jewish community. Toporek and Gordon Haas, chair of the State Association, told NJJN they were pleased to hear what DeLamater told them at the State Association’s April 30 meeting in Woodbridge.

Although the $400,000 figure has remained constant for the past four years, Toporek said, “this time the governor put it in his proposed budget. With [former] Gov. (Chris) Christie, we always had to go to the legislature every year for supplemental funding.” 

Including the funding for Holocaust survivor assistance in the proposed budget is “absolutely” better than before, Toporek explained, because now the State Association “doesn’t have to compete with everyone else who has budget asks,” as it did in the Christie years, when each social service appropriation would depend how legislators voted. “Now we don’t have to get in line with everybody else and make our case.”

The state appropriates the survivor assistance funds to the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Southern New Jersey in Cherry Hill, which in turn distributes the money to all of the Jewish family service agencies in the state.

Regarding the security funds for New Jersey’s non-public schools, $11.4 million represents an increase in the amount of money allocated toward the security of each student. The proposed 2019 budget calls for $75 for each student. The amount for 2018 and 2017 was $50 and $25 respectively. There are some 50,000 students who attend yeshivas and Jewish day schools in New Jersey, according to estimates from Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America. 

Despite the increase in security funds, Haas said he was not completely satisfied with the amount of school aid allocated toward non-public schools, noting that Murphy’s budget proposal omitted specific funding for nursing care, classroom computer technology, and transportation in private and parochial schools. 

“We have some concerns about the underfunding,” he said, though he called the Holocaust survivor and security grants “good stuff.”

Another potential benefit for the state’s Jewish community included in the proposed budget would be the reinstatement of an executive director for the N.J.-Israel Commission, which fosters trade, business, and cultural exchange programs between the two states. 

“If that happens it would be great,” said Haas, who told NJJN the commission has been “sort of stagnant for the last few years since the executive director went away. Whoever the person who is chair has other business to do, so the commission is not their primary business interest.” 

In 2002, Democratic Gov. James McGreevey appointed Andrea Yonah to head the commission as its executive director. Eight years later, the Republican Christie dropped the annual $130,000 in state funding that had been allocated for the NJ-Israel Commission, transferring its jurisdiction from the Department of State to a public-private agency called the Partnership for Action. 

Since that time, Yonah left her state position to serve as East Coast director of the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, commonly known as the BIRD Foundation. According to BIRD’s website, its mission is “to stimulate, promote, and support industrial R&D of mutual benefit to the U.S. and Israel.” It was established by the U.S. and Israeli governments more than 40 years ago. 

Yonah told NJJN that appointing a new executive director of the commission would be a positive step, adding that “BIRD Foundation would be very happy to collaborate with a new executive director of the commission and work to bring more funding from BIRD to projects with New Jersey companies.”

In lieu of an executive director, West Orange resident Mark Levenson, longtime chair of the N.J.-Israel Commission and an attorney at the Newark law firm of Sills Cummis Gross, has been running the organization as an unpaid lay person. 

He declined to comment on the possibility of restoring the official position, telling NJJN, “It is the governor’s call — not mine. It’s a budget call. I will absolutely go with the flow,” Levenson said. “But I am not one who says, ‘Oh, my gosh, we can’t do anything without a paid staffer.’”

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