Before he took office as New Jersey’s governor in January, Phil Murphy said he and his wife, Tammy, had the “great joy” of visiting Israel five times in the previous three-and-a-half years. On the fourth trip, they brought along their four children.
“They had one question when we were leaving: ‘Why can’t we live in Tel Aviv?’” he told some 700 people at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, eliciting laughter and cheers.
The Murphys were honored at the Rabbinical College of America’s (RCA) National Founders Gala on April 16. The RCA, in Morristown, is the N.J. headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Murphy said his visits to Israel “have underscored the importance of a New Jersey-Israel relationship to our economic future,” particularly in the realms of technology, medicine, and education. He said that examples of those ties “remind us of the inextricable bond between peoples who want nothing more than to live and learn in freedom.”
He plans to go to Israel a sixth time next fall — his first official visit as governor.
At the dinner, Murphy, a Democrat, was presented with an honorary doctor of laws degree from the college, which has ordained Lubavitcher rabbinical students since 1970. The movement’s 4,500 full-time shluchim, or emissaries, and their families direct more than 3,500 institutions, providing counseling, education, and religious services to Jews in some 1,000 cities in 100 countries and in all 50 states.
“This honor is something that, growing up in an Irish-Catholic household outside of Boston, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought possible,” the governor said, noting that his wife’s father, Ed Snyder, “is of the Jewish faith and is watching us with pride.”
After receiving the doctoral certificate from real estate developer, Jewish philanthropist, and RCA board member Zygmunt Wilf, a principal owner of the Minnesota Vikings football team, Murphy declared his administration’s determination to strengthen the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.
He said his administration is “working to create a strong, fair, and just New Jersey,” and he saluted the work done by the RCA on behalf of “tolerance worldwide.”
“We cannot ignore reports” that anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment have increased in New Jersey by 32 percent, Murphy said, and that the “stories and facts of the Shoah are becoming increasingly lost on the next generation.”
“It is time for all of us to recommit to the diversity of our strength. It is diversity which gives us strength.” It is the mandate of his state government, he said, to “ensure that no people can ever live in fear.”
Murphy read from a letter written by President George Washington after his 1790 visit to the nation’s first Jewish congregation, Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I.
Washington’s message to the congregation says, in part: “happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Murphy said that in addition to Israel, he also plans to visit Germany, where he served as ambassador between 2009 and 2013 under President Barack Obama. He noted he has observed “troubling behavior” in the anti-Semitism and “right-wing behavior” of such European Union nations as Hungary and Poland, even as he witnessed “the readmission of a growing diverse and celebrated Jewish life” in Germany.
Anna Rosenberg, a fourth-grade student at RCA’s elementary school and a resident of Morristown, recited the 121st Psalm to the audience. Rabbi Moshe Herson, the college’s founder and dean, pulled up a stool so that the girl could be seen above the podium. Then David Shulkin, the former United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, delivered brief remarks. After serving 13 months in that role, he was dismissed by President Donald Trump in March because of a controversy over spending government funds on a personal trip to Europe, as well as a disagreement with Trump regarding privatizing the VA’s medical services.
Shulkin, last year’s RCA honoree, made no mention of his firing, though he joked that “one of the nice things about not being secretary is that I don’t have speechwriters; I don’t have to make obligatory remarks, so that I can keep this real short.”
In between speakers, guests at the gala — including staff, faculty, and students at the RCA, as well as board members and other benefactors — were treated to musical interludes. Brothers Shmuel and Aryeh Horowitz, both RCA alumni and cantors in Brooklyn synagogues, serenaded the audience with two selections from the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” — “To Life” and “Sunrise, Sunset” — as well as “God Bless America” and, surprisingly, in Italian, “La Donna E Mobile,” an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto.”
The college also honored two couples who have been major benefactors, Sol and Mari Barer of Mendham and Bruce and Wendy Mosler of Manhattan. Sol Barer is the board chair of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and an adviser to the Israel Biotech Fund; Bruce Mosler is chairman of Global Brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield, Inc.