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‘We are all in the same fight’
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‘We are all in the same fight’

Jewish, Muslim students stand together to demand safer schools

Joey Ostroff, now a rising eighth grader at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, spoke at a June 7 press conference on increasing state funds for security in private schools. The kipa-clad young man spoke on the steps of the Muslim Noor-Al-Iman School in South Brunswick.

“When I hear about threats to school kids, I can get really worried,” he said. “I look to my state government to help protect us. I think this should be in their priorities.” 

Support for the concept of keeping non-public school students safe goes beyond religious affiliations, and Teach NJS, a project of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Advocacy Network, believes there’s strength in numbers. The advocacy group has formed a broad coalition of religious constituencies in New Jersey, including members of Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic faiths, to push for parity funding with public school students on issues such as security, school nursing, and technology.

“We speak the same language,” Eman Arafa, head of school at Noor-Ul-Iman told NJJN. “We are all in the same fight and, as religious-based schools, all answer to the same God.”   

The organization’s goal is to ensure that non-public schools are safe and sustainable; the June event pressed the state government for $28.5 million in the 2019 budget to fund security for non-public schools. The proposed state budget for school security currently earmarks $75 per pupil for non-public schools, $190 per public school student.

The Teach NJS coalition encompasses Conservative and Orthodox day schools, the Catholic Conference, and several Muslim schools. Also partnering with Teach NJS are the Jewish federations in the Heart of New Jersey and Northern New Jersey.

“At the end of the day we’re fighting for the same things — to protect children,” said Teach NJS executive director Josh Caplan. “In the long-term, it’s about the education of all our children together, whether they be Catholic, Muslim, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Jewish, or are unaffiliated with any religion.”

Heart of NJ federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said it has appropriated $10,000 in the current budget for Teach NJS, in addition to the $25,000 it had already contributed.

“We think what they are advocating for makes a lot of sense and is totally justified,” he said, adding the federation also made matching grants available — if an individual school sets aside $500 for services, the federation will match the amount — to assist financially burdened day schools in its catchment area.

Maury Litwack, executive director of state political affairs for the OU’s advocacy center, said Teach NJS was launched about three years ago as “the lobbying voice for Jewish education.” 

“But to do that we need to collaborate with a lot of different partners,” he told NJJN. “We are reaching out to as many non-public schools as we can and as many partners as we can in New Jersey and other states. In some states we’ve partnered with police and fire unions and pharmaceutical unions, who have a vested interest in our goals. We believe in getting the broadest constituency possible. If we just [partnered with] the Jewish community, I think we would be ineffectual.” 

Other states in the Teach Advocacy network are New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and California. 

Teach NJS, which is jointly funded by the OU, schools, federations, and other partners, has made its voice felt in recent months during legislature budget hearings. Caplan and George Corwell, director of the office of education at the New Jersey Catholic Conference, testified jointly at a legislative hearing in Trenton earlier this month. Litwack said there has never been any pushback from its collaborations with other religious groups, which Corwell said is as it should be.

“Security concerns do not differentiate between public and non-public schools,” Corwell told NJJN. “When we’re talking about security, we don’t just talk about terrorists. We’re also talking about non-custodial parents who show up at school angry, and other concerns. We quite frankly think joining forces on these things is the way to go. We partner to support public school children and non-public school children. There’s really a great deal of unanimity between us.”

Caplan, who lives in Edison, and Arafa also jointly testified at a legislative budget hearing in April.

“When Josh came forward and told us what Teach NJS can do for non-public schools, we became a proponent of its efficient way of handling activism,” Arafa told NJJN. 

The pre-K-through-12th-grade school on the campus of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey has 573 students, as well as 133 of the faculty and staff members. Arafa said it is one of the largest Muslim schools in the state.

“Teach NJS has great channels and ways to move forward on issues of concern to all of us and that is what enticed me,” she said. “I am extremely busy and would love to have the extra time to lobby for these things on my own, but I am too overwhelmed with the day-to-day operations of my school. Teach NJS does the work to make sure our  kids get funding for their needs in terms of textbooks, security, or nursing. It takes you by the hand.”

Caplan noted if non-public schools do not receive equal security funding, money that would have been allocated toward educational purposes will have to be reassigned for security instead.

“It doesn’t matter what religion a child is or whether they go to a public or non-public  school, every child deserves to be secure and safe in school,” said Caplan. “We are taxpayers, too. Our parents are contributing citizens to their communities.”

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