The Lakewood Vaad Says, “Vote For Murphy, He’s a Mensch”

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To no one’s surprise, the Lakewood Vaad, a group of eleven ultra-Orthodox men who control all educational, political, budgetary, and construction activity in this rapidly-growing city, has endorsed Phil Murphy for governor. (See here and here for background.) According to the Asbury Park Press, this announcement comes two weeks after Murphy visited Lakewood for a fundraiser and  “mixer” with 50 ultra-Orthodox men. I’ve printed the endorsement below. First, a few comments.

The Vaad, which typically endorses Republicans, bases its support for this Democrat on two money issues central to their constituency: school funding and entitlement spending. 

School Funding

Murphy is promising, contrary to mathematical reality, to “fully fund” N.J.’s  2008 school funding formula, which no governor has ever done. That’s because we don’t have the money. According to Jeff Bennett at New Jersey Education Aid, this year’s unfunded liability for our funding formula is $2.1 billion;* remember, the entire state annual budget is about $35 billion, the much-vaunted Millionaire’s Tax would only bring in about $600 million, and it’s hard to believe that marijuana taxes would make up the rest of the pot.

The Vaad also appears to believe that Murphy will single-handedly remake New Jersey’s state school funding formula to accommodate Lakewood’s unusual demographics. In this South Jersey city, a third of the entire school district budget is allocated to ultra-Orthodox students’ transportation to private religious schools (some of which don’t meet the state definition of “school”) and to tuition to a special education school called the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence that only accepts ultra-Orthodox children. (The director, Rabbi Osher Eisemann, was recently indicted for stealing public funds and laundering them in a scheme to enrich himself and a fundraising arm of the school. A judge just “thwarted an attempt” by Rabbi Eisemann’s lawyers to “have key evidence against him excluded from trial.”)

In order for Murphy to accomplish this task, he’d have to convince the Legislature to pass some sort of voucher bill. But private school vouchers are anathema to NJEA and Murphy, firmly in the union’s (crowded) pocket,  is unlikely to spurn its leaders. (How deeply is he ensconced? He won’t even reprimand the union for its reptilian attempts to depose Steve Sweeney — NJEA is backing Fran Grenier, a Trump-supporting, climate change-denying, immigration foe —  because the Senate President can do math and wouldn’t allow an amendment on the ballot to fully fund pensions because such lunacy would fast-track state bankruptcy. See Mike Lilley’s just-published study: “the total amount of the state’s unfunded public pension and healthcare liabilities is $202 billion.”)

From the Vaad endorsement: “Phil knows that our private schools deserve funding too  and he publicly stated this in his interview with the [Asbury Park Press] and he is unafraid to suggest that NJ join Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and some 30 other states in treating religious school parents more fairly.” (The reference to “thirty other states” is unclear to me.)

Entitlement Spending:

The Vaad writes that Murphy has offered assurances of his commitment to “protecting and expanding NJ Family Care,” which “has helped so many of our families buy insurance at affordable rates.” This is a reference to N.J.’s system of allotting Medicaid, CHIP, food stamps, and other income-based entitlements. It’s also a reference to the arrests this past summer in Lakewood of thirteen ultra-Orthodox couples who fraudulently collected $2.4 million in public assistance by under-reporting incomes. More arrests are reportedly coming.

One example of the “many families” helped:

Zalmen and Tzipporah Sorotzkin:

The rabbi of Congregation Lutzk, at 520 New Egypt Road, has been charged with his wife of second-degree theft by deception, and is accused of wrongfully collecting $338,642 in Medicaid, food stamp, Housing and Urban Development and Supplementary Security Income benefits between January 2009 and April 2014.

The couple live in a home built last year at a net value of $885,100, according to tax records. The home, which is owned by the synagogue and classified under “church and charitable property,” had a taxable value of $18,212.88 in 2016, records show.

After the arrests, panic ensued as followers of the Vaad realized that they, too, could be arrested for fraud, even though, as I reported,  two years ago the State gave Lakewood a heads-up that a bust was planned. Then this past September the State Controller created  — solely for the benefit of Ocean County residents (Lakewood is Ocean County’s largest municipality) — the “Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Program,” which offers amnesty to those who fess up to Medicaid fraud. And the State’s leniency appears to be directed not just at one county but at one constituency within that county.

From the Asbury Park Press:

State officials later confirmed to the Asbury Park Press that they consulted only one community group as the amnesty program was being formed: the Vaad, Lakewood’s politically influential council of local Orthodox Jewish religious and business leaders.

When Murphy’s GOP opponent Kim Guadagno was asked in an interview with APP if she would support a continuation of the amnesty program, she said, “All I know is what I read in your paper and that is that there is an inordinate number of people involved in some sort of shenanigans when it comes to Medicaid (in Lakewood).”

Murphy? “Murphy’s campaign has not responded to multiple requests for his position on the amnesty offer.”

As the Vaad says, “he’s a mensch.” He’s also someone who is making a slew of promises he can’t possibly keep.

One further note: the Vaad doesn’t fool around. Someone who calls himself “First Amendment Activist” video-taped his attempt to get local police and election officials to enforce laws that bar politicking within 100 feet of polling places on Election Day.  For your viewing pleasure, here’s the scene during last June’s primary at Lakewood’s famous yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha, one of Lakewood’s polling places, which is plastered with signs listing the Vaad’s instructions on whom to vote for.

*Correction: Jeff notes that my reference to $2.1 million is high; the June 2017 state aid redistribution and an additional $100 million reduced the deficit from $2.1 billion to $2 billion. He adds, “I don’t think many people in Lakewood realize that Lakewood is not under-aided according to SFRA [NJ’s school funding formula] anymore due to its substantial tax base growth of the last few years.  Getting more money to Lakewood would require off-formula action from the legislature.”

Lakewood VAAD statement:

We endorse Phil Murphy for Governor. Phil has a long and deep connection to us, and he and his policy team have invested much time in learning of our communities, and of what is important to us. Phil knows that we have been shortchanged by up to $50 Million dollars each year by a discriminatory State of NJ school funding formula one that does not look at Per-Capita or Median Household Income but looks at the ratio of real-estate ratables to public school kids only. By 100% NOT counting non-public kids in evaluating wealth it treats Lakewood as the richest towns in NJ, when it is anything but.

Phil’s proposed changes to Public School Funding policies can do more to bring fiscal and tax relief to Lakewood’s tax strapped families than any other single policy solution. Phil knows that the defective State Funding Formula for Public Schools causes us to pay exorbitant real estate taxes (50% of your real estate taxes go to the public schools), and that fixing this funding defect will reduce the stoked resentments (which falsely allege that Orthodox kids who receive legally mandated remedial services and busses are the cause of public school funding problems). Phil is committed to fix the broken formula . It’s in his platform on education. It took 20 years, but finally there is a candidate for governor who is unafraid to say that NJ families are being shorted by the funding formula – and he is unafraid to state that we in Lakewood have been falsely accused of cheating  public school kids.

 Phil understands that a struggling young family needs help. He understands that it is unreasonable to expect a young family, whether newly working, or in school or Yeshiva, to pay $30,000 for health insurance. He is therefore pledged to protecting and expanding NJ Family Care, which has helped so many of our families buy insurance at affordable rates, and to protect the adults who purchase their coverage through NJ Family Care. Phil knows that CHS has brought thousands into the workforce and that so many rely on it for childcare. He is committed to it, seeing it as a positive investment in the economy and workforce.

Phil knows that our private schools deserve funding too and he publicly stated this in his interview with the APP and he is unafraid to suggest that NJ join Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan and some 30 other states in treating religious school parents more fairly. Phil knows that Lakewood is a success, and that we don’t get  our fair share back. Phil is committed to a fair and equitable economy and to growing the economy which will benefit all. He is a mensch who during his time as US Ambassador to Germany was a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Notably, as US Ambassador, he invested personal time, money and energy in giving chizuk [inspiration] to the Torah Kehilla of Germany, and although he carried many responsibilities, he placed special emphasis on encouraging the opening of Yeshivos [Jewish day schools] in Germany. During those years he had no idea that he would one day be running for Governor of our state, it was our Kehilla’s [Jewish community’s] fortune to have a kesher [connection] with him even then, when his sensitivity to Torah Jewry was seen as exceptionally unique and unusual.

We don’t agree with Phil on certain matters, especially pro-life and family values, and we have shared with him our community’s views on these, and that they are rooted in our ancient Mesorah [Jewish tradition], and that we will continue to forcefully advocate for those values. A word about the other candidate who we regretfully did not endorse: Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno erred in her words, and we know that they do not reflect her character nor her heart. Lt. Governor Guadagno has a long track of exceptional public service and we are grateful for that, and we hope to see her continue her long and vital contributions to NJ. We also cannot support her running mate, Mayor Rendo, who seems to have spent years trying to keep Chassidishe Yidden [Hassidic Jews] out of his town.

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