From Advocacy to Assembly

October 19, 2023

For the first time ever, the Lakewood kehillah is presented with the unprecedented opportunity to elect a frum resident to the state Assembly. Upon the urging and guidance of our generation’s leading rabbanim and roshei yeshivah, Avi Schnall, who has led Agudath Israel’s New Jersey branch for the past nine years, threw his hat into the ring, kicking off a campaign that has captivated the community.

Nature plus nurture

For many askanim, their work is a response to a natural calling, a genetic disposition that leads them to pursue advocacy as a labor of love.

For others, asknaus is a field they encountered somewhere along life’s journey, gradually gaining mastery and honing it into an art form over years of trial and error.

For Avi Schnall, it’s both.

Avi grew up in the heart of Flatbush, attending local schools and davening at the Tomishover beis medrash, where his father served as the shul president.

“If you wanted to know what it looks like to be osek b’tzarchei tzibbur b’emunah, you only had to study my father z”l,” Avi says. “Quietly, without any fanfare, my father ensured that any task that had to be performed at the shulwas taken care of, from making sure there was a ba’al korei each week to taking out the garbage himself. It’s where I first saw what true leadership looks like.”

His first glimpse at the inner workings of the askanus arena came through his grandfather the legendary R’ Loychee Gluck z”l. A Holocaust survivor, R’ Loychee came to America with a mission to establish a community of ehrliche Jews. For decades, he was involved in countless efforts to advance the interests of his kehillah, including by founding Bikur Cholim of Boro Park and Prospect Park Yeshiva for Girls.

R’ Loychee also served as the vice president of Agudath Israel of America, and a young Avi Schnall would accompany him to the organization’s yearly conventions, where they sat on the same table as the famed R’ Moshe Sherer. Over the course of the various gatherings and meetings throughout the convention, an impressionable Avi watched and listened to the spirited dialogue between the luminaries before him, absorbing the implicit lessons being imparted. The conversations he was privy to in those moments are a core part of who Avi is today, both as a person and an advocate for frum Yidden.

“Hearing those conversations and watching how a representative of Klal Yisraelconducts himself was an invaluable part of my upbringing. I just didn’t know it at the time,” Avi says with a smile.

From admirer to advocate

Avi joined Agudah’s New Jersey branch in 2014, at a time when its operations in the Garden State were miniscule at best. The office was situated in an attic, and Avi was its sole inhabitant—a stark contrast to the current spacious office with more than a dozen employees.

Over time, Avi gained the trust and ear of an ever-growing roster of lawmakers and bureaucrats, laying the groundwork to advance the interests of the frum kehillos that dot New Jersey’s landscape.

His first major win came in 2013, when his advocacy secured the release of more than $35 million in funding for Lakewood’s yeshivos, which was being withheld by a state monitor. Consequently, schools’ vital resource rooms were restored, along with the employment and incomes of dozens of local therapists and education professionals.

Avi’s true rise to prominence came seven years ago, when his advocacy rescued school transportation for more than 10,000 Lakewood students—a number that has since grown to more than 20,000. Through tirelessly working the phones and countless meetings with lawmakers, legislation was crafted to hammer out a solution tailor-made for Lakewood’s unique demographics.

The work is just beginning

Despite having rescued busing for thousands of students, Avi is quick to brush off congratulations.

“The job is far from over,” he stresses. “We still have to return to Trenton each year to secure funding for our children’s busing. And, as many parents can attest, the busing provided is often inadequate and lacking in many areas. Make no mistake about it: there’s still a lot of work to do.”

The primary driver of Lakewood’s school-transportation woes is the same one that affects residents in numerous other areas: a lack of state funding.

“For decades, Lakewood has been an afterthought when it came to state funding,” Avi says. “For example, why is Newark, which has far fewer students than Lakewood does, getting $1.2 billion in school funding while we are forced to contend with what is essentially a drop in the bucket? Where’s our fair share?”

Avi notes that there are numerous programs disbursing billions to school districts across the state—programs that Lakewood is essentially shunned from.

“If these programs were allotted fairly, they would enable our schools to operate at a much higher level, with lower tuitions, better special-education resources, and free lunches for all students,” Avi says. “But, like with so much else, there is no way to get those resources when we don’t have a voice in the government fighting for us.”

The funding issue extends well beyond schools. State roads that traverse Lakewood—like Route 9, Route 70, and Route 88—have been neglected for years, and the results have shown. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently ranked the intersection of Route 70 and Massachusetts Avenue the third-deadliest intersection in the entire United States. Numerous horrific accidents and tragedies have occurred at its intersection with Vermont Avenue as well.

The same goes for Route 9 and the 88. Notorious for their traffic jams, the urgent and growing need for a real solution—such as widening the roadways—has been an issue that state officials have kicked down the road for far too long.

“It all comes down to a lack of leadership in positions that could have influence in Trenton,” Avi explains. “Our local officials have their hands tied. Yes, they fight for change, but without representation at the state level, their pleas fall on deaf ears.”

Answering the call

There is no silver bullet to solve all of Lakewood’s troubles, but having a state representative in the majority party is the most logical and helpful first step toward reaching our objectives.

New Jersey is a deep-blue state where Democrats maintain firm control of all three branches of the government—the Assembly, the Senate, and the governorship—in what is referred to as a “legislative trifecta.” This results in Republicans being backbenchers whose legislative priorities are generally ignored and whose power in the state is little more than symbolic.

The proof is in the pudding. Assemblyman Ned Thomson, who has represented Lakewood since 2017, has introduced dozens of bills. Just one—legislation pertaining to oyster farms—was signed into law. Like all of his Republican colleagues, Thomson is powerless to effect any change without Democratic support.

“This is why I am running for office,” Avi says. “I contend with the same issues that all Lakewood residents do. I sit in the same traffic; I send my kids to the same schools—I know the issues because I live them. And I know that there is so much more that can be done to bring relief for all of us. But we need a seat with the majority party to accomplish that. There is just no other way.”

Blueprint for success

Avi is not the first askan to run for office; it has been done before with astounding success. In New York, Senator Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, and NYC councilman Kalman Yeger have achieved tremendous accomplishments.

“Their success comes from siyata d’Shmaya through the conduit of appropriate and pragmatic hishtadlus,” Avi notes. “Just as it is in New Jersey, if any of them were Republicans, their attempts to effectuate change would be an exercise in futility. They are Democrats because they place their kehillah above party affiliation. And I am doing the same.

“Lakewood students should not have to drive each day to New York to get the special-education resources they desperately need,” Avi continues. “We should not have to rely on the achievements of New York’s askanim when we deserve the same right here in New Jersey.”

You can make the difference

The election on November 7 offers a historic opportunity for the Lakewood community to place one of its own—a proven fighter for local causes—in the state government. But doing so is far from guaranteed; it will require the participation of each of us.

It is not enough to wantchange. It is not enough to demand progress. What we need is action.

Lakewood residents represent the majority of eligible voters in its legislative district and thus hold outsized influence in its electoral decisions. Rather than slumping our shoulders and throwing up our hands in despair over our troubles, we must vote for our interests by electing Avi Schnall to represent the 30th District in the New Jersey State Assembly.

Avi has the support and full backing of our rabbanim and roshei yeshivah; all he needs is your vote.

Do your hishtadlus, and Avi will do his.