Time To Vote!

November 3, 2022

The Power of a Strong Voter Turnout

B. Weinberg

A candid conversation with the askanim behind the Just Vote campaign of UENJ (United Education of New Jersey)

Several days ago, the news made the headlines in the Jewish media: President Biden took the effort to call the Skverer Rebbe in the run-up to the upcoming elections in New York. The president spent some 15 minutes in pleasant conversation with the Rebbe (a long time for a discussion with a president). The president added at the conclusion of the call, “You will have an open door to my administration,” mentioning that he works closely with the present elected officials and that they have an open door to his office should they need anything.

This piece of news, explained Rabbi Osher Lederer, assistant dean at Yeshiva K’tana of Lakewood and a member of the Igud HaMosdos, should serve as an illustration to the greater Lakewood community of the far-reaching consequences that can happen when everyone in a community votes.

“When I was growing up in New York, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky constantly reminded us of our obligation to vote, because we have been blessed with a powerful voice and we have a right to use it. Our goal is simply to be able to live like Torah Yidden, to go to school and yeshivah, to build a sukkah without receiving a fine, etc., We can’t take for granted that these will happen if we don’t vote,” Rabbi Lederer shares. “The rosh yeshivah Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l held that we are obligated to vote and let our voice be heard.

“For some reason, not all Yidden understand that registering to vote is a priority, and that’s a real shame. We are simply trying to exist, to live our lives without persecution or government infringement on our way of life, and to send our children to mosdos without struggling to put bread on the table. Every person in our community who votes makes that more possible.”

Real issues, real solutions

The issues we are facing are real and only getting worse. Just ask the head of any yeshivah or school, and they will tell you about the chinuch crisis—the lack of rebbe’im and morahs to fill their growing classrooms—which is only growing from year to year.

“Who will teach your children and grandchildren?” asks Rabbi Lederer. “Nowadays, a qualified and well-trained rebbi can earn approximately $70K a year, but that’s small change considering the needs of a large family with multiple children in yeshivos. It is becoming harder and harder to teach nowadays, and our best and brightest candidates are going into other fields. If we give them a substantial raise, perhaps we can stem the tide, but how can struggling parents afford yet another tuition increase when they are already choking?”

Is there any solution?

Actually, there is a very promising solution which is being worked on by a large group of well-connected askanim with the guidance and participation of the Lakewood roshei yeshivah and many rabbanim in the Lakewood community.

You may have seen the ads by the UENJ urging Lakewood residents to register to vote and then go out and vote (or send in their mail-in ballots) in the upcoming election.

Which leads many people to wonder, “What is this all about? Why is so much effort being invested simply to say ‘Go Vote’?” Most people are busy and may find it hard to spare the extra time to do their civic duty.

“It’s very simple,” says R’ Avi Verschleiser, one of the askanim behind the efforts to encourage people to go out and vote on November 8. “The powers that be look at our numbers to see if and how many of our community actually votes. Lakewood has long had a reputation as a town where many votes can be had; if we can turbocharge that and truly get everyone to vote, we become a much more powerful voice that is heard all the way to Trenton and beyond.”

Tax rebates for education

What is the ultimate purpose of this effort to encourage more people to vote? And why now?

To understand this, let us go back a few months to numerous pivotal meetings which took place between a group of influential askanim and consultants and lobbyists who understand how to make lasting changes in legislation that can have ripple effects for many years to come.

We are speaking, of course, about the burden of tuition, one of the greatest expenses facing the average frum family today. Parents of large families pay tens of thousands of dollars a year toward their children’s education, but even after overextending themselves, it is still not enough to cover expenses and give rebbe’im and morahs the wages they deserve.

“It costs me over seven thousands dollars annually to educate a single child in my mosdos,” said one administrator, “but there are very few parents who can afford to pay the full amount. I need to cover the shortfall somehow while ensuring that my staff and rebbe’im are satisfied and can make ends meet on their wage.”

It’s a challenging situation that seems to have no clear-cut solution. But perhaps there is a solution—only it requires creative thinking and ambitious planning as well as the concerted effort of the entire community.

Before embarking on this momentous undertaking, the askanim met with the Lakewood roshei yeshivah and senior poskim as well as Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, Rav Shlomo Miller, Rav Elya Brudny, and many other roshei yeshivah and rabbanim, who enthusiastically supported and endorsed this venture, signing a letter to that effect. The purpose of these gatherings was to discuss a groundbreaking effort to change the existing law and allow large companies such as Walmart, Costco, and Best Buy to receive tax rebates in exchange for educational grants.

As Rabbi Yosef Heinemann of Bais Medrash Govoha explains, “This is similar to a voucher concept for education but in a different format. Since New Jersey is a blue state, the traditional voucher system will never work. Yet tax rebates for education—allowing large companies to pay millions of dollars toward local schools and receive a tax reduction—has been tried successfully in cities and states across the United States for many years with bipartisan support.”

There has been substantial support for this idea, and the efforts are not just in Lakewood. They include communities as far south as Cherry Hill and north as Passaic, as well as Deal, Englewood, Teaneck, and more. Both rabbanim and askanim in all these communities staunchly support the venture—including members of chassidishe communities across the state, in Jersey City, Linden, Toms River, Union City, and other locales. Rabbanim and lay leaders in the Sephardic communities in Long Branch, Deal, and Oakhurst are involved as well, as are members and key figures of the Modern Orthodox communities in Englewood, Teaneck, Bergen, North Bergon, and Livingston are involved as well. They are all committed to working together as a united force to make this happen.

This is the first time in the state’s history that there is an initiative that is 100 percent supported by every segment of the Jewish community and for which all communities are united and committed to making it a reality.

The issue is not only backed by the Jewish community, local askanim stress—this is an issue that is important to the Catholic school network and to many minority parents who look to the parochial schools for their children’s education. Numerous private schools that are not affiliated with the Jewish community have jumped on the bandwagon, and community leaders from across the state have pledged to follow suit.

Why does this matter? “Because it’s not just a Jewish issue, but a statewide issue, which means politicians will be looking more closely at the matter and taking it more seriously,” the askanim explain. “The more numbers we receive, the more likely that this will happen.”

It’s all in the numbers

Is this just a pipe dream, a vision that exists only in someone’s fertile imagination, or is there a possibility that this can actually get off the ground?

In a wide-ranging conversation with several prominent roshei mosdos and askanim, including Rabbi Yosef Posen, Rabbi Osher Lederer, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Mandel, Rabbi Yosef Notis, Rabbi Shimon Balsam, Rabbi Yosef Heineman, R’ Gershon Kassirer, Yossi Tress, and R’ Avi Verschleiser, it soon becomes clear that this is a comprehensive initiative that has a very strong potential for success.

“After receiving the haskamah of the Roshei Yeshivah, we met with experts who have been successful in implementing important changes and working with the top echelons of government for many years,” they stressed. “This privately funded meeting was a game changer. The lobbyists explained that as a large and cohesive community with similar values, our ability to impact legislation in our favor is mainly dependent on the strength of our voter turnout. When we bring in the numbers, the politicians take notice, bringing the increased benefit to the community that we are seeking.”

Historically, Lakewood has been seen as a force in the state in terms of voter concentration. However, there is a national trend of low turnout, with only a modest percentage of voters in most towns and cities turning out to vote. The numbers are usually particularly low on an “off year” (such as this one), when there is no president or governor on the ballot. If we can produce strong numbers of voters this year, we can send a strong message about the increased strength of the Lakewood vote, which will be further turbocharged in coming years. In other words, if you vote, you are magnifying your voice many times over by joining the power of community.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Posen warns that there won’t be instant results. This initiative is a first step to get the conversation going and to be taken seriously by the greater community.

“Things are not going to change from one moment to the next. It can take several years for the impact of our voting turnout to actually bring school tax rebates to our communities. But in the meantime, we are seeing incremental changes. Politicians have learned that the number of registered voters in the Lakewood area is increasing and understand what we are hoping to accomplish. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned.”

How does this whole project concern the average Lakewood family? And where do we get involved?

“It doesn’t take much to accomplish a lot,” Yossi Tress explains. “All you need is to give ten, fifteen minutes of your time. Register to vote and send in a mail-in ballot or show up at the voting booth for early voting or on Election Day, November 8. The main thing is to show our elected officials the strength of our community’s vote and that it is getting stronger. This is the only way we can possibly get this tax rebate off the ground.”

The future of our children’s chinuch

If the tax rebate will pass, how will it impact us on an individual level?

“Imagine having your tuition bill reduced by half,” says Rabbi Balsam. “The schools will be able to pay their staff a respectable wage, keep the classroom sizes smaller, and deliver many other benefits while reducing tuition.”

The askanim asked the roshei yeshivah whether we need to be concerned about outside involvement in our educational system. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky reassured them, pointing to the state of Pennsylvania, which has the same model, and the authorities do not get involved. In addition, Agudath Israel, under the direction of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, has been advocating for this venture and has already succeeded in bringing school choice to many states without this concern.

What will ensure that the schools will actually reduce tuition? some cynics might wonder. Rabbi Yosef Notis explains that while the question is valid, the concern is not. “There are well over a hundred yeshivos and schools in Lakewood. The schools have already committed to ensuring that parents and students truly benefit from the tax credits. Surely, most will, which will effectively ensure that all of the schools and mosdos will do the same. Once some schools reduce tuition and still pay higher salaries to rebbe’im, that will become the status quo.”

It’s a win-win situation which can impact struggling parents across the greater Lakewood area, the State of New Jersey, and beyond. All it takes is a few minutes of your time and the understanding that you are impacting the chinuch of your children, their children, and subsequent generations as well.

As R’ Avi Verschleiser stressed, “We must do more for the future of our children and grandchildren. Something drastic has to happen for the system to be sustainable. Hashem promised that Torah will always remain in Klal Yisrael. A big yeshuah is on its way, and perhaps this is it!”