To Orthodox Teaneck Mayor Elie Y. Katz: Please go get some political guidance from Joe Lieberman

Orthodox Teaneck Mayor Elie Y. Katz: Please go get some political guidance from Joe Lieberman. Cuz right now you are really screwing up.
Teaneck election spawns political fight
Sunday, August 5, 2007

A wave of political unrest in Teaneck is pitting Orthodox Jewish township councilmen against other groups.

The disputes -- which focus mostly on last year's election and aren't overtly about religion -- have fueled stormy council meetings, angry Internet postings and letters to the local newspaper.

Some say the level of rancor reflects hidden community fissures that few want to discuss openly.

"When I heard the terminology of 'we' and 'they' and 'the Orthodox' -- we need to talk about it," veteran Councilwoman Jacqueline B. Kates said after a tumultuous council meeting June 26. "But I don't think we know how to talk about it without hurting each other."

Teaneck has long prided itself on diversity and tolerance. The township, which is 56 percent white and 29 percent African-American, was the first suburban community in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. During the past three decades, it has become one of the largest Orthodox Jewish enclaves in New Jersey.

The 2006 council election showed the Orthodox community's growing clout. Three Orthodox men and a fourth who attends an Orthodox synagogue won seats on the seven-member council.

The election was marred by the distribution of anonymous fliers that accused a slate of non-Orthodox candidates of anti-Semitism. The fliers were like a spark on tinder.

Critics are still pressing the four councilmen and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office for answers.

"If there is anyone on this council that participated in the formulation, wording or distribution of that literature, you will be held accountable," Audra Jackson, who supported one of the targeted candidates, said at the council's July 25 meeting. "A trial is already begun in the court of public opinion."

Downplaying diversity

Other speakers said they fear that the councilmen don't appreciate Teaneck's diversity.

That impression was fueled at the June meeting when one of the new councilmen said he could find no mention of diversity in the U.S. Constitution or state and local laws. Adam Gussen then concluded that the council, when making board appointments, needn't apply a "litmus test of diversity that some in the community are looking for."

His statement drew widespread rebukes at the next meeting.

"Diversity is something in the hearts and souls of those who moved here," said Brenda Allen, who is African-American and has lived in Teaneck for 22 years. "And I just want to let you know that many of us are here for that reason."

The four councilmen, including Mayor Elie Y. Katz, dismiss the criticism as political sniping. One of the most outspoken critics, for example, is Ron Schwartz, who lost in the 2006 council race and whose coalition was the target of the mailings.

Katz said he and the other councilmen want to bring a new, economic-oriented agenda to town. He said the political old guard doesn't want change.

"I understand diversity," Katz said, noting that he was the top vote-getter and carried districts throughout the township. "But this is the same sour grapes by the same people."

The councilmen also say they're pigeonholed as an Orthodox Jewish bloc, even though they didn't all run together and sometimes disagree.

Katz, 33, Michael Kevie Feit, 33, and Elnatan Rudolph, 25, are Orthodox. Gussen, 34, attends an Orthodox synagogue, but grew up non-Orthodox, attending township public schools.

"There's this false perception of this lockstep, monolithic majority," Gussen said. "And the way to solidify that perception is by saying, 'Oh yes, they're all this one thing.' "

Kates said it's not their religion that's upsetting people, but their agenda, which includes promoting development more aggressively.

"It took many residents by surprise," she said.

Divided community

Orthodox Jews number about 1,500 to 2,000 families. And while many are highly active in community affairs, such as the ambulance corps, they also maintain separation. Their children generally don't attend public schools. Orthodox rabbis typically don't participate in the township's clergy association. And several Orthodox kids play Little League baseball in a town-run division that doesn't play on Saturdays.

There has been occasional friction.

Some Orthodox complain of a subtle, anti-Orthodox mentality. They were outraged by a recent newspaper article in which some residents expressed fear that Teaneck would become an all-Orthodox enclave.

"Try to imagine taking out 'Orthodox' and substituting some other demographic group," Feit said.

One particularly delicate issue is the public school system, where the white enrollment has declined during the past few decades.

"In Teaneck schools, you find a demographic that is very different from what you find on the average block," said Paul Ostrow, a former councilman. "And that's certainly attributable to our ethnic and religious diversity and the needs and wants those communities have for their children's future."

Incendiary fliers

Such tensions exist mostly under the surface. But the 2006 campaign fliers inflamed them.

The mailings, among other things, said that three candidates with the New Beginnings Coalition "align themselves with left-wing, anti-Semitic people" and want to stop building in the Orthodox community.

"Someone deliberately set out to play on the religious dimensions of the community, and it had a polarizing impact," said the Rev. Randall Day, an Episcopal priest active in community affairs. "They created fear in the Orthodox community and resentment in the larger community, which understands itself to be very open and accepting."

A community relations board condemned the fliers and asked the council to join it in the condemnation. But the four councilmen opposed the measure. Their position is, in short: Get over it.

"In hindsight, I probably should have voted for it," Katz recently said. "But we had just finished this heated election, and it seemed like now the same people who attacked us wanted us to approve this resolution."

Schwartz and former Township Attorney Martin Cramer, who also was attacked in the mailings, turned the fliers over to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said an investigation into mail fraud -- some of the mailings used a phony post office box number -- yielded no charges and remains open.

Schwartz and Cramer are demanding a more robust investigation that would include taking sworn statements from several councilmen.

'Way to talk this out'

Ultimately, though, the township needs to promote healing, some say.

Feit said he recently reached out to the school board and to a rabbi of one of the township's largest non-Orthodox synagogues.

"The goal is to move forward, and we can't do that unless we trust each other and we can talk to each other," he said.

Kates said she thinks the township should consider creating a position to help foster better relations among its racial and religious groups.

"When a community is as diverse as we are, there is always the opportunity for us to stay in our own little groups," she said. "But I think there can be tensions right below the surface, and you need a way to talk this out before something becomes bigger."


Reb Yudel said...

You want Katz to act like Liberman? You mean, support a pointless war against Bogota or Hackensack? How is that good for our property values?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Point well taken... but...

These Teaneck pols are kinderlach without any mentors and boy do they need help! Got any other Orthodox politician mentors to recommend?

PS: I think Bogota is looking to go to war...:>(

Anonymous said...

"Cuz right now your (sic) are really screwing up."

In the article, I saw some problems in the community, but I couldn't find your reason to blame Mayor Katz.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

He's Mayor. He takes the blame.

Anonymous said...

Fine, but by extension, when some of your students in college failed, you deserved the blame.

Anonymous said...

"...kinderlach without mentors?"

I'm not so sure. I kinda think some of them have really, really bad rabbis. Like that perennial screw-up Pruzansky.