New Jersey’s Agudath Israel director advocates for the state’s Orthodox community.
Be it supporting eruvin or funding yeshiva education, stopping assisted suicide or curbing anti-Semitism, Rabbi Avi Schnall is New Jersey’s Orthodox point man from the legislative halls of Trenton to local community meetings in Teaneck or Mahwah.
His name is seen frequently in not just Jewish media but also the secular. Most recently he was called on for comment on a New Jersey bill that would ban teenagers under 18 from marrying. It would have made the state only the second to to enact such a bill, along with Delaware, which has enacted similar legislation.
Rabbi Schnall, for over four years Agudath Israel’s New Jersey director, successfully worked to stall the bill, saying that making any marriage under 18 illegal is “a bit extreme. “It’s a cultural thing, mostly in the Sephardic community. Culturally they tend to get married younger. It’s not a biblical obligation—most of our girls don’t get married under 18—it’s a cultural thing. It’s part of their heritage.”
In a recent interview with The Jewish Link, the energetic Schnall, 33 and a Lakewood father of three, covered just a portion of the many issues he is called on to follow and to represent the Orthodox community.
“I run the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel,” he said. “Our mission is to be the arm and the voice of Agudath Israel depending on what circumstances arrive. We are defending religious liberties, we are defending our communities, our yeshivas.”
The issues he faces range from working with religious communities to build and sustain eruvin or procuring security funding for yeshivas or even working with individuals who have disputes over getting off of work and home in time for Shabbos without risking the penalty of an employer.
“We’re going to land in a lot of different areas,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
One of those areas is the issue of a community rejecting the very idea, not to mention the construction, of an eruv. Mahwah, New Jersey, made national news when the town leaders ordered the deconstruction of an eruv already installed. Reactions of non-Orthodox town members were nothing if not anti-Semitic. Rabbi Schnall wrote letters and was in touch with attorneys, giving the religious community’s side of this white-hot issue.
What Rabbi Schnall said he observed were sentiments of anti-Orthodoxy, simply because the Orthodox community is growing within the state.
It is, however, issues of education, especially funding, that receive a great deal of his focus. Tuition, he will tell you, is the number-one affordability challenge for frum families across the nation, and New Jersey is no different.
Last month Rabbi Schnall was appointed chairman of the nonpublic school committee for the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE). On the committee he works with representatives from the Catholic Conference, Muslim, Christian and other independent schools.
“We meet regularly every three months,” he said. It is an advisory committee. The people on the committee follow key policy decisions that could impact nonpublic schools.”
He added that he works closely with his non-Jewish committee colleagues when it comes to various issues. One example he gave was in the area of compensatory education. It took a year, he said, but the nonpublic school committee was able to secure tutoring time for students during class time, not during lunch breaks. It might seem like a minor issue, but for students who needed time to eat lunch and have a time away from class, the issue was important.”
Another area where Rabbi Schnall needs to be proficient is in Title 1 federal funding, which distributes funding to schools with a higher percentage of students from low-income families. It is, he said, the largest form of funding yeshivas receive.
“I have to be well-versed in the federal goings-on when it comes to education,” he told The Jewish Link. “Because ultimately federal funding impacts our local yeshivas. Education policies, homeland security grants, federal issues that help our local communities. I need to be aware of what happens federally.
“Title 1 funding is huge,” he added. “It’s a source of funding for private schools based on income eligibility. It provides a service by saving parents from hiring tutors, social workers and other educators. These are paid for by the government. At the end of the day, funds are provided through the state, but there needs to be a bridge that connects public funding to the yeshivas, and the committee has been able to be that bridge.”
Rabbi Schnall said that Agudath Israel works in tandem closely with the Catholic Conference when it comes to educational issues.
“We add to each other’s abilities,” he said. “The Catholic Conference helps us, and we need to show them we are here for them as well. The importance of building coalitions is paramount.”
Sometimes, however, Rabbi Schnall has to work through an issue that must surmount conflict instead of collaboration. He reiterated to The Jewish Link that the movement of Orthodox families into traditionally non-frum communities has seen a rise of a more public anti-Orthodox sentiment, one that used to be more of an undercurrent.
“It wasn’t an issue in the past, but now that Orthodox people are moving into these neighborhoods, it’s coming out to the surface,” he said. “It could be that people thought this way always because they didn’t know much about the Orthodox community. But the Orthodox community is moving into new communities, and we have to show them that we don’t have horns and that we’re not part of the Elders of Zion. It’s surfaced because Orthodoxy has grown, and with our growth we have to be sure it’s a responsible growth so that neighborhoods will be accommodating. Five years ago you didn’t have Orthodox Jews moving into these neighborhoods. The communities didn’t know much about us.”
Still, Rabbi Schnall said that Agudath Israel has to deal with an anti-Semitism in suburbia that he said “we can’t deny.” He added that there’s another layer to this as well, an “anti-haredim” element where there is pushback against Orthodox families as new neighbors even from other Jews.
“There are so many misconceptions,” he said. “I pay taxes, I work, I am not on any social services. I live in the middle of Lakewood. We all have jobs. There is not one tax-free house on my street. But, we still need to educate people. I think people are concerned about state funding for schools. They are worried that we’re [the Orthodox] are going to take money away from public schools. We don’t send our children to public schools, so whatever we get is a fraction of what it costs to educate our children. That township that is concerned about Orthodox Jews moving in just saved thousands of dollars per child when we moved in.”
Rabbi Schnall talks favorably about the Jackson, New Jersey, experience for Orthodox families as an example of where the frum community has fit in and is welcomed.
“You have hundreds of frum families who have moved into Jackson,” he said. “The community there is seeing the Orthodox community upfront and personal, and they realize they aren’t so bad. They are paying taxes, they don’t have guns, they are nice neighbors. And it’s gotten better there since we’ve moved in. At some of these town meetings [in other communities] you might hear straight-out anti-Semitic things. But in Jackson it’s normal. For the past couple of years on Halloween night, many frum people handed out candy to the non-Orthodox children in the neighborhood. When it’s Purim time, we give our neighbors shalach manos. We’re not cavemen, we’re normal.”
In the immediate future, Rabbi Schnall said he thinks yeshiva affordability will continue to be the high-priority issue. With a new Democratic governor, he feels that the state’s political climate will move away from a conservative platform. For that reason, he said Agudath Israel “needs to be engaged more than ever. We have an administration that is connected to the teachers’ union, and not a friend of yeshivas. This is an administration that is proposing to cut significantly nonpublic school funding.
“The tuition crisis is everywhere,” he added. “On the local level, the next biggest challenge is sustaining our growth. Orthodox New Jersey is growing by leaps and bounds. You see it in Passaic, Lakewood, Toms River, Jersey City and Linden. You have all of these new communities popping up, and with these groups sometimes come challenges. Community growth brings housing and schools to communities as well as pushback from some communities, but you have to keep your eye on the ball, on the politics, because the politics has a direct impact on our lives as frum Jews. You have to keep an eye on Trenton.”
And you know he will.
By Phil Jacobs