The Chris Christie administration in New Jersey has approved a grant worth over $10 million to an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbinical school to build a new library and other buildings, as part of a larger bill that funds construction projects at the states colleges and universities.
When the final list was released last week, one of the biggest — and perhaps most surprising — winners was Beth Medrash Govoha, a 70-year-old, all-male, orthodox Jewish rabbinical school in Lakewood. It was awarded $10.6 million in taxpayer funds for a new library and academic center, among the highest designated for a private institution.
But the seeds for Beth Medrash Govoha’s success were sown long before the administration began scoring applications. A Star-Ledger review of records shows the college used some political muscle to persuade Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers to make last-minute changes to the bill last year to help it get a piece of the pie.
The head of the school, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, is an influential leader in Lakewood’s large orthodox Jewish community and traveled with Christie to Israel last year. After supporting Christie’s challenger in 2009, Kotler and other orthodox leaders endorsed the governor this year. The school also hired a leading lobbyist to make its case with lawmakers.
Now the state’s top Assembly Democrat says she is concerned about public dollars going to a college with admission standards she says resemble a “religious test.” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said students who want to go to the college must speak Hebrew, know the sacred texts and agree not to date within the first six months of schooling.
“I will tell you that I am extremely surprised by this,” Oliver said. “This is not a secondary institution that is open to the general public.”
Oliver sees a distinction between Beth Medrash Govoha — known in Hebrew as a yeshiva — and private Catholic schools like Seton Hall University and St. Peter’s University that she says should qualify for public money.
“Seton Hall is open to anyone — Jewish, Christian and Muslim. They have an open admission process, and any student in New Jersey can attend.” Oliver said. “Not every student can attend the yeshiva.”
The school also refuses to admit women. The legislature has 60 days to stop this from happening. I hope they do.