Murphy: ‘Blessed to Enjoy Extraordinary Relations’ With Orthodox Community

Gov. Phil Murphy speaking at a Get Out The Vote rally in Newark, Saturday. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said he is “blessed to enjoy extraordinary relations” with the Garden State’s Orthodox community, in a conversation with Hamodia less than a week before Election Day.

The first-term governor, a Democrat, is still projected to win his race against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, though some polls have shown the race tightening in the homestretch.

As with most public officials in recent elections cycles, Gov. Murphy’s handling of the COVID pandemic has loomed large in his record. Early last fall as the second wave of infections began, Lakewood was one of the first locations to see a sharp increase in case numbers.

Despite calls from some in state government to close schools and place other limits on activities in the town, Gov. Murphy’s administration worked with local stakeholders to devise a plan that kept institutions open while relying heavily on a mass-testing effort.

His actions were contrasted by many to that of then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who drew the community’s ire by limiting houses of worship in “red zones” to 10 attendees and ordering schools to close during the same period.

“We instantly made the decision that the only way we were going to get to a better place on public health was to work in partnership with the leadership in Lakewood,” Gov. Murphy said in a phone interview with Hamodia this week. “Lakewood has a disproportionate number of outstanding nonprofits and community organizations. We said we’re going to work in partnership, we’re not going to divide into us versus them. That did happen elsewhere. It never happened in New Jersey. And I’m very proud of that.”

Another issue New Jersey governors have dealt with for some time is perennial deficits faced by Lakewood’s school district, which, in addition to funding public schools, is responsible for providing the town’s large private-school population with mandated services such as busing and special education. Since the state funding formula is not designed to manage the unique set up, the district has relied on loans and special appropriations from the state to keep it afloat.

“We’ve been there for Lakewood and we will always be there,” Gov. Murphy said. “And that includes, by the way, the extraordinary amount of particular pressure on school busing, and getting kids from homes to the schools.”

As the Lakewood area’s Orthodox population has expanded, in recent years growth has spilled over into neighboring towns, most heavily Toms River and Jackson. In both towns, significant efforts have been made by some local residents to stymie this influx. Both Jackson and Toms River have been accused of using zoning laws to make their townships less appealing to Orthodox families.

A de facto ban in Jackson on eruvin and new schools is now the subject of a lawsuit, which has since been joined by both the federal government and the State of New Jersey.

Gov. Murphy said that he had a “simple message” for townships engaging in such actions.

“That’s unacceptable … we have been very strong, not just in words, but in action, and we will continue to be. We’re the most diverse state in America, we’re the most densely populated state in America. We all live on top of each other. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to find a way to get along for the common good. People in this state do that by the millions,” he said. “But there are folks who just want to continue these turf wars, this us versus them, and that’s just not who we are.”

This week, Project Veritas, a controversial right-wing organization known for its exposés based on secret recordings, released a conversation of two Gov. Murphy campaign operatives who voiced opinions that the state’s present COVID guidelines would be tightened to include strict vaccine mandates and passports after the election.

Gov. Murphy said that the views expressed in the recording did not represent his administration’s plans and that he had not discussed the topic with either of the operatives that spoke in the recording.

“I’ve made a lot of tough decisions that were extremely unpopular politically during this pandemic,” he said. “I have no qualms about making tough calls if, regardless of the politics, if it saves people’s lives. The fact of the matter is, we are where we are. And I’m extremely comfortable with where we are in terms of that combination of vaccination requirements, testing, and masking where it’s required. And that’s the way as far as I’m concerned. That’s the way it’s going to stay,” he said.

Asked for closing thoughts, Gov. Murphy expressed his warm ties to the state’s robust Jewish community.

‘The Jewish community, broadly, the Orthodox community more specifically, and Lakewood in particular, are three levels of the community that I am blessed to enjoy extraordinary relations with. And if that weren’t enough, I’m proud to have deepened meaningfully the relationship between New Jersey on the one hand and the State of Israel on the other. I can’t wait to get back to Israel. I can’t wait to get through this election, and if I’m fortunate enough to get reelected, to do a lot more together with the community.”