The Christie administration recently told a legislative panel it was undertaking a rigid scoring process to identify what projects should qualify for $1.3 billion in voter-approved financing for new construction projects at New Jersey 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.
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 Legislature has less than 60 days to reject the list or it becomes law, and Oliver said she wants to learn more about the college’s policies before seeking changes or rejecting the list altogether.
Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said he is concerned about possible religious and gender discrimination.
"Schools that are run by religious organizations are permitted to discriminate both in hiring and their provision of services," Barocas said. "However, the state is in violation of the law if it provides special benefits, such as millions of dollars of discretionary funding, to an organization that engages in discrimination."
Beth Medrash Govoha is the largest of New Jersey’s dozen religious independent colleges, and one of the largest of its kind in the nation.
It is all-male, and students spend their days studying ancient Hebrew texts, such as the Torah and Talmud, according to school officials.
It offers both undergraduate and graduate programs, has nearly doubled in size over the last decade and currently enrolls about 6,660 students, according to state records. The school’s students and faculty are all male and nearly 100 percent white, according to state data.
Moshe Gleiberman, vice president of administration at Beth Medrash Govoha, said although the college may be rooted in Talmudic and related studies, its students excel in many other areas.
"BMG graduates have a leading track record in establishing successful new businesses that create jobs and contribute to the economy of New Jersey," Gleiberman said, noting graduates have successful careers in food manufacturing, retailing, green technologies and other industries.
Gleiberman said there is no "religious test" for admission, but it does have rigid education standards.
"BMG has a high-level, advanced undergraduate program in Talmudic studies. Admissions criteria are demanding ... because students have to demonstrate that they are academically ready for BMG’s program and demanding schedule," Gleiberman said.
He said 80 percent of its students come from New Jersey, but declined to offer other details. He would not say how many graduates go on to be rabbis, nor whether speaking Hebrew is a prerequisite to admission or whether the college has dating restrictions.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), who chairs the campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate front-runner Barbara Buono, said the timing of the award to Beth Medrash Govoha weeks after the orthodox community endorsed the governor raises questions about whether Christie is trading public dollars for political support.
"If it is a coincidence, I doubt it," Watson Coleman said. "The governor seems to think he can do whatever he wants and it doesn’t matter."
Christie campaign spokesman Kevin Roberts said Watson Coleman’s comments are "just another sign of desperation from a campaign entrenched in negativity and far-fetched attacks."
The higher education bond bill, introduced last June 14 and co-sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), allowed public and private universities to get funds. Lawmakers said private universities like Seton Hall were eligible, but explicitly excluded "any educational institution dedicated primarily to the education or training of ministers, priests, rabbis or other professional persons in the field of religion."
Beth Medrash Govoha has long employed one of the top lobbyists in Trenton, Dale Florio, head of Princeton Public Affairs Group, to pursue its interests, Election Law Enforcement records show. Florio met with lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate seeking changes to the bill, records show. Princeton Public Affairs was paid $25,000 by Beth Medrash Govoha last year, according to the firm’s annual report.
On June 21, Sweeney amended the bill and struck the religious exclusion, legislative records show. The amended bill passed both houses days later and voters approved the bond referendum in November.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said there was near-universal bipartisan support for the bond act. "We assume that the Assembly speaker was aware of all the Bond Act’s provisions, including that no particular religious-oriented institution of higher education would be discriminated against in seeking funding," Drewniak said.
Sweeney does not share Oliver’s concerns.
"The support will help improve the resources of a wide array of schools that are providing educational opportunities for a large number of students," said Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for Sweeney.
The change ultimately meant Beth Medrash Govoha and Princeton Theological Seminary were awarded money that under the old rules could have only gone to the traditional private colleges.
Princeton Theological Seminary was awarded $645,313 for a new conference center and upgrades to its internet technology. Established in 1812, it trains men and women to become Presbyterian ministers.
Watson Coleman said she is just as concerned about public dollars going to the Princeton Theological Seminary. "It raises real church and state questions," she said.
Oliver has fewer concerns, saying Princeton Theological Seminary has broader admission standards and offers degrees outside of ministries. Seminary President M. Craig Barnes could not be reached for comment.
New Jersey’s private four-year colleges and universities did not fight the changes allowing religious schools to apply for the grant funds, said John B. Wilson, president of the state Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey. He noted all private schools could have been excluded. "We’re very grateful to be included," he said.