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.
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.
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.
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.