Judgment Call

steven mostofsky
Judge Steven (Shloimie) Mostofsky speaking with Hamodia at his Midwood home. The clock at top right was hand-crafted by his father, a machinist in a New York factory.

In November 2019, Judge Steven Mostofsky will almost certainly be elected to serve as a justice on the New York State Supreme Court, the state’s trial-level court. Mostofsky, 61, known as “Shloimie” everywhere but in the courtroom, is running unopposed for one of the court’s two openings in Brooklyn. In an interview with Hamodia at his Midwood home, he discusses his Brooklyn upbringing, his tenure as president of the National Council of Young Israel and his legal career.

Judge Steven Mostofsky foretold this career for himself.

Not that he remembers making any such predictions.

“Someone who was in Camp Dora Golding years ago told me, after I won election as Civil Court Judge in 2012, that when I was 17 and a counselor for the first time in camp, I told him I was going to be a judge,” says Mostofsky. “I said, ‘Really?’ I can’t remember having any aspirations when I was 17, other than making it to 18 and graduating!’”

Young Shloimie did graduate — Mesivta Torah Vodaath, followed by Yeshiva College, then New York Law School.

Two years after his 1982 law-school graduation, Mostofsky began clerking for Judge Leon Deutsch in Family Court, a six-year stint that he considers his primary training for a successful legal career.

“Judge Deutsch was a great person to work for,” says Mostofsky. “Those were very interesting years and I learned a lot. He taught me how to write. I learned how to settle cases, how to work with people as a lawyer, do research … and I received a real education in those years.” He then clerked for four years on the New York state Supreme Court, under Justice Barry Hurowitz, who, Mostofsky says, “was well respected by all the attorneys who appeared before him for his honesty and integrity.”

Mostofsky often worked on divorce-related cases, and his knowledge of halachah helped to avoid several problematic situations.

steven mostofsky
Young Israel President Shloimy Mostofky (C) and Executive Director Rabbi Pesach Lerner (behind his left shoulder) at a hachnasas sefer Torah at an IDF base.

New York state’s “get laws” — intended to avoid agunah-type situations — mandate that a legal divorce only be granted if all barriers to marriage, including religious, are removed, and that the judge may take this into consideration when ruling in alimony.

“One case I worked on, the man did not want to give a get, so the judge was going to put him right in jail. I said, ‘Judge, can I talk to you for a second?’ We went in the back and I gave him a quick description of get me’useh, explaining it was possible that, if he jailed the husband, it may be a forced get, because he would only get out of jail if he gave a get. So the judge said, ‘I am not going to do anything to you unless the beth din orders that I can do it.’ It never got that far, because, unfortunately, that judge passed away soon after, but the next judge, I think, sort of made the man ‘volunteer’ to give the get.”

In 1997, Mostofsky entered private practice, largely handling matrimonial cases involving frum couples, and always made it a priority to ensure that proper gitten were given.

“Every person who came in to me, I told them that when the case is over, no matter what happens — whether you win, whether you lose, whether you settle — you must agree to give a get. And except for one case, no client ever withheld a get.”

The Old Days at Young Israel

One constant in the life of the Mostofsky family has been Young Israel. Young Shloimie’s family davened in a Young Israel shul in East Flatbush, where he grew up; in Canarsie, when his family later moved there; and in Williamsburg, where he often went to visit his grandparents.

“My grandparents were involved in Young Israel almost from the beginning,” says Mostofsky, noting that he, whose grandparents all came to America before World War II, was one of only two boys in his class in Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway elementary school who had four grandparents alive when he was born. “My grandfather leined in the Young Israel of Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. He was still leining on the Yamim Nora’im, well into his 80s. He passed out in shul one Rosh Hashanah during leining; Hatzalah told him that though he hadn’t had a heart attack, he should go home and rest. My grandfather never used the Shabbos elevator, so he walked up the five flights of steps to his apartment. That Yom Kippur, he had a heart attack and was niftar.”

Shloimie learned from his father to daven for the amud on the Yamim Nora’im, lein, and blow shofar, duties he began to perform at the Young Israel of Redwood in Canarsie, and then at his current shul, Young Israel of Midwood. His son is now splitting the baal tok’ea duties with him in shul, and he also davens for the amud and leins. During the course of our interview, Mostofsky and his devoted wife, Aviva, seemed most pleased when they told me that their four married children (they also have one who is single) live within walking distance of their home.

In 2000, Mostofsky, who had been on the board of the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), was asked to serve as its president, and he took on this unpaid, essentially full-time job for 12 years.

steven mostofsky
Mostofsky (L) at his 2012 swearing-in ceremony for New York City Civil Court judge, with then-Councilman David Greenfield.

For Mostofsky, the third member of his extended family to have served as president of NCYI, Young Israel is not just a job or an organization or a family tradition, but a movement whose existence and growth represent the development of Orthodox Jewish life in America.

During his presidency, Mostofsky read through all the minutes of every NCYI meeting, dating back nearly a hundred years. He can keep listeners enraptured describing details of meetings, anecdotes, and the history of Young Israel: How it was formed by a merger of two organizations of young Orthodox Americans, using a shul on the Lower East Side that was unable to muster its own minyan; how it began with minyanim and Torah classes for youth, and through the years invited many great European Gedolim to speak when they were visiting America to raise funds for their yeshivos; how the nascent organization, while strictly adhering to certain halachic standards like kosher mechitzos for davening, also initially allowed certain compromises, as a means of ensuring that Jewish youth attended their events rather than, say, public-school dances; how the post-war explosion of Torah education led to the organization’s continued growth, both in numbers and in standards; and how today, many shuls of this Modern Orthodox organization are majority “black hat.” If the complete history of Young Israel were ever to be written, few would be more qualified to do this than Shloimie Mostofsky.

Activist Advocacy

Much of Mostofsky’s tenure as NCYI president overlapped with that of Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who served as its executive vice president. Together they worked to implement initiatives related to the shuls, as well as helping Jews in need in America and Israel.

NCYI — and Rabbi Lerner in particular — was the most active and outspoken entity advocating for the release of Jonathan Pollard from federal prison. Pollard, who plead guilty in 1987 to passing classified information to Israel, was given a life sentence, which many observers viewed as inordinately harsh. After decades of advocacy and unsuccessful pleas to presidential administrations for executive clemency, Pollard was finally granted parole in 2015, though under serious restrictions.

“To me, the Pollard case is an American tragedy,” says Mostofsky. “Being a lawyer and living in America, my sense of justice told me that when there were people who spied for China and the Soviet Union — enemies of the United States — that were out of jail in seven years, Pollard’s life sentence reflected poorly on our justice system.”

President Mostofsky and Executive Vice President Lerner also initiated the highly successful IDF Sefer Torah Campaign.

“The Sefer Torah Campaign happened like most things in Young Israel,” says Mostofsky. “Rabbi Lerner said, ‘Shloimie, I have this great idea.’ Rabbi Yedidya Atlas, chaplain in the IDF, had told him that some soldiers had traveled off their base to hear Krias HaTorah one Rosh Chodesh, and they were attacked and badly injured. The bases did not have sifrei Torah, because the IDF had a small budget for safrus.

“But there were sofrim in the army. So the plan was to get sifrei Torah, like from old shuls that had some they weren’t using. Maybe one small part of the sefer Torah was passul, but the sofer could easily fix it — much more cheaply than the cost of buying a new sefer Torah.

“I’ll never forget one of the first dedication ceremonies we had of a sefer Torah on an IDF base. It was donated by an irreligious soldier. And a general, also not religious, gets up there at the ceremony. He looked like Ariel Sharon in his good days. This guy was huge, and he gets up there, with his gun on his shoulder, and declares, ‘My gun is not the weapon — you brought the weapon here today.’”

steven mostofsky
Mostofsky (R) just after he won the endorsement of the Kings County Democratic Executive Committee for New York State Supreme Court justice last month, with District Leader David Schwartz.

More than 200 sifrei Torah were donated to IDF bases during Mostofsky’s tenure; by now, it’s more than 300.

When the second intifada broke out in Israel early in his presidency, Mostofsky and Rabbi Lerner led trips of tefillah and solidarity to the beleaguered country.

“We visited some places that had experienced terror attacks. When we went to Sanz Laniado hospital, one of the nurses told us there had been an attack on Seder night; there was hardly any staff at the hospital, but the bloodied victims were being brought in. She looked out the window and saw an army of people in ‘white coats’ coming toward the hospital: All the Chassidim got up from their Sedarim, in their kittels, and they came to the hospital to see how they could help until the doctors could arrive. We stopped somewhere on the road and this young girl behind the counter looked at us and said, ‘I didn’t think any Americans had the guts to come here.’ We heard those things a lot. It was in the middle of Eretz Yisrael and she didn’t think anyone would come here because of the intifada.

“One of the most emotional things was when we went to Kever Rochel right after they had turned it into a fort, and they wouldn’t let us in. We had to stand at the side of the doorway until the bus pulled up and opened its door right at the door of Kever Rochel, and one of the Rabbanim started singing ‘V’shavu Banim.’ It seemed such an appropriate thing to do at the time. It was amazing. There wasn’t a dry eye among anyone that was there.”

Even now, Mostofsky’s eyes tear as he relates this story.

“There are a lot of memories,” he says, “but some of them are just unbelievable.”

Classy Action

In 2012, the same year he retired as president of NCYI, Mostofsky decided to run for New York City Civil Court judge.

Judicial positions, like most other elected offices in this liberal city, are won or lost in the Democratic primary. With the endorsement and active support of then-Councilman David Greenfield, Mostofsky won by a large margin, taking 49% of the vote in a three-way race.

In Civil Court, Judge Mostofsky mostly presided over monetary cases up to $25,000. He also dealt with name changes, which makes for one of his favorite anecdotes of his years on the bench.

“A Chassidishe couple was in the courtroom. They wanted to change the English name of their baby, who was a week and a half old. They had given the English name before the bris, and obviously the English name was similar to the Hebrew name they were anticipating giving at the bris. I asked them to approach the bench for a moment and said, ‘You just had the bris; why are you changing the English name?’ The father replied, ‘The Rebbe was niftar after we had given the English name, but before the bris. So we decided to name ourson after the Rebbe instead – and now we want to change the English name to be similar to the Hebrew name.

“A week and a half later, another Chassidishe fellow comes in — for the same issue. As they left, I said jokingly, ‘Do me a favor: When you get to shul put up a sign that any people who have this kind of problem should all come in one day and I will take care of it. A ‘class action’!”

In 2017, Mostofsky was appointed acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court, and assigned to Brooklyn’s Mental Hygiene Court, ruling on cases such as when the government is forcibly medicating or hospitalizing people who have not committed a crime but are deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

Though he has no formal training in mental or physical health, Mostofsky says he learned how to do his job “from listening to the doctors, asking a lot of questions, and listening to what the patients say. And reading — I read many books on the subject, and sometimes I would ask the doctors to stay after a hearing and I’d ask them questions.”

In August 2019, Mostofsky won the Democratic nomination for New York state Supreme Court justice, which may be the most politically influenced elected position in New York.

steven mostofsky
Mostofsky writing a letter in a sefer Torah that he and his wife donated to Yeshiva Toras Emes Kaminetz in 2013, in honor of her parents.

State Supreme Court justice is the only elected office that does not have a primary election. Rather, each party’s executive committee, comprised of its district leaders — one male and one female for each Assembly District — votes on whom to grant the party’s nomination for Supreme Court justice. Again, in liberal New York City, elections are typically won the moment a candidate secures the Democratic nomination, so the Democratic district leaders hold sole power over Supreme Court positions. (Technically, the district leaders are merely voting for delegates to the judicial convention, but, similar to the Electoral College for presidential elections, there is virtually no chance of the delegates not voting as the district leaders did.)

Mostofsky’s candidacy for Supreme Court justice was supported by many in the community, most importantly David Schwartz, Democratic district leader of the 48th Assembly district, which covers Boro Park and portions of Midwood. Schwartz was able to secure enough votes from his colleagues to ensure a victory for Mostofsky, who also received the nominations of the Republican and other parties, and will run unopposed in November.

But the most relentless advocate of Judge Mostofsky is his wife, Aviva.

“Somebody called her an ‘act of nature,’” says her appreciative husband. “When I got the nomination I said, ‘That sigh of relief I hear from everyone is that they won’t get any more calls from my wife!’ It is very hard for me to push myself on people; I’m not that kind of person, but really she pushed me to go out and get this done.”

An electoral victory in a Supreme Court election means a 14-year term, though there is a mandatory retirement at age 70. Mostofsky is considering remaining on the Mental Hygiene Court for another year, before moving on to civil cases.

“People look at me strangely when I say this, but the Mental Hygiene Court is probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. The whole science behind it is fascinating. And you can talk to the patients and hopefully help them.”

***

In November 2019, when Steven Mostofsky will almost certainly be elected Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn, it will be the culmination of many things.

Of a legal career.

Of decades of dedication to public service.

Of the goals of a lifelong Brooklynite who loves its communities.

And fulfillment of a prediction made by a 17-year-old — even if he doesn’t remember it.

rborchardt@hamodia.com