Four Torah-observant elected officials whose districts overlap come together for the first time in an exclusive interview on the issues facing New York’s Jewish communities. (Read Part I here)
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch
State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein
State Senator Simcha Felder
City Councilman Kalman Yeger
The state’s elimination of religious exemptions for vaccines: It’s really a state issue, but we want to hear from the councilmen as well, your thoughts on that, and your thoughts about your role in dealing with religious liberties in general.
Yeger: I know that there’s a lot of debate back and forth, so I’ll say my point of view. Part of it comes from my own personal philosophy, but also a good chunk of it comes from my conversations with daas Torah as this debate rages.
First of all, people may agree or disagree, but there is no religious exemption in my view for a Jewish person to say, “I’m not going to get a vaccine.” It doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to not get vaccinated if they make that personal choice, but it’s not based on halachah. It’s based on a personal feeling. If you want to weigh the risks and not vaccinate, that’s fine. Nobody is going to force anybody to vaccinate. But you don’t get a right to have a seat in a yeshivah, because you can’t risk the lives of the children who can’t receive the vaccination because of their own personal health issues.
We have the concept of herd vaccination which keeps those children safe, because the majority is vaccinated. So those who aren’t are not endangering anybody. But when you get to the situation where you have too many who are not vaccinated and then say, “I’m going to have measles parties, we’re going to get measles,” and then it turns into what we see now over the last couple of months — not only is it a health hazard, but it’s a tremendous chillul Hashem. And it’s causing the community extreme distress, in my view, in the public domain, to our detriment as a community, to our detriment as legislators who go to chambers and have to encounter colleagues who ask, “What’s going on in your neighborhood with the measles?” And we have to explain that we have anti-vaxxers just like every other community.
The obligation on us is to make sure that those who interact with us comprehend that there isn’t a halachic religious reason why somebody shouldn’t vaccinate. However, there is an important point of view to be made about what happened in Albany. When the legislature gets to the point where they are making the determination of what constitutes religious freedom and what doesn’t, it’s a slippery slope that I’m very concerned with. And it gets to the point where I think that there are other issues, like shechitah, bris milah and kapparos, where we rely on the protection of the First Amendment.
It’s dangerous when the government gets involved. And it’s also a violation of the promise of America.
Deutsch: It’s extremely dangerous when the city or the state infringes on our religion. And like when they had the talk about bris milah, the speaker of the City Council was the chair of the Health Committee at that time. I spoke to the speaker at the time, together with Agudas Yisrael, and I was able to work with the speaker and Agudah, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, to make sure that we made the issue go away for that time.
So I do commend the speaker for standing up and making sure that we were able to [overcome the] hurdle of when people came to testify against bris milah in the City Council at his Health Committee.
On another note, the city talks about the fur ban. So the first thing is that everyone is brought up in a different way, and when our City Council wants to come up with a fur ban, the first thing I did was to speak to the speaker about having a religious exemption. But even after he committed to me that he’s going to give it a religious exemption, I said I’m still not happy.
I stood up at a press conference with an African-American church against the fur ban, because many African-Americans wear fur. The Greeks are very big into fur. The frum community, the Chassidic community, they wear shtreimels. So even if we do have that religious exemption for fur, people are still going to look down on the people wearing fur, and it’s going to cause racism. Whether it’s against the Jewish community, against the African-American community, the Greek community, anyone else that wears fur, even though we could still buy fur from out of New York City, and let’s say if we do have an exemption, people will look down at the Jewish community: If it’s banned, why are you still wearing it?
So I was opposed to it and I was able to stop it for the time being, that the city should not move forward with the fur ban. So for now it’s been quiet.
Felder: Regarding the question about the vaccinations, I can echo some of what my colleagues just said. We live in the most wonderful country in the world. And part of being in this wonderful country has to do with religious liberty, that we don’t want, in any way, to touch or compromise. I strongly believe that people should get vaccinated, but I’m an equally strong proponent of protecting our religious liberty in the state as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
And that’s what this is all about, and that’s why my colleagues and I, when it came to issues of metzitzah b’peh, were so adamant in fighting to make sure that government should not be involved in any way in religious issues. Because, as Councilman Yeger said, it’s a slippery slope once [the government] starts infringing in any way.
And just to mention one other thing. The hate crimes that are skyrocketing against Jews, Muslims, Christian churches, this indicator of a growing anti-religious sentiment makes me even more wary of tampering with religious freedoms. That’s why it’s something that should not be compromised in any way.
Eichenstein: This one wasn’t an easy one. Sen. Felder and I have spent a lot of hours on this one, and we were certainly in close contact with daas Torah up until the very last day of the vote. And I explained it in my speech on the floor. I, too, am pro-vaccination. All my kids are vaccinated. But what people have to understand is that the entire health code is filled with religious exemptions. Right now the legislature is negotiating an assisted suicide bill, and it might be up for next year. They’ll certainly try to push it next year. The only protection we have is a religious exemption, which needs to be in that piece of legislation. And the second we start playing with religious exemptions, it’s just a dangerous precedent.
And that trumped everything. I believe it’s the first time that this legislature passed a bill that’s solely focused on whether one’s religious beliefs apply or not. This wasn’t a larger package that indirectly included religious exemption or did not; this solely focused on whether one’s religious beliefs apply, and that’s just a very, very dangerous precedent.
Regarding bris milah, I worked in the mayor’s office when the mayor deregulated the consent form as it relates to bris milah, and we went through that whole process, and we obviously reached an agreement with the community and Agudas Yisrael and others that were involved. The only leg we stand on is our religious freedoms. And that’s just not something that we can compromise on.
And I just want to add one thing: The anti-vaxxers have really done a disservice to the broader community by hiding behind this religious exemption and using it as a tool, because that has really opened this whole can of worms. They didn’t not vaccinate because of a religious belief. I’ve yet to meet a person that told me, “I want to vaccinate my child but my religion doesn’t allow me to.” They’re anti-vaxxers, they found this religious exemption, they hid behind it, they used it and abused it, publicly, in the secular press, and now you had legislators that felt they needed to respond to that.
By the way, they have a constitutional right not to vaccinate their child. But you can’t send the child to school. In fact, in Rockland County, that executive order that you can’t be in public places — the court shut that down. They felt that went too far. But you can’t send your child to school.
Certainly, the anti-vaxxers are very loud, but I don’t think there are too many of them. Whether it’s one percent or two percent, they have really done a disservice to this community. Because if there are implications, a domino effect from this as a result of abusing a religious exemption, I hope I’m wrong, and I hope this is the last time that we have dealt with such a bill. But it is a dangerous, potential can of worms that we’re opening up.
Councilman Yeger, in March amid the national discussion over Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel, you tweeted “Palestine does not exist,” for which you were eventually removed from the City Council Immigration Committee. Can you take us through those few days and also discuss whether, in retrospect, you would have done anything differently?
Yeger: It was the week of the AIPAC conference. [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu had spoken and Congresswoman Omar decided that she was going to make his speech about her. To which I responded something along the lines of, I didn’t even mention her by name, you’re an anti-Semite, something like that. I’m not assuming that she’s sitting at Twitter and looking at what I say, but I said it. That’s what Twitter is about: The moment inspires you, you say something, it is what it is.
And then some person retweeted what I said and said, Councilman says that Ilhan Omar is an anti-Semite, this is the same councilman who, in the past, said Palestine doesn’t exist.
Twitter is Twitter, so I replied to this person, yes, Palestine does not exist; also, Congresswoman Omar is an anti-Semite. I believe both of those things to be true. Thank you very much for following me.
That last tweet got 1.8 million views on Twitter to date.
How many new followers?
Yeger: 4,000 new followers in a 24-hour period.
That’s worth losing one committee over, right?
Yeger: Losing a committee?! I joked with the speaker — in the very brief period of time that we were still talking — that I’m happy to return this gift that I never asked for, and what window do I go to to give it back? I never asked to be on the Immigration Committee. The Immigration Committee (in my time in the Council, at that point it was 15 months) had passed zero bills. Had 15 hearings totaling, whatever, 40 hours’ worth of hearings.
I had a perfect attendance record. I’m very diligent. I believe that the people pay me to work in the community, but the people also pay me to do my job down at City Hall. So I have a perfect attendance record. I went to all the committees, listened to Carlos Menchaca, who is well known to the Hamodia readership for his views on the issues of the day. And when it came time for them to react to the statement, “Palestine does not exist,” they determined that based on those views, I couldn’t be on the Immigration Committee. OK. You don’t lose pay over it, you don’t lose the right to introduce legislation. You don’t lose anything. I didn’t lose my seat in the Council. The community is better served by my not having to spend a couple of hours a month at a committee that literally does nothing.
But several weeks later, that same councilman made comments about the mayor, who to his credit is very strong on law and order in this regard, added a number of crimes to the list of crimes that the city will cooperate with ICE on in detaining and remitting people who are held at New York City jails. And Menchaca went nuts about it. He said, this is a terrible thing. How are you going to cooperate with ICE on getting these criminals out of New York City?
So a reporter called me up and said, “Do you think he should remain as chairman of the Immigration Committee?” And I said, “I don’t care if he’s chairman of the Immigration Committee, but he surely shouldn’t sit on the Public Safety Committee!” And he shouldn’t. And that, of course, got no attention. Why did that not get attention? Well, you know, the guy with the yarmulke from Flatbush says Palestine doesn’t exist, and those in the City Council who needed to make an issue about it — and I include the speaker in this — felt the need to cater to a particular community, to the detriment of our own community, at the expense of our own community, because of fundamental value systems that are misplaced.
And that’s unfortunate for them. It’s also unfortunate for the city as a whole, because some of those people intend to run for higher office. And we as a community, basically the community here in Brooklyn, the Jewish community as a whole — Orthodox, modern Orthodox, not frum at all, it doesn’t make a difference — what we’re seeing is that there’s a balancing act that people who are running for higher office are willing to throw us over the boat, based on the notion and the desire to cater to communities.
The ramifications to the community are none. The ramifications to me are none. Perhaps some people know my name a little more than they used to. That I don’t like.
Deutsch: You have more followers!
Yeger: I have more followers. It is what it is. More people to see what I say on Twitter! But the most important thing was that there was incredible achdus in the community as a reaction to that. My colleagues in public office, former officeholders, community leaders, stood up together. They were outraged by the response. I think the speaker made a fundamental mistake. I think he misjudged who we are as a community.
And I think he also misjudged our right to be a part of New York City in the way that we deserve and we ought to be.
Councilman Deutsch, you’ve made an effort to speak against anti-Semitic incidents in New York. Many of these are not actual assaults, but like the scrawling of swastikas, often by children in playgrounds. Some people think it’s not so wise to always publicize it, that this is just what these perpetrators are looking for; maybe in certain cases it’s better to quietly wash them away. Do you think it’s important to speak up about every single incident? Or sometimes is it smarter to publicly ignore it?
Deutsch: In years past, I agree that when you have a few incidents of hate crimes which are not assaults, you don’t want to have any copycats out there. But considering now what’s going on across the country, what happened in Pittsburgh, what happened in Poway, what happened in different parts of the city where there were a number of assaults, [it becomes clear that this is a time when] we need to protect our yeshivos, when we need to protect our shuls.
Unfortunately, with this administration, you have to feed them, and you have to legislate in order for them to do something. For example, the hate crimes prevention bill, to do Holocaust education. After my bill was passed and the mayor announced it, I spoke to the mayor and I said, why couldn’t your administration be proactive when you see there’s a rise in anti-Semitism, and a rise in hate crimes across the city? That you come out and you say, listen, we need to do this. We need to do Holocaust education in schools. Why do you need for it to be legislated?
So considering everything that’s going on, we need to expose the incidents that are happening, because we do have an increase of hate crimes in the city. At this time of the year, as compared to last year, we have a 58 percent increase of anti-Semitic hate crimes, and 55 percent of hate crimes overall.
So if we ignore every incident and we just make believe it’s not happening, this administration is going to say, we don’t need yeshivah security, we don’t need shul security, we don’t need anything.
Aside from the bill that I co-sponsored with Kalman about having armed guards, I wrote a separate letter to the mayor, with Kalman, to ask the mayor to put the funding in the budget to implement something. Tell us what you want. What do you want to see? What’s your vision of protecting our religious faith leaders here in the City of New York, without us legislating it?
So there were two separate things. Aside from the legislation, we have a letter that went to the mayor that was signed on by a supermajority of members of the City Council. And every letter that I write to the administration, I always get a supermajority. Whether people support me on my issues or oppose my issues, they always sign onto my letters because I’m a nudge. I’m like the biggest nudge in the City Council.
So at the end of the day, we need to expose it. And just last week there were three incidents. Two incidents where there was graffiti scrawled on a school in my district, PS 225. It said, “Kill Arabs.” And there was a third scrawling on a bus shelter that said, “Kill Arabs,” as well, all happening within 24 to 48 hours. I took the lead on it, and during the time when this first incident happened, until the person was arrested, not one person from the Muslim community sent out anything on social media to condemn this act. They felt that they could trust me, not only in sticking up for anti-Semitic incidents, but sticking up for them when it comes to anti-Muslim incidents here in New York City.
And the person was arrested because I put something on social media. I received the tip at six o’clock in the morning that someone recognized the person. I called CrimeStoppers at seven o’clock, right after I finished speaking to the person. He was identified through the person that reached out to me through social media. So I was on top of it.
So it’s very important that we continue to speak out, but it’s not just about speaking out. It’s about getting the job done. So that’s why I have funded close to $2 million in the budget for NYPD cameras. The cameras will be implemented in and around houses of worship, around our parks and playgrounds, and in addition, around public and private schools. So it’s already in the budget.
In addition to that, I put in another $750,000 with my colleague Kalman Yeger, and that is to replace about 200 cameras that you have throughout Boro Park and Flatbush, to make them compatible with the NYPD cameras. So this way it’s being recorded 24/7 and it’s more high-tech.
In addition to that, I also had a meeting with the Chief of Department, the Chief of Patrol, regarding giving an extra layer of protection to the shuls. So we are encouraging shuls that, if they have the funding, right now what they should do is, number one, hire what’s called paid detail. So you go through the NYPD. You get a regular uniformed officer to stand in front of your shul. And people could hire other means of security to have in front of the shuls.
But I’m also coming up now with a new program. It just began this week. We are expanding the auxiliary volunteer program in the city. We currently have 4,000 volunteer auxiliaries who are uniformed and carry a police radio. When you have an emergency in the shul and you call 911, you have to go find a phone and sit with the operator on the phone; it takes up a lot of time. But if someone stationed outside the shul has an NYPD radio and they are authorized to use the radio, you’ll get a response within two minutes.
So we just implemented it this week, and we’re going to have a pilot program in Brooklyn South, where we are currently recruiting volunteers who are going to be joining the auxiliary program, wearing uniforms and carrying an NYPD radio. So we’re going to start covering shuls. We can’t do everything right away, but some of the shuls will start getting uniformed coverage with people who have access to NYPD radios.
Eichenstein: We also passed a bill in Albany within the last couple of weeks that is a hate crimes response and recognition training. It’s state police, but it also includes all the local law enforcement. So all the local police departments throughout the state will have to have this hate crimes response with the initial training. It was not signed by the governor yet, but it did pass both houses.
The New York City after-school vouchers program, specifically the ones with two working parents, is a lifeline to many in the community. There’s a very long waiting list for families to get this program. As mentioned earlier, there’s also an issue with certain types of vouchers that people can’t get because of the increase in the minimum wage. What message do the councilmen have to these families, both those on it and those waiting to get on it?
Deutsch: We actually just put in the numbers — $16 million — we just took care of that in the budget. We’re working with United Jewish Organizations, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman. We had a meeting. I was there with Kalman; Stephen Levin represents that district. He was on the phone conference. We met with representatives from Williamsburg and were able to settle that and make sure it’s in the budget.
Is there any chance of getting more families on?
Eichenstein: What’s happening is, the CTL vouchers, the city vouchers, they’re losing it to the mandated vouchers. Priority 5 is after all the mandated slots. What’s happening is, every two or three years, you’ll see those numbers grow because they’re losing these slots to the mandated: people who are on public assistance who have to receive vouchers. So by adding $16 million you’re bringing the number back up to where they were, the amount of seats, on vouchers.
Yeger: My answer is going to be the same. This was a long conversation with City Hall. Chaim was instrumental in bringing the mayor’s people. The mayor sent his top folks to sit at a table, to have this conversation, with Rabbi Niederman, Chaim, myself and Stephen participating. This conversation has been happening for a long time.
The mayor recognized that the numbers were dropping. The mayor has this unique relationship with the community, particularly because he represented a piece of Boro Park for so long as a council member. So I think he gets the neighborhood in a way that I think possibly his predecessors didn’t.
The numbers of available vouchers to families who need them was consistently dropping. It was going from a drop here and a drop there to the point where the numbers were just so low. We were losing them to attrition and we weren’t gaining them back on the other side. That’s the battle that Chaim was leading. And the administration agreed to do it.
Sen. Felder, you actually mentioned this earlier, that you’re not giving up on getting tax credits. Do you still see any possibility of getting some help for yeshivos?
Felder: I’m a realist. I don’t think we ever give up. But if I didn’t think there was any possibility, that would be foolish. I think that there continues to be a possibility of getting help for yeshivah parents. How that happens is something that we have to work on. And I say again that it’s important, and it’s worked in the past: Be creative and find ways to be able to get help for parents, even if it’s not exactly a voucher, or exactly a tax credit.
You talk to the average person in the neighborhood, and the first thing they’ll say is, what if all the yeshivah parents took their kids and registered them in public school? It costs $27,000 to educate a public-school child! And it’s a great argument; it’s just that they know we’re not going to do it.
I think that the opportunities to get help for yeshivah parents continue to exist, working together with Assemblymember Eichenstein and other elected officials in the state that are concerned about all children, including non-public school children.
Eichenstein: Most of the vouchers that our community benefits from actually come from the state. It’s CCDBG: child care development block grant money. The city portion of the vouchers is approximately 4,000 to 5,000 vouchers, but our community has over 50,000 in total, but I believe it’s over 12,000 community benefits from that are CCDBG vouchers.
I started working with Sen. Felder on this when I still worked for the mayor and he was in the Senate, and OCFS actually cut the voucher rate by 25 percent. And we have gotten OCFS to agree to restore half of the amount that they cut, and I believe, as of this June, schools are already seeing the difference in reimbursement rates.
So that actually just came through, that the rate has been restored to half of the old rate. But certainly, that’s something that we could do at the state level and push for more. And as you mentioned, there is a very long waiting list, and we need to fight for additional voucher slots.
Thank you for coming to Hamodia. We appreciate your time and concern for our community.