In One Voice: Part I

(Yitzy Engel)

Four Torah-observant elected officials whose districts overlap come together for the first time in an exclusive interview.

City Councilman Chaim Deutsch

State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein

State Senator Simcha Felder

City Councilman Kalman Yeger

What are your thoughts on the most recent legislative session and your priorities for the next session?

Sen. Felder: The most important thing for an elected official, and I believe I’m speaking for my colleagues here as well, is helping people in their day-to-day lives. That’s the legislation that’s most important. And during this past session in Albany there were a few bills that I think address some of those things.

There’s a robocall bill that got passed in Albany. The average person comes home at the end of the day, or a mother who is there all day with her family and children, and gets driven nuts by calls for all sorts of things in the evening. This [bill] limits and prohibits robocalls and spoofing, and requires telephone services to give people the technology to stop getting robocalls. I think [this bill] is something to improve their day-to-day lives.

Another issue that’s important to the community, especially during this time of year, is driver’s license suspension reform, which we’ve been talking about together with our city colleagues as well. We get these emergency calls of somebody being pulled over for something, and then they find out that they [have unpaid] tickets, regular summonses. They get locked up, spend a night or two in jail for non-payment of tickets. This bill [when signed] would end that.

The EpiPen bill also helps people. Right now, a lot of people have someone [close] who has an allergy and they get stuck paying a lot of money for EpiPens. This bill makes it affordable by pharmacies being able to use generic EpiPens.

And then finally, something specific for people who suffer from Crohn’s and colitis: an ID card which addresses the difficulty people encounter when they’re trying to get the use of a bathroom [in stores]. This would compel store owners [to allow people with the ID card use of the bathroom].

What are your hopes and priorities for the next session?

Despite the fact that an education tax credit is something that’s almost impossible, we never, ever give up. There’s no such thing. That’s not in our DNA. It’s something that we have to continue to fight for, and find some way for parents to get relief. We’ve been creative other times, with the transportation bill — it didn’t help people with tuition, but it certainly helped parents get free door-to-door service.

Assemblyman Eichenstein: I agree with Sen. Felder that at the end of the day, it all comes down to the quality-of-life issues. I’ll focus for now on a couple of summer-related items that I worked on.

The Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes Grant Program is something that I know Sen. Felder and others have worked on way before I got to the assembly. But it was limited to non-public schools, daycare centers and cultural museums, and for the first time, baruch Hashem, in my first year in the assembly, I was able to get summer sleep-away camps in the Catskills to qualify for this grant funding.

That was personally a big win, something that I worked on for months. I got over 25 of my colleagues to sign on to my letter to the Speaker asking him to add this.

Another summer-related item: I was able to [help] pass a bill in the last two weeks of session — it’s a bill that I authored regarding the Summer Youth Employment Program, what’s known in our community as Youth Corp — which is something that thousands of people in our community benefit from. In many low-income families, parents were discouraging their children from enrolling in the Summer Youth Employment Program because now after the minimum-wage increase, the income of a bit under $2,200 in the summer months put the family household, the annual income, over the threshold, and they could potentially lose their public assistance. So we passed a bill — it passed both houses, and is awaiting the governor’s signature — to exempt the income from the Summer Youth Employment Program from annual household income as it relates to public assistance. I really believe that will help thousands of families for years to come, im yirtzeh Hashem.

And by the way, on the Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes Grant Program, I would add that, just in the last week, an additional $20 million was added to that grant program. We all worked on this collectively.

As for next year, there’s obviously a lot that needs to be done. Sen. Felder mentioned tuition tax credits and other stuff. On the point that I just made, if I could just piggyback off of that, there’s a benefits-cliff issue that is a result of the minimum-wage increase. We’ve raised the minimum wage, but we haven’t adjusted all the social-services programs to the minimum wage.

We passed a bill that will create a task force to look at this issue, which is a great first step, but it’s certainly something that we need to address. In fact, we see now, within our community, many people that are on the mandated vouchers, the welfare vouchers, HRA vouchers, not the ACS vouchers, are now going to lose their childcare because they are required to work a certain amount of hours. Yet the minimum wage puts you over the threshold for the childcare.

Councilman Yeger: I take a slightly more nuanced view.

My record with our speaker is part of the public record; I’m not going to be passing legislation with this council. I use my right to introduce legislation to shine lights on issues that I think need it.

For example, Chaim and I have been partnering for the last two months on a house of worship security bill, and we’ve got up to 10 co-sponsors. I am very confident it is not going to pass this council as long as this speaker is [in power]. But the point is to continue having a conversation about the need for our houses of worship to be protected. And the right that we have, and every religious community has, in mosques, churches and shuls, to be protected and to feel safe when congregants go in, that they don’t have to worry about what’s coming behind them. My bill would require the city to reimburse houses of worship that wish to have either an armed or unarmed security guard, [as they choose].

Last year I introduced a bill to deal with one of my pet peeves, which is illegal curb cuts. I know it’s not going to pass the council; it doesn’t mean it’s not a smart idea, it just means the speaker hates my guts. But I think it’s important to continue talking about the issues that affect the people that we represent.

The place where I come from in public service is, I started as a teenager working for a council member, dealing with constituent services. That is, I think, what communities elect people to do. Which is what seems to be, broadly speaking, the mundanity of life, [but] to the individual who calls your office and says, I just got a water bill for $11,000 that just doesn’t make sense, that’s their crisis. And that’s what I think is the most important reason that I’m there. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling, getting a city agency to say, “You’re right. We were wrong. Your constituent is right. And we’re going to fix it and this is how we’re going to do it.”

And I’m not singled out here. We refer cases to each other. We take cases from each other. There are some things that Simcha Felder is a specialist in; we’ll send the case there, because it’s a state agency.

I didn’t invent this concept. The history of elected officials representing this part of Brooklyn has been that we’re there, we’re in the neighborhood. We know the neighborhoods. We’re lifelong residents. We love the neighborhoods we serve. And our job is to make people’s lives easier.

That isn’t affected in any way by your relationship with the speaker?

No, because the agencies work for the mayor. And the mayor is good to our community. I know that many people in the community don’t agree with the mayor on his broad political philosophy. But on day-to-day relationships with the city services that affect our community, and with the principles of how this administration relates to our community, the mayor is good to our community.

I could go into specifics, but just in terms of the way his agencies react, sometimes you need to put your shoulder to the door and start pushing. Agencies don’t work well; it is government. But when you get the attention of City Hall, and you point out a ridiculous situation, you get somebody on the phone who says, “Yeah, that’s just not right,” and the mayor’s office will get involved. And I think that’s really an extension of what we do. As an elected official, the mayor has a staff that’s there to help people live better in New York City.

Councilman Deutsch: There are a number of issues I have seen over the last five and a half years. First, I just want to say that my office is the busiest in the city of New York. I make it very easy for people to get hold of my office. When you call my office, that phone will get picked up after no more than two rings. As elected officials we need to make sure people get hold of the office, and they get attention right away. We need to do everything possible to make people feel comfortable to pick up the phone.

It’s extremely important to help people navigate city resources. For example, people are paying very high property-tax rates. So I had a property tax forum, and I found that there were about 30-50 people who were eligible for a property tax deduction of between $3,500 and $6,500. They didn’t understand that they were eligible for this reduction because the tax bill doesn’t list the exemptions, like if you’re clergy, a veteran, a senior, etc.

So I put in the bill in the City Council that any time they send out a notice of the property tax, they should give you all the eligibilities for deductions. That bill is soon going to be introduced.

A second thing is security. Security for our shuls and yeshivos is extremely important, as are the religious obligations of people. We have people here in New York City who come from 150 different countries. We have people representing different cultures. And when [someone] runs for office, the first thing they speak about is the diversity of their district.

When you talk about and use that diversity for your platform, for your personal gain, we need to make sure the city respects that diversity and considers our religious obligations. And this is extremely important for me, and I could get into a host of issues that I have done already and that I will continue to do to make sure that New York City recognizes that you have a very large Jewish constituency here, and when there are religious obligations that affect them, you need to take care of them. Because otherwise we’re going to open our mouth.

On July 3 — a few days from now, but before readers will read this interview — the New York State Education Department is going to publish rules for education in private schools. This question is also relevant for city officials, because the city has in the past been under pressure from certain elements trying to push regulation of yeshivos. The rules will be made by the State Education Department, but what, if anything, do you see as your role in this issue?

(Yitzy Engel)

Assemblyman Eichenstein: This is, by far, the greatest challenge that we face as a community. And the SED is going to be issuing these proposed guidelines, and it will be followed by an open comment period for 60 days. There’s obviously a lot that is being done right now. This is something that we’re working hand-in-hand with the yeshivah community, Agudath Israel, the yeshivah lawyers. We’re fighting it tooth and nail.

We hope that SED is actually interested in engaging, and not just going through the motions.

I have personally met with the commissioner. I engage with many people involved on the SED side, on the Regents side.

Here’s the bottom line: If they are interested in finding common ground, if they are interested in taking a step back and understanding what a yeshivah day looks like, acknowledging the rigorous education that is taught at a yeshivah, we could argue about how much the religious portion of the day should count for as it relates to secular studies.

Even the Talmudic portion of the day, it is a rigorous education. And the city actually acknowledged that in the report that they released last year.

My colleagues ask me, how did you learn to debate? And the answer is, from studying the Talmud. There are mathematic and scientific components to it. And we do have a rigorous English education as well.

By far, this is the issue that I spend the most time on, and I probably lose the most sleep over. But I’m hopeful that we could certainly find middle ground with the SED. And I call on the commissioner and others involved, the Regents: Come to the table and engage with the stakeholders.

And first have a better understanding of what a day at a yeshivah looks like before coming down with a hammer on all of us. Which hopefully will not happen. Or, we will not allow that to happen.

Senator Felder: I have, and continue, to spend a lot of time and energy on this issue. But as a result of my consultations with my daas Torah, I’ve been told that it’s counterproductive for me to discuss these issues. So with the deepest respect to my colleagues, I’m going to follow the advice that I’ve been given and [not discuss it].

Councilman Deutsch: I follow the daas Torah when it comes to this, and I had meetings with Rabbanim regarding how we should handle this in the City Council. And I was able to give my recommendations, and then they would take my recommendations and what their thoughts were, and come up with a solution.

When this all occurred in the state, I put together a letter to the New York state Department of Education signed by a supermajority of my colleagues, which was quite instrumental in quieting it down until further action was taken. I was working with Avi Schick, and with Rabbi Reisman and other Rabbanim, just for me to give them my ideas, and then they come up with their thoughts and basically tell me what they need from me.

I will continue to work with all my colleagues in the city and state to make sure that we do whatever is right and whatever is best for our community, and to listen to daas Torah when it comes to these issues. And hopefully, we’ll be able to make everyone happy.

Councilman Yeger: When I was running, this question was beginning to percolate, around two years ago. I have always believed that the state has zero role in formulating a curriculum in yeshivos. Zero. There are different kinds of yeshivos. There are some yeshivos that have a robust secular program of four hours a day. There are some that have one hour a day.

At the end of the day, it’s about customer choice. The customers are the parents. The parents make a decision. If a parent wants more secular education, there’s an entire great menu of yeshivos to choose from. If a parent wants less, there’s an entire great menu of yeshivos to choose from. There is nobody with a gun to any parents’ heads saying, “This is the yeshivah you must send your child to.” If I go to a pizza shop and I don’t like their pizza, then I go to a different pizza shop.

So the notion that somehow the state needs to bigfoot our community and tell us that this yeshivah is no good, that yeshivah is no good, this is what you have to do, that’s what you have to do — we don’t need that kind of regulation.

The commissioner shouldn’t be doing this. She should back away. She should go back to her job of simply being the Commissioner of Education.

And I want to point something else out, because it’s incredibly ironic: We’re having this debate about measles, and at the same time that the City of New York is telling certain yeshivos that they can’t let kids in who are not vaccinated, the state Commissioner of Education, this expert, with great expertise in making sure that all the children in New York are being dealt with in an appropriate and safe and wonderful manner on a day-to-day basis — and I hope you note the sarcasm — decided that she’s going to sue yeshivos and force them to take in unvaccinated children. [Editor’s note: Prior to the state’s rescinding of the religious exemption for vaccines, the Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst had chosen to ban unvaccinated students, but the Education department had sought to force the school to accept these students’ religious exemptions].

She has no idea what she’s doing. She’s bad at her job. She doesn’t belong there. She ignores facts. She ignores not just decades of history here in New York, not just our own history in the state, but we’re talking about centuries of educating children in the way that is in accordance with our own mesorah, with our own daas Torah giving us the direction, with a connection that goes back generations, to Har Sinai. With a connection that is about who we are as a community.

Every yeshivah has its own unique, particularized mesorah about what they do and how they get there and how they do it. The parents who choose to walk their children through those doors are doing it of their own free will.

The requirements aren’t really on the schools. The schools are going to be allowed to stay open in any case, but if a parent sends a kid to a school that doesn’t meet the requirements, then the kid is considered truant.

I would love to see this commissioner come down here to my neighborhood and bring her truant cops and start arresting people. I want to see that happen. I dare her.

Look at the graduation rates of the New York City public schools high school system. In our yeshivos, you get four years of high school. It’s pretty simple math. You go to some of these public schools, you see kids who are there for five, six, seven years. What’s going on in the public-school system? That’s where she ought to be focusing her attention.

We are predominantly self-funded. Yes, we ask for government assistance. Yes, we demand government assistance for the parts that the government mandates us to do. But while we’re talking about measles and we’re talking about yeshivah education, the state legislature was having a fight this year about — a tiny pittance of money that was going to yeshivos and non-public schools to help them keep the records required to be maintained for the vaccination programs. These are the fights we’re having.

We could talk about this and frame it as a battle about yeshivah education because somebody decided that our kids are not doing well enough. What it is, is an attack on yeshivos. It’s a fundamental, complete attack that is orchestrated, that is deliberate, that’s being done by a very small group of people, but they have lassoed in, in a very bad way, other elected officials who don’t represent us.

There was a press conference by this group whose name ought not grace the papers of Hamodia. I guess it was some time last year, and there was a picture on the steps of City Hall of the elected officials. And I was fascinated by it, because the only City Councilmember that I recall being there was one of the two remaining Council members who had voted no on David Greenfield’s bill providing school safety to non-public schools.

I found it fascinating that this particular Councilmember was so bothered by the educational standards in our yeshivos; but whether or not one of our buildings blows up he doesn’t care. And if you can’t find that hypocritical and you can’t see what it’s really all about… it’s an attack on yeshivos by people who hate yeshivos. They hate yeshivos, and you can take out the word “yeshivos” and replace it with “Orthodox Jews” and that’s what it’s about.

Assemblyman Eichenstein, you just finished your first term as an elected official. What are some of the difficulties you faced as a freshman legislator?

I would say the biggest difficulty that I faced is, there are many legislators out there that, while they may have very strong opinions about some of our issues as it relates to our community, whether it be our school system or whatever it may be, they really don’t understand our way of life, our community. They’ve never been to our community. There are many elected officials, for example, on the issue of yeshivos, that have such strong opinions about our yeshivah system, yet have never set foot in a yeshivah.

I don’t think it’s intentional. I think we need to engage with each and every one of them, one-on-one. Bring them into our community, showcase our community. We have such a beautiful community, the amount of chessed organizations that we have in our community. I’ve spoken to a Member that has a personal family situation as it relates to kidneys. And I mentioned a kidney donation organization, and he was just like, wow, really? Whether it be our Hatzalah, Bikur Cholim — the list goes on and on. We have a beautiful community.

Engaging with Members, explaining our way of life, [saying,] I understand this is what you’re reading in the paper, this is the image that’s being portrayed by, unfortunately, in some cases, people from our own community, who grew up here, who are on a smear campaign of our community — bringing them to our yeshivah system, to our schools, to our community [is the way to work things out].

They bought into that notion, and I really believe this is something that we’re going to have to work on. We have to show them.

I can tell you one thing: Elected officials who have visited the yeshivos are blown away.

Sen. Felder, for a time last year you were the most powerful man in New York State. Since the Democrats have taken clear control of the Senate, you have sort of become a pariah in your own party. Can you discuss what the last year has been like for you, if you would have done anything differently, and how you feel about your treatment by your own party?

No.

Councilman Yeger: I don’t agree with your premise. First of all, I was at the Democratic convention last year, the state convention. And some radical whatevers from my party — I’m a Democrat — brought up a motion to condemn Simcha. Our county leader, Frank Seddio, got up and ranted and raved about it and said it was an outrage.

So the notion that Simcha is not recognized as part of the Democratic Party, it’s not true. Simcha is a Democrat. He’s been very clear about what his view is. I mean, I have maybe a personal view on it because I worked on his campaign when he ran for Senate, and I’m proud of my work on it. But Simcha has always said, being a Democrat is not a religion. Being a Democrat is the party that I’m in. The religion is doing service for the community. And how you get that done is how you get that done. That some people in the Democratic party have a problem with the service of any one of us at this table — I’m sure there are people in the Democratic party that have a problem with me. I know that they do! And I’m sure there are people in the Democratic party who have a problem with some of us at this table. And that’s fine.

But the Democrats that Simcha Felder has to worry about are the ones in our community. The ones he serves. We returned him to office. We gave him a Democratic primary victory. Those are the Democrats.

Assemblyman Eichenstein: I see Simcha with his colleagues in Albany every single day. I take issue with the premise of your question. This is a fact. Simcha Felder is one of the most respected people in Albany.

I understand politics is politics, but his colleagues like him, and I may add, from both sides of the aisle. I see him in the hallway. I see him joke around, Democrats, Republicans. There are many members that run to Simcha to seek his advice, including myself.

So I just don’t think it’s accurate. I think he’s beloved by many of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Felder, do you feel your primary role has changed because of the fact that the Democrats took over the Senate?

No. The goals that we’ve all talked about, of helping people in their day-to-day lives, doesn’t change. The only thing that changes somewhat is your ability to do legislation, which was the first question that you asked and I tried to answer. But the main lifeblood and the main responsibility that we have is what some of my colleagues have been talking about, which is to help people in their day-to-day lives.

Many years ago there was an assembly member, Dan Feldman, who was well known. He passed hundreds of bills. He ran for district attorney against Charles Hynes, and Hynes won that race. Because people weren’t really interested in how many bills you did. They were interested in finding out how you’re going to make their lives easier: Can you help me with my tuition? Can you help me get transportation? Can you help me with my day-to-day problems with a tree that’s lifting up my sidewalk, or cement that’s going to be busted up, or security? Or losing your financial [benefits] on the Summer Youth Program? That’s what people care about.

And that’s what our offices spend all our time [on]. And I think that the fact that we’re sitting here, four members whose districts overlap each other, this itself, I think is a kiddush Hashem. I am so proud and so happy to be able to be in a position where I’m working together with colleagues who are committed to helping people day-to-day with their problems.

So the political landscape, yeah, it changes all the time. One day you’re up, one day you’re down. But that’s not what counts. What counts is the fact that we’re sitting here, the four of us, and I can’t tell you what a nachas it is to be able to work together with these colleagues in government to help people with their issues on a day-to-day basis.

[Editor’s Note: Several days after this interview, the Senate Democrats accepted Sen. Felder into its caucus, following his voting for a raft of Democratic bills in the recent legislative session.]

Part II will iy”H appear next week.

(Edited for clarity & length.)