The Bill de Blasio I know

De Blasio clearly identifies himself as a progressive politician. Yet, he also is a staunch supporter of the State of Israel and consistently calls out antisemitism when he sees it.

By SIMCHA EICHENSTEIN
September 9, 2019 20:53
The Bill de Blasio I know

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO. A long and rich history with the Orthodox Jewish community.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Public officials and the general public often dismiss the Orthodox Jewish community as irrelevant and insular. Not so for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio clearly identifies himself as a progressive politician. Yet seemingly contradictorily, he also is a staunch supporter of the State of Israel and consistently calls out antisemitism when he sees it. So who is the real Bill de Blasio? And how does he address the issues that matter to our community?

As a former aide to de Blasio and as an identifiable hassidic Jew, I feel I have a unique perspective. Having worked closely with the mayor, I was often called upon to advocate on behalf of city goals and policies in Albany as part of my role on the Intergovernmental and State Legislative Affairs team.

The fact that he appointed me to join this team speaks volumes. Although our values are timeless and eternal, members of my community are generally seen by the mainstream as insular.

Bill de Blasio is an exception to that rule.

De Blasio has a long and rich history with our community. When he ran Hilary Clinton’s campaign for US Senate in 2000, he began interacting with the leadership and members of our community.

From 2002-2009 de Blasio served as a member of the New York City Council, representing the 39th District, which includes parts of Park Slope, Borough Park and Kensington. These neighborhoods may be located adjacent to each other, but in terms of ideology and politics they are many miles apart.

During his tenure in this area, de Blasio made it his business to learn about our community from within. He did this not by watching Fiddler on the Roof, but by visiting our Shabbat tables together with his wife, Chirlane. He would sit with us, often for hours, not for the publicity but because he was genuinely interested in learning about our lifestyle. He did it to build relationships and to build mutual respect. As a result, he understands us and recognizes the vast diversity of the people in the city of New York, and he understands that the hassidic community represents an integral part of that diversity.

In 2013, de Blasio was elected mayor of the City of New York, and that wisdom he gained remains with him. When the issue of adjusting the parking meters in our communities on the eve of Shabbat came up, his administration came together with community leaders to solve the problem. The mayor understood our concerns and allowed the meter times to be extended so that hundreds of parking spaces could be utilized by the Shabbat-observant community. The mayor recognized and respected our predicament. He got it.

In the grand scheme of things, this is clearly not a major issue, but the adjusted meters did improve quality of life for the residents of neighborhoods where parking is always a challenge. Adjusting the meters may seem like a simple solution, yet previous administrations were unable to accommodate us. Only de Blasio understood that a simple meter adjustment could dramatically ease pre-Shabbat parking in our communities.

More fundamentally, the mayor also amended the rules of Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK), his single-most important campaign issue and accomplishment as mayor. By the end of the program’s first year when it became obvious that children in our community could not participate because of strict guidelines in the original regulations, our community petitioned the mayor and was granted an audience. De Blasio was all ears.

THE REQUISITE hours for UPK were changed significantly in year two, and as a result thousands of children enrolled in the program. The mayor instinctively understood, as a progressive, that if UPK were to be truly universal, it would need to accommodate the needs of the religious community and many others. More personally for him, UPK wouldn’t have been a complete rollout if the Orthodox Jewish community was not able to fully participate. It is now genuinely inclusive and available to all.

As a member of the New York State Assembly, I am not involved in international affairs, nor do I begin to understand the subtle nuances of global politics. But as a member of the Jewish community, I care deeply about my community and the State of Israel. The mayor continues to be an outspoken supporter of Israel, despite pressure from his progressive colleagues. He participated in the recent AIPAC Policy Conference even as he was pressed to join the boycott against it. I have also heard him speak strongly and repeatedly against antisemitism. He repeatedly calls out the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, labeling it “unacceptable.”

The Bill de Blasio whom I know is multi-faceted and unique. There’s no question that he proudly promotes progressive values. But he also believes in the inherent diversity of the people of New York. That diversity includes a community of easily recognized and identifiable observant Jews who are determined to maintain timeless and eternal values. These values, which we hope to pass on to the next generation, are an intrinsic part of our DNA and we will never compromise on that.

The Democratic Party is currently in a state of flux with progressives and moderates competing for ultimate power. Nobody knows what the future will bring but we do know that the mayor of the City of New York is a rare breed, unquestionably committed to his progressive agenda while also being a staunch supporter of Israel.

Though some “progressives” believe our community doesn’t deserve public services from the government because we choose to live the way we do, Mayor de Blasio knows better, and has put his words into action. This is something I’ve observed time and time again while working with him, and it’s something the Jewish community should bear in mind as this nation heads toward the upcoming presidential primaries.

The writer is a New York State Assembly representative for the 48th District, which includes the neighborhoods of Midwood and Borough Park in Brooklyn.


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