New York City’s mayoral candidates court the Jewish vote

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: New York City is home to 1.2 million Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel.

A FAMILY pauses in the street as people celebrate Purim in Brooklyn earlier this month. (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
A FAMILY pauses in the street as people celebrate Purim in Brooklyn earlier this month.
 NEW YORK – With New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stepping down next year due to term limits, a crowded field of candidates has emerged to replace him.
Gearing up for the June 23 primaries, the city’s next chief executive will face the daunting task of repairing a city smacked down financially and emotionally by the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdowns have resulted in tourist dollars down two-thirds, which is not expected to rebound until the theaters open again in 2022. Of even greater concern is the fact that many of the wealthiest New Yorkers plan to decamp to states like Florida with considerably lower taxes.
Beyond their solutions to this seemingly intractable economic crisis, the mayoral candidates are also being asked their positions on issues on the minds of Jewish voters, who constitute roughly 13% of New York City’s electorate. From public funding for yeshivot and private Jewish schools to the opening of synagogues during corona restrictions, there have been ongoing headlines about Jewish communities over the last year.
Since the start of the pandemic, antisemitic hate speech has risen alarmingly in New York City, exacerbated by finger-pointing at ultra-Orthodox communities for spreading coronavirus and their defiance of lockdown and public health measures.
Bill Pepitone, a mayoral candidate and retired member of the New York Police Department with over 30 years of law enforcement and public safety experience, told The Jerusalem Post he would use his background to counter the rise of antisemitism.
“The mayor must take a strong stance against any kind of hate and make it clear that antisemitism will not be tolerated in New York City. The NYPD has a hate crime unit, and as mayor I would implement more resources to that unit so they can find the people promoting violence against the Orthodox Jewish community,” the Republican candidate said. “As a police officer, I worked extensively in Orthodox communities in Brooklyn: Crown Heights, Borough Park and Williamsburg. I saw a lot of antisemitism and hate speech. We reacted very quickly and authoritatively.”
Democratic mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, a former MSNBC analyst and legal counsel to de Blasio, said if she were mayor when COVID-19 hit, she would have promoted more dialogue between city leaders and the Orthodox community.
“This would have allowed us to work together to identify potential [virus] hot spots and culturally appropriate solutions,” Wiley told the Post.
New York City is home to 1.2 million Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel. The question of how much secular education should be promoted in the city’s private Jewish yeshivot – and who should decide – has been highly contested in Orthodox communities for years.
A city Department of Education report in 2019 found that more than half of the yeshivot investigated were not providing the required amount of education in science, math and English that is equivalent to public schools as required by state law.
Kathryn Garcia, former New York City Sanitation Department commissioner, said that if elected mayor, she would approach improving secular education in partnership with the educators at private Jewish schools.
“Under my administration, the DOE’s Division of Nonpublic Schools will work closely with the Standing Committee of Nonpublic School Officials to ensure that the city is using every tool we have to ensure that all schools have access to every resource and educational service possible,” she said.
Wiley said that as mayor she would “prioritize investigations into schools that communities have identified as a concern, and I would do so in a transparent manner, maintaining open discussion with the school community. I would increase oversight of these schools to ensure they meet citywide standards for education provision.”
Other candidates expressed belief that city hall should not engage with parochial school curriculums, a position likely to win support in Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities.
Last month, Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang sparked debate when he affirmed his support of “parental choice” and said there is “complete lack of trust” between the haredi Orthodox community and city government.
Yang did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Democratic candidate Edward Cullen said that if elected he would “stay out of it.”
“I’ve been in Jesuit schools my entire life. I’m deeply Catholic and think we should respect every religion and let the schooling they think is best for their community stand,” Cullen told the Post.
Pepitone also noted he would not take action to boost secular education in yeshivot.
“There are a lot of intersections where government and religion should not cross. This is one of them. The Orthodox community should have say, and the mayor should not get involved,” he said.
A nonprofit organization that advocates for reform at city yeshivot said elected officials should take a hands-on approach to education.
“Educational neglect in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas is a major civil rights issue. It is the duty of New York City’s next mayor and all elected officials to enforce the long-standing law that mandates nonpublic schools provide an education that is substantially equivalent to what is offered in public schools,” Naftuli Moster, executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, told the Post.
“Investigations into these schools and first-person accounts from countless parents and former yeshiva students, including myself, reflect the harrowing impact of the lack of secular education. By 2030, hassidic children will make up 30% of Brooklyn’s youth. The next administration cannot turn a blind eye to their suffering,” Moster continued.
MOST OF the candidates reached for comment said they condemn the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and would consider visiting Israel during their term, if elected.
“Israel is an ally of the United States and New York City. I strongly oppose any boycott of Israeli products. We must promote Israeli companies and make it clear that they have an ally in New York City. I would be outspoken against any boycott,” said Pepitone.
“New York City is so diverse, and it’s especially important that we open our arms to Israel. New York City should be the leader in this country in opening its arms to Israel. I’ve never been to Israel but have always wanted to go. Without question, Israel would be one of the first places I’d visit if elected,” he continued.
Garcia echoed the alliance between New York City and Israel.
“Not only am I unequivocally opposed to the BDS movement, but as mayor I look forward to expanding opportunities for economic partnerships and knowledge sharing between New York City and the State of Israel,” the Democratic candidate said.
Wiley said that while she is not a supporter of the BDS movement, she encourages the right to protest.
“As a civil rights attorney, I support all people’s first amendment right to protest and boycott. This includes BDS,” Wiley told the Post.
Wiley said she would consider a trip to Israel as mayor, but it is not her first priority.
“My first duty is to represent the 8.5 million people who live within New York City – no matter their nationality, religion, race or creed. While I do not intend to travel abroad frequently, I will certainly consider a trip to any country, including Israel, if that will allow me to better understand my constituents,” she said.
Carlos Menchaca, a leading Democratic mayoral candidate and member of the New York City Council in Brooklyn, said he wouldn’t travel internationally as mayor at all.
“I would not consider visiting Israel. I should stay in the City of New York, a city in incredible crisis right now,” he told the Post.
Menchaca was the only candidate interviewed who said he did not support the 2016 executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that required state agencies to divest themselves of companies and organizations that support BDS. As a city council member, he voted against the resolution, citing his history as a Mexican immigrant as helping him understand the importance of boycotts for people in danger.
“An organization choosing to boycott Israel is not a reason for the City of New York to cut ties with that organization,” he said.
But Menchaca also said that as mayor he would listen to and consider the needs of all New Yorkers, including the Orthodox.
“I think a lot about the power of municipal government. As a council member, I’m holding 15 different smaller, medium-size and larger communities that include the Orthodox Jewish community, the Mexican community and a growing Chinese community,” he continued.
“What mattered most in my time as a council member was being on the ground and listening. Beyond that, it’s about creating a place for people to come together and practice democracy with their neighbors – even if they don’t go to the same place to worship, even if they don’t speak the same language.”