Orthodox Push for Own Districts

As Redistricting Looms, Seeking Concentrated Influence

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By Naomi Zeveloff

Published December 13, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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In Texas, Republican state officials have recently gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their plan to break up a heavily minority state Senate district. At the same time, in New York, state Republicans are reportedly pushing a plan to consolidate another minority — Brooklyn Orthodox Jews — in just such a district.

It’s the season of political redistricting, and nationwide, Republican and Democratic leaders are deep into their once-in-a-decade jockeying over the drawing of political maps. In this process, ethnic neighborhoods are often jigsaw puzzle pieces, liable to be broken up and reassembled in myriad ways, depending on their political leanings, and on which party controls the state legislature that, in many cases, controls the redistricting process.

But in New York, the prominence of Jews in this process is striking.

This time around, Republican leaders see a chance to bolster their slim majority in the state’s Senate by pushing for a Jewish majority Senate district in South Brooklyn.

Simcha Felder
city of new york
Simcha Felder

No less noteworthy, Orthodox Jewish leaders themselves are advocating for the creation of such a district, which would encompass the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park in addition to other areas.

In recent months, Orthodox leaders in New York have been vociferously asking for majority Jewish districts in the state legislature and in Congress. Fed up with splintered representation, they say they want fewer elected officials who will be more responsive to their highly particular needs: namely, support for private schools and financial grants to not-for-profits groups serving the Orthodox community.

“We are not saying it has to be one district or two districts or three districts,” said Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president for community services at Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group. “We are saying that six Senate seats and five congressional seats is too much. Our influence is diluted.”

Lefkowitz was one of several individuals who made the case for Jewish majority districts at a September 20 public hearing of the New York legislative redistricting task force, which will likely release a draft of a redistricting map before the end of December. In an interview with the Forward, Lefkowitz said that his organization is looking to elect to office not Republicans per se, but officials who would “serve our needs best.”

Yet according to an October 3 editorial in the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, it is not just their perceived economic needs as a group that the Orthodox want addressed. Politicians from both parties have shown themselves able to address those kinds of demands. It is their social views, too, that need representation, the editorial stated. And those views tend to break down based on party lines.

The successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York this year appears to have been a catalyst. Agudath Israel lobbied strongly to stop the bill. But five of the six state senators representing South Brooklyn’s Orthodox community voted in favor of it. The only one to vote against it — Martin Golden — is a Republican.


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