Jack Hidary, a well-connected tech millionaire, thinks he has a shot at being elected mayor of New York City. But his dark horse quest may tear Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community in two.
Hidary, who announced his candidacy in a respectfully reported New York Times story on July 16, is a scion of one of New York’s most powerful Syrian Jewish clans. He has already raised more than $300,000 from Syrian Jews for his mayoral campaign.
Yet Hidary’s candidacy has annoyed members of the Syrian establishment. Major players in the low-key community have backed him. More pragmatic activists, however, had been looking forward to endorsing a candidate who has a better chance of winning.
A Syrian spat could prove embarrassing — and could make the Sephardic leadership look weak.
“Jack Hidary’s candidacy puts the leadership of the Sephardic community in a bind,” said one Sephardic communal insider, who asked not to be identified to protect ongoing relationships. “While the sophisticated contingent of the leadership understands that endorsing Jack Hidary is a futile effort, some other powerful and influential community leaders… see a Sephardic candidate as a possibly powerful representative of the community.”
Hidary, for his part, has no doubts about his run. “I’m the best-qualified person for the job,” he told the Forward. “I am not a career politician. The others are career politicians. They’ve
had their chance.”
A 45-year-old Manhattan bachelor, Hidary has the worldly résumé of a globetrotting entrepreneur. He’s spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival and SXSW , preaching the gospel of social entrepreneurship. When he took his first company public in 1998, his net worth shot up by $83 million in a couple of days. A 2004 New York Times story had him hobnobbing with millionaires and politicians at that year’s Democratic convention, swapping promises to hold fundraisers for rising liberal stars.
Back home in Brooklyn, however, the Hidary family are leaders in one of New York’s most insular and politically conservative ethnic enclaves.
Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community is relatively small: A UJA-Federation survey in 2011 found just 6,000 Syrian Jewish households in the borough, compared with 31,200 Jewish households in the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi neighborhood of Boro Park alone. But it’s also extraordinarily cohesive, thanks in part to a rabbinic edict that excommunicates anyone who marries a non-Jew. Converts are also barred.
The community is wealthy, thanks to its success in the garment and real estate businesses. But Syrian Jews do their best to keep their names out of the papers. Besides a sprawling 2009 federal sting that resulted in convictions of two leading Syrian rabbis on money-laundering charges, plus corruption charges against a handful of public officials, the community has largely succeed in maintaining a low profile. The Syrian establishment’s advocacy group, the Sephardic Community Federation, is always fronted by Ashkenazi executive directors.
That tendency to shy away from the spotlight may be one reason that Syrian Jews have generally not run for public office. Instead, they cultivate relationships with non-Syrian Jewish politicians, among them New York City Councilman David Greenfield, a former executive director of the SCF.
Hidary, however, said that he sees his community’s insularity as more or less a thing of the past.
“I think that’s changing,” Hidary said. “The community now is really engaging in a very public way.” He noted that Syrian Jews often cooperate with real estate industry publications like The Real Deal.
Though he lives in Manhattan and doesn’t attend synagogue regularly, Hidary’s Syrian roots run deep. His father, David Hidary, is a powerful community leader who, with his brothers, runs M. Hidary & Co. Inc., a privately held apparel firm. A cousin runs Hidrock Realty, a real estate investment firm. Hidary’s brother, Rabbi Richard Hidary, was recently hired as the distinguished rabbinic fellow of Congregation Shearith Israel, a prominent Sephardic synagogue in Manhattan.
Their influence goes beyond the Syrian community. David Hidary was on the board of UJA-Federation of New York, and other family members have served on the board of Yeshivah of Flatbush, both Ashkenazi-dominated institutions.
Some in the Syrian community have given early support to Hidary’s candidacy. A brunch fundraiser held in the Syrian summer retreat in Deal, N.J., at a seaside bungalow of real estate investor Joe Cayre, raised $350,000, according to Hidary. That represents three-quarters of the $450,000 Hidary said that his campaign has brought in.
Public filings so far available on the website of the city’s campaign finance board show $131,000 raised so far, much of it from Syrian Jews.
The SCF, however, has not backed the homegrown candidate. “Jack Hidary comes from a very well respected family whose work on behalf of our community is immeasurable and appreciated,” Executive Director Avi Spitzer wrote in an emailed statement. “[W]e have not yet taken a position in the Mayor’s race. Currently, we are holding off on any endorsements until early September.”
Though the Syrian vote is smaller than the other Jewish bloc votes in Brooklyn, the Syrians’ wealth enhances their political influence. The SCF makes endorsements in every mayoral cycle. The group pursues a policy agenda that includes opposition to casino construction in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and support for aid to private religious schools.
Hidary told the Forward that he had been under the impression that the SCF would not be making an endorsement in the mayoral race. The SCF is a 501(c)(4), a not-for-profit category under the federal tax code that allows it to make endorsements.
Greenfield, who now represents the Syrian community’s Brooklyn neighborhood in New York’s city council, introduced Christine Quinn at a recent luncheon at the offices of the Orthodox Union. He has yet to make an endorsement in the mayor’s race.
Greenfield did not respond to a request for comment on Hidary’s candidacy.
“I’ve been speaking in every major [Syrian] synagogue,” Hidary said. “The support has been great. The number of people across the board that have supported us has been tremendous.”
Though he’s given heavily to Democratic candidates and been deeply involved in Democratic politics, Hidary chose to skip the Democratic mayoral primary and run instead on an independent ballot line. That allows him to dodge the potentially bloody and expensive Democratic fight, but means that he’ll enter the general election without the institutional support and name recognition conferred on the Republican and Democratic nominees.
Instead, he’ll be one of a handful of third-party candidates, including Independence Party nominee and former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión.
No candidate for New York City mayor has won without the backing of the Republican or Democratic Party since 1969, when incumbent John Lindsay won on the Liberal Party ballot line.
Hidary paints himself as a pro-business candidate, comparing himself to billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the incumbent mayor, whom he says he admires. In his campaign announcement media blitz, Hidary has touted his ties to the tech community and his entrepreneurial experience.
Unlike all the Democratic primary candidates, Hidary said that he supports publicly funded vouchers to fund private religious school tuitions, a position popular with Orthodox Jews that is dismissed as impractical by most Orthodox advocates. Hidary said that any voucher system he backed would require that schools receiving voucher funds allow unionized teachers.
Hidary did not respond to an emailed inquiry sent to a spokesman about his position on the NYPD’s controversial Muslim surveillance program.
Though the mayoral race looks crowded now, with a huge Democratic primary field, Hidary insisted that he would have a chance to stick out after the primaries are over. “There’s a lot of sideshow now,” he said. Later he acknowledged that “it will really be a clear, clear choice.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.