Jewish leaders gathered last night in lower Manhattan to push their vision for a more just New York City as newly elected Bill De Blasio prepares to take office.
Nine speakers, including a hospital executive, soup kitchen director, and the head of New York’s Jewish Federation, focused on a range of economic and social justice issues, spoke at the Talking Transition event in a massive tent at the corner of Sixth and Canal St
“A mayor of this city needs to understand that we are one people with many voices,” said moderator Andy Bachman in his introduction. Bachman is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, which organized the event.
The speakers voiced a range of concerns about the wellbeing of the city’s overlooked constituencies. The poor received particular attention.
“There are still too many structural inequalities,” said Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service. “I pray that the new government has the vision, courage, and faith to address them all.”
Alisa Doctoroff, president of the UJA-Federation of New York, reminded the audience that one in four Jewish families in New York live in poverty. “We live in a city that includes both enormous wealth and desperate poverty,” she said. Doctoroff believes combating such poverty requires focusing on the community and neighborhood level. “We welcome the mayor’s recognition that neighborhoods are the basic building blocks of our city,” she said.
New Yorkers’ healthcare needs were a strong priority for Karen Nelson, senior vice president of Maimonides Medical Center (who spoke on behalf of president Pam Brier). “The challenge for us, in working with the mayor and others, is to find the wherewithal to help invent a new healthcare system for the rich and poor alike,” she said. “Healthcare is not a commodity – it is a basic human right.”
Many speakers also wanted to celebrate New York’s diversity and build better relationships with other communities. “We have an obligation to reach out beyond our community,” said Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “As diverse as we are, New York is diverse on steroids.” Messinger joined Miller in calling for stronger relationships between City Hall and Muslims and urged de Blasio to hire a diverse staff. Dava Schub of JCC Manhattan, who highlighted challenges facing the disabled, asked de Blasio to employ New Yorkers with disabilities.
“I was excited to hear about the idea of reaching outside of our communities to build bridges,” said Jonathan Chapman, who attended the event. But Chapman was frustrated with the size of the roughly 40-person audience. “I was excited by the speakers but a little disappointed by the turnout. Where’s the rest of Jewish New York?”
Marjorie Dove Kent also hoped for a higher turnout, though she helped raise it considerably. Almost a dozen members of the audience were from the organization she leads – Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), a New York advocacy group which Messinger commended in her remarks.
“People touched on a lot of really core issues,” Kent said. But she was disappointed by the panel’s time limit: speakers were allowed only three minutes to explain their hopes for the city’s future. “People were set up to speak at a relatively shallow level, though it’s no one’s fault,” she said. “I hope this conversation continues in a way that is much more deep and dynamic.”
The event was part of the “Talking Transition” project, which was launched on November 7, following Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor. Ten foundations organized the project to encourage public involvement during the post-election transition period, when the mayor-elect and his team usually make far-reaching decisions. Talking Transition, which runs November 7 to 23, sends crews into neighborhoods around New York to ask residents how to improve their city.
At its glittering, climate-controlled tent on Canal Street, Talking Transition is hosting a range of conversations about New York’s future under a de Blasio administration. Yesterday’s schedule included conversations about the elderly, public schools, organizing in communities of color – and Jewish viewpoints on city policy.