Two hours before half the liberal Jews in Brooklyn were set to turn up at a local synagogue to learn how to resist President Trump, things were feeling a bit precarious at the offices of the city councilman who was organizing the whole thing.
“Did you hear anything?” Rachel Goodman asked. Goodman is chief of staff to Brad Lander, who represents Brooklyn’s liberal Jewish heartland in the city council.
“No,” Lander said, nursing a seltzer at the conference table.
Two big-league progressive politicians had half-promised to pop by the organizing meeting, the latest in a series that’s turned into a Trump-era phenomenon among a certain set of progressive Brooklyn Jews. But with just hours to go, there was no final word on whether they would show.
Meanwhile, the Facebook RSVP list had grown scary-big — 2,600 people, more than twice the capacity of the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim, the synagogue hosting the event. Would they have to turn away 1,000 people? Or, given that Facebook RSVPs are worth less than the pixels they’re printed on, would anyone turn up at all?
“Look, if there’s 500 people, that’s plenty of people,” Lander said hopefully, as Goodman left.
Lander’s office, two flights above one of Park Slope’s more dingy blocks, feels like the headquarters of an underfunded not-for-profit organization. The second-floor landing is lined with Mylar balloons from a pharmacy downstairs, and there’s an optimistically bucolic little painting on the wall of the Gowanus Canal, the fetid industrial swamp that bisects Lander’s district.
Since November, the office has functioned as the de facto command center for anti-Trump organizing in this wealthy corner of Brooklyn. Lander has held monthly organizing meetings at Beth Elohim, and while members of the New York City Council normally can’t fill a classroom, these are not normal times, and the place has been bursting with liberals desperate to resist a president who seems ready to burn their most deeply held beliefs in a big bonfire on the White House lawn.
For leadership they’re turning to Lander, who has emerged as a sort of air traffic controller for this generally affluent, generally liberal, generally Jewish set as they seek outlets for their activist energies.
Lander, a 47-year-old former community organizer, has been at this work a long time. Now, after a career of tugging at the social consciences of Brooklyn’s elite, he’s getting a bigger response than he ever could have counted on. It comes after years of building power in the city council, in part by appealing to conservative constituencies outside his Park Slope base. But as he turns back to his organizing roots, he’s wrestling with the complex baggage of a municipal power broker thrown into the politics of local activism.
“The organizing that’s taken place in the wake of the election is extraordinary,” Lander said. “It’s among the most remarkable organizing that I’ve seen or been a part of.”
The outpouring has been intense, but it’s left some critics wondering where these people have been, what city they’ve been living in, and why a million other injustices that happen around them every day — segregated schools, broken windows policing — didn’t get them onto the streets.
Lander sees the concerns, but he doesn’t see them as a reason not to organize now. Even when he’s not the center of attention at these meetings, he’s the guiding force — shaking hands, making introductions, then sitting back and letting it all happen.
These are his people — more or less. His district, which has more Jews than all but one other in the whole city, is shaped kind of like a banana, with each slice a gentrified neighborhood — Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace — until you reach the very tip, which is Boro Park, and another world altogether: an ultra-Orthodox enclave that voted heavily for Trump.
Lander, who lives in Park Slope with his wife and two children, has spent his eight years in the city council balancing those worlds; representing both the Park Slope progressives and the Boro Park Hasidim; befriending both the far-right Brooklyn politician Dov Hikind and the pro-Palestinian activist and organizer Linda Sarsour.
In early February, those two worlds were blowing up at the same time: While Park Slope was flipping out over Trump, Boro Park was flipping out over a bill to charge for plastic bags at the grocery store.
Lander was at the center of both.
That night at Beth Elohim, an appearance by the two prominent progressives, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Keith Ellison, the Muslim Minnesotan then in the midst of an unsuccessful bid to lead the Democratic Party, would have been a major coup.
An hour and a half before it was set to start, they both backed out.
The word came via telephone. Lander relayed it to his wife, Meg Barnette, in the car ride up the hill to the synagogue. “The mayor and Keith bagged on us,” Lander said over the speakerphone. “I mean, whatever, it’s a little disappointing.”
Moments later, as he turned his Kia four-door up Eighth Avenue, Lander interrupted himself midsentence. “Holy s—t,” he said.
A line spilled out the front door of Beth Elohim, turned north at the base of the synagogue stairs, and headed off down the block and into the darkness. Mayor or not, Park Slope had shown up. “I mean, look at this,” Lander said, starting to laugh. “Wow. All right.”
At a chain bakery on Court Street, just around the corner from Brooklyn’s Boro Hall, Lander was waiting for his coffee. Helping the next woman in line, the counterman asked if she wanted her receipt.
“No, I just want Trump to be impeached,” the woman said.
“Amen, amen,” Lander said, breaking in.
That’s the tenor in much of liberal Brooklyn these days — a mix of desperation and weariness; a disbelief that everything Trump’s done so far has happened in only a few weeks, and a fear of what comes next.
When Lander greeted people, he asked how they’re doing, as if a parent had died. When they asked him how he was doing, he responded, “I woke up this morning.”
But Lander wasn’t at the bakery to plot his anti-Trump resistance. Instead, he was warming up after spending a half-hour or so outside in a 25-degree snow shower, trying to convince random pedestrians to bring reusable bags with them when they go to the supermarket.
“Every year, we throw away 10 billion single-use plastic bags,” he told a woman passing by outside the state courthouse. “We’re trying to stop.” Lander handed her one of the 400,000 bright-orange reusable bags that the city’s sanitation department was giving away in advance of a new law, set to go into in effect days later, that would require stores to charge a fee for each plastic grocery bag they gave away.
Lander acknowledged that it was a strange time to be talking about plastic bags. “I appreciate the element of absurdity,” he said. “How could we be giving this level of attention to plastic bags while this country is burning down around us?”
Yet a rearguard effort by state legislators in Albany, New York, was forcing him to readjust his priorities. Lander had gotten a bill through the city council three years earlier to impose the 5-cent fee — something like the failed attempt of former mayor Michael Bloomberg at a soda tax, but for bags. It passed, and was meant to go into effect last June, until the state legislature stepped in. By early January, Albany was on the brink of killing the law altogether.
Much of the opposition to the bag bill was coming from Orthodox legislators who represent the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park. Which was awkward, because Lander represents that neighborhood, too.
Boro Park is a neighborhood of Hasidic courts and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, kosher bakeries and Judaica stores. It’s a poor neighborhood, and a conservative one, and Trump won there in November. Lander represents only a small bit of the neighborhood, but his progressive policy experiments are a tough sell out there.
The bag bill is the latest example. Boro Park really, really hates it.
“People have a real problem,” said Hikind, who represents the neighborhood in the state assembly. Hikind says that big Orthodox families use more plastic bags to get home from the grocery store than small Park Slope families. “At the end of the day,” he said, “you’re paying 5 cents for something you weren’t paying for yesterday.”
Simcha Felder, who represents Boro Park in the state Senate, was the bag fee’s leading opponent in Albany, calling it an “undue financial burden.” The Boro Park section of Lander’s district is a long way from Park Slope, where the Park Slope Food Coop, the idealistic grocery store that is that neighborhood’s spiritual center, has banned plastic grocery bags since 2007.
When Lander first went out to Boro Park looking for votes in 2009, it felt uncomfortable. “I had a lot of anxiety about it,” he said recently. Despite living in Brooklyn for more than a decade, he had no real relationships with Orthodox Jews. In photos from his visits to the neighborhood in those early days, Lander looks like he’s trying too hard to fit in, grinning while shaking hands in a dark suit and a small black yarmulke.
Boro Park is a tough place for any outsider to penetrate, and Lander, a pure product of Reform Judaism and its social justice ethos, was perhaps less prepared than most. He grew up in St. Louis in a Reform Jewish family, steeped in that liberal movement’s social justice values. He sang in a Reform synagogue choir, went to a Reform summer camp and was social action chair of the Reform movement’s youth organization. Rabbi Susan Talve, an activist rabbi known for her work in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown shooting, performed his bar mitzvah, at the Reform synagogue in St. Louis where he grew up, and who was among a group of rabbis arrested at a protest outside Trump Tower in early February.
Nothing about that prepares you to visit a Boro Park rebbe, never mind convince him to vote for you. Still, Orthodox communities in New York have a decades-old strategy of making peace with local elected officials whose ideas they generally dislike, but who will work with them on practical matters. Before Lander represented the 39th Council District, the seat belonged to de Blasio, who had tight relationships with ultra-Orthodox leaders in Boro Park and has maintained those relationships into his mayoralty.
Lander, too, was able to build those relationships. One of his first and closest alliances was with Hikind himself, a former member of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Defense League who is Lander’s ideological opposite in just about every single way.
“He’s a mensch,” Hikind said of Lander.
Still, keeping that relationship healthy hasn’t always been easy.
“Living In Terror”
In 2009, before Hikind had publicly endorsed Lander, a political blog surfaced an essay that Lander and his wife had written in 2003 about Israel.
In the essay, Lander and Barnette, now a senior official at Planned Parenthood of New York City, evinced a deep skepticism of nationalisms generally, and of the notion of a Jewish right of return to Israel specifically. It wasn’t the kind of thing that a candidate in Boro Park wanted to have to explain to Hikind during election season.
“I spent a fair amount of time living in terror about this,” Lander said.
The essay was for a collection edited by the American playwright Tony Kushner and the journalist Alisa Solomon, both luminaries of the progressive Jewish left. At the time he wrote the piece, Lander was a rising star in those circles, just finishing a 10-year stint running a local Brooklyn community development organization called the Fifth Avenue Committee and serving a three-year term on the board of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the leftist organizing group.
Lander had come to New York after earning a graduate degree in London. He worked for a union briefly before taking the Fifth Avenue Committee job. He integrated fast into Brooklyn’s left-wing Jewish milieu, moving to Park Slope with Barnette and joining the activist progressive synagogue Kolot Chayeinu, in Park Slope.
When the essay first became public in 2009, Lander went to talk about it with Hikind. “That was not easy,” he said.
Today, Lander says the whole Zionism conversation doesn’t worry him so much anymore. He says he is a Zionist, though he’s not sure he would have called himself one at the time he wrote the essay in Kushner and Solomon’s book. Hikind endorsed him despite the essay, and introduced him around Boro Park. It didn’t help — Lander got walloped in the neighborhood — but the two have remained close.
“That relationship is an interesting one, because in some ways it is of course in some respects transactional,” Lander said. “And yet we have actually built a friendship that cuts across those things.”
Lander, of course, is a useful ally for any politician or community leader, regardless of his ideology. So while the Boro Park rank and file may prefer to vote for a social conservative who aligns with them on same-sex marriage, it’s useful for the leadership to maintain good ties. Lander is close to the council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and holds powerful positions within the council’s legislative apparatus. He founded the council’s Progressive Caucus, the upstart group of lawmakers that effectively took over the body in 2014, reorienting its historic power structure.
Lander’s district office is dingy, but his digs near City Hall exude municipal authority: On a floor full of city council offices, he ranks a Robert Moses-style power window overlooking City Hall Park, featuring glimpses of both the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridge.
He also has ambitions. He’s the chair of a national association of left-wing municipal elected officials called Local Progress, and after term limits keep him from running for the council again in 2021, he could end up a strong contender for a seat in Congress or a citywide post.
Still, when the big ideas and the practical local issues come into conflict, as they did over the bag bill, there very well may be fireworks. In mid-February, the governor signed the state legislature’s bill blocking the council bag fee, dealing Lander a tough blow.
“I’m very disappointed,” Lander allowed on the day after Andrew Cuomo signed the legislature’s bill. “We’ve been working on this a long time.’
Still, though the practical arrangement between Lander and his Boro Park constituents had broken down on plastic bags, it held on Trump. Boro Park voted for Trump, but it couldn’t care less that one of its council members is trying to take him down.
“I don’t think people look at it one way or the other,” said Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council. “We all know Brad’s very progressive.”
“Refugees In The World”
For New York City protest organizers, these are thrilling times. Protests that five months ago may have drawn a handful of picketers and a couple of news photographers are instead exploding into citywide happenings: a rally of Yemeni grocers in Brooklyn; a massive march up Fifth Avenue, and, in late January, an impromptu Saturday-night protest of more than 1,000 people outside John F. Kennedy International Airport. That night, Lander materialized in the middle of a multilevel parking garage outside of Terminal 4, flanked by two rabbis.
Lander wore a long black coat, and on his head a fedora that’s been part of his uniform since Thanksgiving and makes him look a bit like an Orthodox Jew. He was trying to find the prayer vigil, which was set to start at any moment.
It was the day after Trump signed his executive order banning travelers from certain Muslim countries, and people had been gathering since the morning, drawn by word that border guards were detaining a dozen or so people inside. Jewish activists had thrown together a plan for a vigil, scheduled for 6 p.m. They had broken the rules of the Sabbath in order to make plans over the phone, citing a religious exception that allows the rules to be broken when lives are at risk.
This moment in which protesters are responding to threats against Muslim refugees with prayer vigils and Holocaust analogies seems perfectly suited to Lander. “The way in which our people’s story, my people’s story, is one of being refugees, not just in 1939 but our whole peoplehood, that’s pretty deep,” he said. “When I think and talk about what it means to be and feel deeply Jewish in the most fundamental of ways, I think it means that experience, feeling in a certain way like refugees in the world.”
It’s a theme he returned to often in early February. In an impromptu address one afternoon, delivered on the steps of City Hall to a group of Muslims celebrating World Hijab Day, Lander said that one function of the moment was to remind Jews of their own history. “I think that those of us that are Jewish have unfortunately in the last few months also been mindful that our people were refugees, too,” he said.
At JFK, the protesters were clustered on a bit of pavement between the garage and a parking lot, and the crowd had gotten tight. From the ground, it was hard to tell where the center was, or who was in charge or what was happening. Lander looked around for the center of the crowd. Confronted by a low railing, he eyed it and then, seeming to think better of attempting the vault, hustled to find a way around, the rabbis following behind him. Within moments he’d arrived at the tight scrum of elected officials and protest organizers and press, and was taking a selfie with the Manhattan borough president, the public advocate and another city councilman.
A few feet away, a rabbi from the Jewish refugee group HIAS began the vigil, lighting the Havdalah candle to begin the ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath. She chanted the prayers, struggling to be heard over crowd’s chants of “Let them in,” the cheer and the prayer blending into a dissonant remix.
“Bringing In White Allies”
Go to enough protests in New York, and you’ll start to recognize a certain species of regulars: Your black bloc anarchists, your sectarian Communists selling the Workers Vanguard and the Workers World and the works of Bob Avakian, and that “Google: Zionists Control Wall St.” guy.
Those sorts may have been at JFK that night, but if they were, they were hard to spot.
“What I am seeing is more people that don’t ordinarily show up to direct actions and public rallies show up,” said Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist who is friendly with Lander and was an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington that took place the day after Trump’s inauguration. “A lot of these people are from the Upper West Side, or they’re from Park Slope, they’re from Carroll Gardens,” she said, rattling off three of the city’s most gentrified, most wealthy, most Jewish neighborhoods, two of which are in Lander’s district.
For some, the outpouring has all seemed just a bit too easy. Why should Trump’s executive orders face such a burst of angry protest when 1,000 other grinding injustices go ignored? Where were these marchers for the past eight years, when the prior administration was busy drone-striking weddings?
At a panel event a few weeks later at the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones put the question directly to Lander. The two were seated on a couch onstage, drinking white wine and fielding questions from Hannah-Jones’s New York Times colleague Sarah Maslin Nir about segregation in New York City’s public schools.
“How amazing would it be if the people who marched on that airport would march on City Hall?” Hannah-Jones asked. “That same power has to be harnessed for people who are citizens of this country right here, right now.”
Lander himself has been working on on these issues for years. He’s been active in opposing school segregation, albeit in a manner far too incremental to please Hannah-Jones. But he understands the critique of the protesters. “I see why someone could feel it [as IS?] hypocrisy,” he said after the panel event. Still, he thinks that more people are showing up now because it feels more urgent, and he sees no other way forward.
“I don’t know what to do other than organize for incremental progress,” Lander said.
For Sarsour, that’s a key part of the role Lander is now playing. He’s the one who’s bringing to her marches those sorts of people that may not have thought to show up. “I do see the benefit of the work that Brad is doing, bringing in white allies to really stand with immigrant New Yorkers and black New Yorkers,” Sarsour said. “It’s giving people an entry point.”
“Don’t Just Mourn”
In October 2012, in the hours after Hurricane Sandy flooded the Brooklyn coastline, things got very weird in Park Slope. Gas lines stretched a dozen blocks, and National Guard trucks rolled through Grand Army Plaza. The feeling of those weeks has come back to Lander in the months after Trump’s election.
“That had a kind of very similar feel to it,” Lander said. “The normal order is suspended, people were… very eager to be in action…. But without the normal networks that help you figure out how to do that, and [they] were hungry for some structure. You can’t over- structure it. But if you don’t give it some structure, you get too many plastic spoons and not enough tea.”
The day after the hurricane, Alexander Rapaport, the gregarious Hasidic founder of the Boro Park soup kitchen Masbia, got a call from Lander asking for food for makeshift shelters that had been set up in two armories in Park Slope. The city had provided rations that Rapaport said “looked like a hybrid between cholent and lasagna.” Rapaport obliged, bringing in hundreds of meals for weeks. On the Sabbath, when Rapaport couldn’t make or deliver the food, Beth Elohim filled in.
“He became like the mayor of this armory,” Rapaport said of Lander. “He was bringing everything together.”
Today, Lander recalls those days as a sort of dry run for the anti-Trump struggle. Some of the organizing relationships now in play, including the one with Beth Elohim, were cemented in those weeks.
The morning after Trump won, Lander sent out an email to his supporters. “Mourn,” he wrote. “This is a nightmare, with very real consequences. But then, seriously, organize.”
Beth Elohim’s rabbi, Rachel Timoner, reached out to Lander soon after. They set their first meeting for the following week. Lander says that they had to turn away a couple hundred people from the 1,200-seat sanctuary that first night.
They called the gathering #getorganizedbk. The idea was to split up into small working groups, each of which would take on specific organizing tasks. Lander’s staff recruited facilitators to get the groups going, then gave them training. It’s been enough to launch some of the working groups into serious, self-sufficient activist entities.
Liat Olenick, a member of a working group focused on opposing Trump’s appointments, said that she’s now working four to six hours a day on the working group’s business.
“It was just a structure that was really empowering, and really allowed a lot of actions to happen,” she said.
The autonomy of the groups has created a bit of a pickle for Lander. While he’s a sort of “organizer in chief” of the whole apparatus, as one speaker called him at the February gathering, he has no actual control over what the working groups do. So when some of them get involved in things like pickets outside the Park Slope home of Sen. Chuck Schumer, it can get a bit awkward.
Schumer is, after all, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state. And even though he’s signaled repeatedly that he doesn’t necessarily mind the protests, it can still be uncomfortable to be seen as abetting an attack on the minority leader.
Speaking publicly at the February #getorganizedbk gathering, Lander referred to the Schumer protests coyly, calling them “one of the rallies that’s just a block or two from here.”
Still, when pressed he didn’t back away from the tactic of putting pressure on the minority leader. “Risky times for all of us,” he said. “For me, I feel like it’s better to try to lean into being part of this activism than to worry about what the implications are.”
Back outside the synagogue that Monday night in February, Lander jammed his car into a parking spot near the door, hopped out and began thanking people for coming. He shook hands with people waiting on line, shook hands with the beat cops outside, shared a word with a staffer about overflow contingencies and went in.
All at once, Lander was in his element. He knew everyone, or at least everyone knew him. Someone asked about the mayor and Ellison dropping out. “Whatever,” Lander said. “It’s okay.” And the whole thing was forgotten.
Lander spoke at the end of the program, after a panel of immigrant organizers, and before attendees broke out into small groups to make protest plans.
“Organizing works,” Lander told the crowd, standing at the pulpit and sermonizing like a rabbi on Yom Kippur. “Resistance works. Not enough to blot out all that darkness, but sure enough to make a difference.”
It was just what Park Slope needed. The crowd roared.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.