FLATBUSH, BROOKLYN — On election day here, the name of the game is religious education.
Home to an affluent and increasingly observant Syrian Jewish community, Flatbush is a neighborhood of elegant houses and well-manicured lawns hugging Ocean Parkway, one of Brooklyn’s busier thoroughfares. Life in the Jewish community here orbits around the gleaming Sephardic Community Center, a sort of outer-borough JCC that today doubles as a local polling site.
Outside the Center, luxury cars pick up and drop off kids as a lone canvasser distributes literature in support of Joseph Hayon, a Republican candidate for the New York State Assembly.
The canvasser, an Ashkenazic Orthodox 25-year-old, would not give his name. At 7 p.m., he said he had been on the corner since 2. He was offering pamphlets that highlighted a 2009 bill co-sponsored by Hayon’s opponent, incumbent Democrat Steven Cymbrowitz, that would have required public and private schools – including private religious schools – to provide a course in hate crime awareness, including awareness of hate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation, that would “promote attitudes of tolerance and acceptance.” The pamphlet concludes, “Mr. Cymbrowitz doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the havoc this bill would create.”
Orthodox Yeshivas, which would have presumably been impacted by the bill, generally do not promote tolerance of homosexuals.
But while voters approached outside the polling place listed religious education as a top priority, they seemed mostly concerned with the funding of the schools. Audrey Cohen, a neighborhood resident, said that public financial support for private religious schools was the most important issue for her in the election. She said that she would vote for Cymbrowitz.
When told of Cohen’s support for Cymbrowitz, the pro-Hayon canvasser erupted. “That’s a bunch of garbage,” he said, noting that Hayon was listed on the School Choice line as well as the Republican line on the ballot.
Other voters stopped outside the polling place mentioned national issues as being paramount this year.
“My [objective] is trying to change the administration right now,” said Marcus Sultan, a well-dressed middle-aged Jew. Sultan said that he thought the country would be better served with power split between the parties, saying it would force the two to cooperate. He likened good government to a business transaction, saying, “When you have two people and both are miserable, that’s when you have a good deal.”
Benny Escava, another Jewish neighborhood resident, also listed national matters as his top priorities. But he also said that public support for private schools was important. His pick on that issue? Cymbrowitz.
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.