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Williamsburg primary upset might indicate slipping power for Hasidic leaders

The victory of an activist over a long-serving state politician might signal that there’s more support, even in a devout Brooklyn district, for secular education in religious schools than suspected.

Community organizer Emily Gallagher, 36, narrowly beat Assemblyman Joe Lentol, 77, by an estimated 400 to 600 votes in the Democratic primary in the 50th Assembly District, which includes Hasidic Williamsburg.

She did so despite the fact that Lentol had been in office since 1973, longer than she has been alive, and had endorsements from Jewish leaders like Rabbi David Niederman, Simcha Eichenstein, Moshe Shmuel Lando and Sholem Pesach Grinberg, some of whom praised him for his commitment to protect their yeshivas from what they saw as outside interference. Lentol is Catholic.

“Emily Gallagher’s win against Joe Lentol in Brooklyn is a loss for the Satmar leadership who have totally lost the younger generation,” tweeted Rabbi Pini Dunner, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in California with ties to the east coast Hasidic community. “This electoral upset is a quiet revolution that is gathering pace.”

Voters reported seeing signs in Yiddish for Lentol defaced with a spray-painted black “x.”

Dunner said when reached by WhatsApp that he knows “the younger generation are fed up being directed to vote for those who keep the ancien regime functioning and alive.”

With Hasidic leadership making yeshivas a central issue in their endorsements for Lentol, it’s possible that dissenters who are supportive of reform at the schools did not tow the party line this primary season, or simply did not vote, either in person or by mail.

Williamsburg is home to one of two of the largest communities of Satmar Hasidim in the world, a dynasty characterized by strict religious observance and insularity with roots in pre-war Hungary.

Gallagher, the founder of the Greenpoint Sexual Assault Task Force, an advocate for bike lanes and an opponent of gentrification, may seem like an unlikely representative for this community. But while she did not address the yeshivas issue in her campaign, Gallagher stressed that she supports affordable housing and pre-school vouchers that would help her Hasidic constituents.

The district includes parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Navy Yard and Clinton Hill.

By many accounts, Lentol’s loss was a surprise. Explanations range from low turnout among the Hasidim in Williamsburg, normally a powerful voting bloc, to a changing tide on yeshivas and lesser influence of the neighborhood’s religious leaders who were calling for Lentol’s victory, to greater turnout among the district’s progressives, according to Jewish leaders and advocates for more oversight over secular education at yeshivas.

At the root of the leadership’s support of Lentol was a longstanding relationship with the legislator, who supported Orthodox leaders in forcibly opening parks despite the mayor’s closure due to the coronavirus, who delivered a letter on the leaders’ behalf to Governor Cuomo asking summer camps to open this season, who attended legislative breakfasts for yeshiva advocates and rubbed elbows with lobbyists and other parties interested in preserving the current state of secular education at yeshivas.

Lentol was winning the June 23 election by about 1,800 votes until mail-in ballots began to roll in. After that, Gallagher scrambled to a lead.

While Gallagher’s campaign did not run on any issues related to the yeshivas, Satmar leadership positioned her as an enemy of the cause about two weeks before the election.

“The dedicated Joe Lentol who advocates for our rights is at risk of losing to dangerous leftist elements,” said a June 19 story in Der Yid, the widely-read Hasidic newspaper in Williamsburg.

“When it comes to the decrees regarding religious education he’s our best friend and strongest defender,” wrote Niederman in Yiddish in his endorsement for Lentol in Der Yid. “Dear brothers: if we, God forbid, fail to reelect him we shall suffer bitterly. The danger to our religious education and all of our other problems could, God forbid, become much greater.”

Gallagher addressed these attacks, publishing a series of tweets in Yiddish that reassured voters that “The Jewish community of Williamsburg is a critical part of this district” and promised to fight for affordable housing, pre-school vouchers and summer camps, urging voters “not to give credence to the fiery campaign rhetoric and gossip personally attacking me that you are likely to hear in the coming days.”

Apparently, her reassurances worked.

Naftuli Moster, the leader of Yaffed, a pro-yeshiva reform group behind the substantial equivalency fight, said in an email that he thought Gallagher’s win was more “indicative of progressives in different parts of NY realizing that they don’t have to settle for democrats, and that if they turned out in large numbers they can actually elect progressives or even socialists.”

“It’s not so much a function of Chasidim voting in lower numbers or not listening to their rabbis’ choices,” he added. “But rather, the neighboring communities turning out in greater numbers, rendering the Hasidic bloc vote less effective.”

And despite their big push for Lentol, the Hasidic leaders expressed optimism about Gallagher’s fighting for their causes, ostensibly including yeshivas.

“The election is over and we look forward to working with the new Democratic nominee, Emily Gallagher, whom we know for years on the Community Board,” said Niederman in a statement. “Knowing Emily, she will continue to fight for the entire Williamsburg community and the concerns unique to each community’s own communal and religious issues.”

Jordan Kutzik contributed reporting and Yiddish translation.

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at boigon@forward.com or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon

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