Senator Kristen Gillibrand speaks at a rally in New York in 2019. by the Forward

Jewish constituents put renewed focus on Sen. Gillibrand. She welcomes it.

Chuck Schumer is a hard act to follow. The 70-year-old Senate Majority Leader imbues all he does with his scrappy Brooklyn Jewish upbringing. Kristen Gillibrand, the junior senator from upstate New York who was raised Catholic, has a much more nuanced relationship with her state’s Jewish citizens.

In an interview after the inauguration of Joe Biden and as Schumer moved up to a broader governing position, Gillibrand, 54, said she aims to “be a resource and an advocate for all of our Jewish communities in New York,” adding: “That is a priority for me.”

In the 12 years since her appointment to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, Gillibrand — fresh off a failed bid for president in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary — has established herself, particularly on issues like women’s rights, equal pay, sexual abuse and, healthcare and ethics. That earned her a 100% rating from women’s rights advocacy and progressive groups. At the same time, Gillibrand has also pushed for the inclusion of kosher and halal foods in federal food programs and secured security grants for yeshivas and Jewish institutions.

Gillibrand is a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; the special Committee on Aging, and the Armed Services Committee. She recently got assigned to the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Jewish leaders who have worked with Gillibrand and her staff variously describe her as being responsive to their needs and focused on the areas where she feels can make a difference. Several leaders of mainstream and Orthodox Jewish groups in New York, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely about the incumbent, expressed dissatisfaction and described her as lacking conviction and leadership skills.

David Greenfield, CEO of the Met Council — the largest free kosher food distributor in the U.S. — said Gillibrand “has been working with us tirelessly to try to make changes that are necessary so that we can have the kosher and halal communities have access to the desperately needed free food the federal government provides.”

Susan Turnbull, who worked with Gillibrand when she was a House member, said the senator “has always been surrounded by – both her staff and friends – members of the Jewish community.. She added, “No one in the Jewish community is a stranger to that office, and she has been a stalwart supporter of Jewish causes and of Jewish organizations.”

’Does she feel it in her kishkes?’

But for some people in the community, showing up matters. “When it comes to the Jewish community in general, she does not have it on her to-do list to be a senator who is vested in seeing her home constituency,” one Jewish leader who refused to go on the record said. Another leader said that “on the kishke gauge, does she feel it in her kishkes? The answer is, I’m not sure.”

Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, disputed that notion. “To me, I believe she has her hands on the pulse on the issues that she feels she can make a difference,” he said, pointing to her committee assignments that deal with agriculture, the environment, and aging.

Gillibrand maintained she takes her representation of the Jewish community in New York “very seriously.” She pointed out that following the deadly stabbing attack in Monsey, New York on Hanukkah in 2019, she visited the Hasidic community and held a roundtable with local leaders. “I will continue to stand up against antisemitism in all its forms,” Gillibrand said.

One Orthodox leader, also declining to go on the record, suggested that Gillibrand “has downplayed the importance of outreach to our community.” The official added, “One would have thought that the senator from New York would aggressively pursue this relationship, and I don’t think she has.”

Supporting Israel’s security

Even before the pandemic, you were not likely to see Gillibrand giving a rousing speech on the main stage of an AIPAC conference or bump into her at the annual Jewish Community Relations Council congressional breakfast in midtown Manhattan.

In the phone interview, Gillibrand said she has a record of standing up in support of Israel and its security. She referenced her support for the funding of joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, such as the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3 programs. She also pointed to a letter she spearheaded in 2016 urging the Obama administration to veto the U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s West Bank settlements as illegal. She later criticized Obama for abstaining.

Gillibrand pointed back to 2010, when the Israeli military stormed a Turkish-led aid flotilla that attempted to circumvent the blockade of Gaza. The New York senator said she was “the first elected leader to say that Israel had a right, and, in fact, a duty to protect itself.” She also mentioned her criticism of the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, which blamed Israel for the casualties during the 2009 war in Gaza.

And in January, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill Gillibrand co-sponsored with Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, elevating the special envoy on antisemitism to the rank of ambassador.

During the debate over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, Gillibrand infuriated some pro-Israel and Jewish groups who were opposed to the deal. She also came under fire for withdrawing her support from a bipartisan bill that empowers state and local governments to counter the BDS movement following pressure by the ACLU and other liberal advocacy groups.

Despite that, Gillibrand maintained that her door was always open for dialogue with all Jewish groups. She noted that she meets with AIPAC’s New York delegation every year on the sidelines of the group’s annual policy conference — including last year, while she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. “And I will continue to do that,” Gillibrand added, though this year, AIPAC won’t be holding the policy conference and their in-person lobbying effort due to the pandemic.

Masbia’s Rapaport described a recent, tense, closed-door meeting Gillibrand had with more than a dozen Orthodox leaders that focused on Israel and Jewish-related matters. “I was very impressed by the way she handled herself,” he said of the senator.

“Instinctively, she knows what would benefit the Jewish community of New York,” said Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “She knows of the strength of the formidable relationship between the New York Jewish community and the state of Israel.”

Gillibrand is more in sync with the positions of J Street, a pro-peace and liberal Jewish advocacy group. Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street, described Gillibrand as “a consistent supporter of strong diplomacy whose views on foreign policy are consistent with those of the vast majority of American Jews.”

Having visited Israel several times as a member of Congress, Gillibrand criticized a recent questionnaire by the Democratic Socialists of America that asked New York City Council candidates to agree not to travel to Israel if elected.

“I think going places and seeing it for yourself is vital in understanding the challenges that we face, especially when you’re talking about national security,” Gillibrand stressed. She described a tour of the rocket-stricken city of Sderot — near Israel’s border with Gaza — as “one of the most meaningful visits I had to Israel that really led me to understand more deeply why these security [funds] are so important, and it has allowed me to lead letters [of support] and get bipartisan support to protect Israel.”

“As soon as I’m allowed to travel,” she added, “I will return to Israel.”

Insurrection and impeachment

As the Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump for the second time on Saturday, Gillibrand said it was an appropriate step to take as a constitutional duty to hold Trump accountable for the insurrection of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

She called it “outrageous and deeply disturbing” that 45 Republican senators voted against the constitutionality of trying Trump after he left office. “They have, unfortunately, shown us over the last four years that they don’t have a backbone or principles, and they don’t stand up for their oath to protect the Constitution,” she said.

Gillibrand said “accountability will have to be made through other means,” and expressed hope that state attorneys general will file criminal and civil prosecutions against the president. On Wednesday, an Atlanta-area district attorney launched a criminal investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election result in the state of Georgia. Inquiries into Trump’s businesses are also accelerating in New York.

With Biden in office and Schumer as head of the Senate, Gillibrand is now in a position to push through some of the reforms she has been working on for the past 15 years in Washington. “Whether I’m in D.C. or I’m in New York, I’m always representing New Yorkers,” Gillibrand said.

Kirsten Gillibrand’s relationship with NY Jews

Author

Jacob Kornbluh

Jacob Kornbluh

Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email kornbluh@forward.com.

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