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NYC mayoral candidates promise the Jewish community an open door at City Hall

Shortly after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York managed to enrage much of the Jewish community with a single tweet.

After witnessing a large funeral in the Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last April, de Blasio warned “the Jewish community, and all communities” that police would take extreme measures to enforce social-distancing restrictions prohibiting public gatherings. Many Orthodox leaders took offense to the singling out of their community and this particular funeral rather than cracking down on crowds in public parks. And others, across New York and the country, were infuriated by what they saw as “scapegoating” of all Jews based on the behavior of one sect.

A few months later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo drew backlash from Orthodox leaders over his executive order limiting attendance at houses of worship following an uptick in COVID-19 cases in some neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.

Now, the leading candidates in New York’s crowded race for mayor are pledging to adopt a more sensitive approach to the city’s Orthodox populations, a voting bloc that has proved powerful in the past and could be even more so in this year’s experiment with ranked-choice voting.

In response to a Forward questionnaire ahead of the June 22 Democratic primaries, several candidates were critical of how Cuomo and de Blasio handled the pandemic response in Orthodox areas. Several have also made pointed efforts at outreach to those communities, meeting leaders in private Zoom calls or appointing special liaisons.

Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, said that city and state governments both failed to communicate effectively about COVID-19 with the various diverse communities.

“We should have used credible messengers and the city’s census campaign infrastructure to communicate effectively on the ground, while collaborating actively with trusted newspaper, radio, and digital media outlets,” Adams said in a response to the Forward’s nine-question survey. “Additionally, enforcement should be done in a precision manner, so as not to penalize the large portions of the community that are abiding by the restrictions.”

Ray McGuire, a former Citibank executive, echoed that sentiment. “We cannot implement or communicate policy in a way that vilifies any of our communities or increases risk of them being singled out for harassment,” he said. If elected, he pledged, “I will focus on having a respectful working relationship that handles difficult issues professionally and thoughtfully.”

In recent weeks, a number of the candidates have participated in private Zoom calls with leaders of the Orthodox and other faith-based communities. They have also publicly expressed their views on on how City Hall should engage with [yeshiva curriculums]( and touted their support for Israel and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On a lighter note, some went on at length to satisfy the bagel-and-lox crowd.

About 1.1 million of New York’s 8.5 million residents are Jewish. Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant who specializes in campaign voter files, estimated that Jews could comprise 20% of the electorate in the June 22 primaries, which are likely to determine the next mayor.

“I plan on not just lip service, but having a true partnership,” vowed Maya Wiley, a civil rights activist who served as counsel to de Blasio during his first term. “This is a central mechanism of my leadership style and will be an integral part of my administration.”

In recent interviews, several Orthodox leaders expressed satisfaction with the level of outreach and engagement they have seen so far from the top candidates.

Maury Litwack, executive director of Teach Coalition, a project of the Orthodox Union, said his group has already hosted four candidates for virtual meetings and has more scheduled in the coming weeks. Litwack said it’s important for the Orthodox community to get candidates to put their positions on key issues on paper beyond generic statements.

“It’s been very difficult with the current administration to change their mind about policies or to introduce them to new ideas and new policies,” Litwack said, referring to de Blasio’s team. “They’ve been set in their ways when it comes to a lot of issues that are important to the community, and they haven’t explored or been receptive to new policies or to adjusting policies.”

Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group of Orthodox organizations, said “the most important thing is to have to have a candidate that will take your phone calls and will respond to you when you reach out to him.”

Zweibel said his group has already heard from three candidates, and has lined up another three for virtual calls with a wide range of leaders. “It is reassuring that they feel that it is worth their time to reach out,” he added. “That’s the greatest accomplishment of these town-hall gatherings. It really reminds the candidates that there is a significant constituency that you can’t ignore.”

On the issue of religious freedom, Kathryn Garcia, who recently stepped down as commissioner of the department of sanitation, said both the governor and the mayor should have worked with trusted community leaders to develop the coronavirus-related restrictions before announcing them. In addition, she said, the government “should have done everything possible to allow people to practice their faith while making it safe — even if it means getting creative with outdoor tents, for example.”

Shaun Donovan, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, echoed Adams’ statements about the importance of using a variety of languages to communicate with the city’s diverse populations. “I would have placed the announcements of the restrictions in local Yiddish newspapers,” he said, “as well as asked the many rebbes to partner with me to encourage their communities to abide by the regulations.” And Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, said he would have “enlisted the help of trusted messengers within the community to share information and provide guidance on getting help.”

Adams said that if had been mayor, he would have told Cuomo to stay out of it. “I know my communities, I know the issues, and I already have relationships with many of the leaders,” Adams said. “So I would have said, ‘Let me handle this. New York City would take care of that problem.’”

The candidates who responded to the Forward questionnaire also shared their plans for combating and prosecuting antisemitism, one of the top three issues identified as priorities by Jewish Vote, a progressive grassroots group formed in 2018 by leaders of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice with 5,000 dues-paying members.

Garcia, for example, promised to streamline the work that currently exists across numerous agencies and offices. “For our city’s Jewish community, antisemitism was a problem before the pandemic,” she said. “I will always speak up and call a spade a spade, and hire leaders that are both representative of the communities and serve and share my unwavering commitment to being an inclusive and equitable city for all New Yorkers.”

McGuire said he would push for comprehensive anti-bias and anti-hate education, and call injustices out every time. “I will protect funding for hate-crime units in the NYPD and have a zero-tolerance policy,” he added.

Wiley and Donovan each wrote answers of more than 500 words on the matter, pledging to implement greater enforcement and increase funding for public-safety measures, while bolstering education and prosecution.

Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate who recent polls show as the mayoral frontrunner, also called on increased accountability for the NYPD to solve crimes involving antisemitism. “I will ensure that the NYPD, law enforcement agencies and community leaders collaborate to identify solutions that both protect the community and target drivers of hate crime and violent crime,” he added.

Adams said he would empower the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes to include rapid graffiti removal; support expanded anti-hate curriculums in public schools; and build upon a “Breaking Bread, Building Bonds” initiative he launched a few years ago at Brooklyn Borough Hall that brings ethnic communities together for dinner and dialogue.

Stringer pointed to his support of a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Nily Rozic from Queens that would require the state to expand Holocaust education and hate crime awareness and prevention in middle and high schools. “We must re-commit to educating our young people on the dangers of prejudice and bigotry,” he said.

All eight of the candidates who answered the survey said they plan to appoint a liaison to Jewish communities.

Donovan boasted that the Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan he attended while growing up was majority Jewish, and that his sister converted to Judaism with his blessing and support. He said he would appoint a chief equity officer “who will help ensure that communities are heard” and promised that “major decisions will be made in tandem with the Orthodox or broader Jewish community.”

Audrey Sasson, executive director of the new Jewish Vote group, said that when deciding on endorsements the group will examine whether the candidate “will advance an agenda that is transformative” and who will “commit to working alongside movement-based organizations to advance a vision where we all have the resources we need and opportunities we need to thrive.”

Zweibel, of Agudath Israel, said it is yet unclear whether Orthodox Jews will coalesce behind one particular candidate as a bloc vote. Nonetheless, he said, it’s important “to have somebody in City Hall that the community can count on as a friend from time to time.”

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