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Interview: Andrew Yang’s friends shaped his understanding of Jewish New Yorkers

As Andrew Yang was putting together the final touches on the launch of his New York City mayoral campaign, a controversial stance he took against circumcision when he was running for president in 2020 resurfaced on social media. “I have attended multiple friends’ brises and felt privileged to do so,” Yang responded to a local reporter who cautioned that the stance he took would hurt him in a city with a predominantly Jewish population. “I believe in religious freedom.”

The clarification seemed like the typical “I have many Jewish friends” answer that politicians give when accused of antisemitism. But it appears some of Yang’s close friends are indeed Jewish.

In a 30-minute interview over Zoom with the Forward, Yang named three men who have influenced him over the years. One of them is Zeke Vanderhoek, who took Yang in as a partner in an education company he founded in 2000 called Manhattan Prep, which enrolled more students than any other firm to prepare for the graduate business school exam.

“I credit a lot of my success to my partnership with Zeke,” Yang said.

He described a friendship as much as a business relationship.

“There were so many things I learned from Zeke,” Yang said. “One of the first things he did after we started working together is give me a copy of “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel – in part, so I would understand the Sabbath more deeply,” reocunted Yang, a member of the Reformed Church of New Paltz, New York. Yang said the book had a profound impact on him. “I think that modern society would benefit by having more of a cathedral in time,” he said, referring to the idea of unplugging from technology for 24 hours.

Yang, 46, said Vanderhoek also shared with him the stories of his family members who perished in the Holocaust. He was also once invited to a Passover Seder with Vanderhoek’s family. “It was a wonderful occasion,” he said.

But it wasn’t the circumcisions of Vanderhoek’s children that Yang referred to in his tweet, since his close friend only had girls. It was the bris of one of the boys of another friend, Charlie Penner, the head of the JANA Partners investment management firm, with whom Yang played basketball on weekends. Yang said there was another bris he went to that he couldn’t remember. “I’m going to have to reflect on this,” he said, bursting out in laughter. “It was definitely here in New York.”

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1999, Yang began his career as a corporate attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City. That’s where he became friends with Avrohom Gelber, an Orthodox Jew who was an associate at the law firm. ”He took me to eat at My Most Favorite Dessert place when we were officemates and I got to meet his wife and kids one day at the office,” he recalled.

NYC mayoral candidate Andrew Yang during a recent tour in Borough Park, Brooklyn NY

Image by Jacob Kornbluh

As a minority, feeling a kinship with the Jewish community

In recent months, Yang – who has a double-digit lead over his competitors in the June 22 Democratic primary – has invested time courting the city’s Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, an historically influential voting bloc in local elections. He defended the yeshiva education system and took a bold stance labeling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as antisemitic.

“If you grow up as the child of immigrants, and the only person in your ethnic group in a particular area, I think you can’t help but feel commonality with people who are marginalized or even victimized,” said Yang, who grew up in suburban Westchester County to parents who emigrated from Taiwan. Yang, who would become the first Asian-American mayor of the city if elected, explained that while he does not consider his identity to be a factor in the crowded field, his experiences growing up give him “a greater degree of empathy for some of what New Yorkers in different communities are going through.”

Yang’s position on BDS, which he first described as being “rooted in antisemitic thought” in an OpEd for the Forward in January, drew backlash from progressive and Muslim-American groups and triggered some confusion in the Orthodox community when he told a Muslim-American advocacy group that he had since learned that BDS is a non-violent movement with the right to protest Israeli policies. He later sought to clarify his stance.

“I will confess to learning a lot about many different communities over the last number of weeks,” Yang said. But he didn’t seem to waver on his support for Israel and his opposition to BDS, which he equated to a fundamental rejection of the Jewish state. “I strongly oppose BDS for a number of reasons, primarily because BDS does not recognize the right of Israel to exist – and that belief is antisemitic,” he said in the interview. “I take very seriously the fact that the mayor of New York City will be the mayor of the largest Jewish population out of Israel, and I look forward to traveling to Israel on my first trip as mayor.”

Yang doesn’t see that as pandering. “If you look at some of the things I’ve taken stances on, I am not sure that they were, frankly, things that some political person would be advising you to be advocating for,” Yang said. But he maintained that he’s serving as a voice for the voiceless. “I have a point of view on what we can do to improve our city, and it’s very much born of a desire to solve problems and improve people’s lives,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang meets voters on visit to Borough Park on April 09,2021

Image by Jacob Kornbluh

Yang recently visited Borough Park for a campaign ad video shoot and toured Yeshiva Darchei Torah and the Weiss Vocational Center in Far Rockaway, Queens. He also met in private with the leaders of the Hasidic Bobov sect, the largest Orthodox voting bloc in Borough Park.

The candidate, who set off a firestorm in February when he told the Forward that he would not take action to boost secular education in yeshivas if elected mayor, said he was “impressed, quite consistently” by the level of secular education he saw when visiting the Orthodox community. “When I visited the Torah Academy for Girls in Far Rockaway, I received a number of questions from the students and they were both intelligent and uplifting,” Yang said. “The quality of secular education, I think, would surprise a lot of people – whether that’s the assignments that are read in the Bobov community or seeing the students in action in Far Rockaway.”

“One thing I will say very consistently,” he continued, “is when I meet Jewish students, they seem to love their school. And I will say that’s not common in a lot of other schools in New York City, where if you lined up a group of a dozen children and said, ‘Hey, do you love your high school?’ I think you’d get like a whole wide array of reactions and it would probably take a little time. Whereas – and I’ve done that twice – with groups of students and it’s unanimous and genuine that they love their school.”

Yang suggested that while he concentrated his efforts courting Orthodox voting blocs, he understands the concerns of the greater Jewish community in New York. About 1.1 million of New York’s 8.5 million residents are Jewish. “I think New Yorkers are unified in concerns about public safety right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, that concern is more prevalent among the Jewish community because we’re seeing a surge in hatred and antisemitic incidents of violence, and it’s gotten much worse.”

A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League showed that nearly 10% of Jews surveyed said they had been physically attacked in the last five years because they were Jewish. At the same time, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen significantly since the coronavirus outbreak. Recent violent attacks on Asian-Americans in New York and across the country — including last month’s brutal attack on a Filipino woman near Times Square and the fatal shootings in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent – has put Yang in the spotlight. “Our city is badly wounded right now,” Yang said. “And I think because of the suffering right now, some of the divisions seem more pronounced.”

Yang said that he feels some real commonalities with the Jewish community as someone who felt singled out and was bullied as being one of the only Asian-American kids in the Westchester town of Somers, where he grew up. “You don’t really forget those experiences. They are kind of imprinted into who you are,” he said. “But I believe that the Jewish experience is singular in terms of the history of hatred and the consequences that that your community has experienced.”

Mayoral candidate Andrew yang meets voters on visit to Borough Park on April 09,2021

Image by Jacob Kornbluh

How to explain New York to an alien, and other questions

In the remaining time of our Zoom interview, we asked Yang a lightning round of questions:

How would you explain New Yorkers to an alien from outer space?

“I would tell that alien that a New Yorker is anyone who lives in New York and wants to build a future here. Whether that person has just arrived or has been here for generations, if they want to build a future in New York City, then they should be included. We are a community of immigrants, or descendants of immigrants in many cases. We are extraordinarily diverse, and I think that’s something that so many of us love about in New York City. I have loved traveling to communities all throughout the city. And so if you want to explain what a New Yorker is like, it has to be a very broad definition because there are so many different people from so many different backgrounds.”

What is the last book you read?

“Oh, I know this because I just finished it. It was Kevin Roose’s book, which is called “Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation.”

What’s the newest habit you’ve developed during the pandemic that you would hold onto going forward?

“I was hospitalized for a kidney stone a couple of weeks ago, and now I drink a lot of water. I hope I maintain that habit because it’s good.”

What public figure would you most model your mayoralty after?

“[Long pause…] I like to think that this is going to be something new — like a combination of some leaders of the past. But I’d like to create my own mold.”

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