Bill de Blasio made a promise eight years ago that he would visit the Orthodox community in New York “one hundred times” in his first three years as mayor. He broke that promise.
But de Blasio — who is term-limited and leaves office at year’s end — maintained strong relationships with Orthodox leaders that broke down only toward the end of his administration, when COVID-19 hit and the community felt wrongly shamed by him.
His strong alliance with the Orthodox was evident in his handling of a slew of controversies over practices important to the group, but it came at the expense of his relations with the less observant and secular, who make up the majority of the city’s 1.1 million Jews. And now, as de Blasio considers a run for governor despite low approval ratings from voters in general, his relationships with Jewish New Yorkers still matter.
De Blasio began making changes that heartened the Orthodox in the first of his two terms.
In 2015 he eased regulations on a risky circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh, he adjusted his signature universal pre-kindergarten program to accommodate yeshivas and private day schools and he delayed the release of a report on yeshiva education that alleged political horse-trading on the issue.
Liberal supporters chafed at what they saw as de Blasio’s overly solicitous attitude toward the Orthodox.
“All the Reform leaders wanted to talk about with him was his stance on metzitzah b’peh and that he was too supportive of Israel,” said one former senior aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share what had been the private conversations. De Blasio’s response, the official continued, was ‘thanks for your input. I appreciate your position, but I spend a lot of time learning the facts and I know the community better than you do.’
De Blasio through a Jewish lens
The arc of de Blasio’s mayoralty and relationship with Jews is of particular interest to me because his campaign kickoff in January 2013 coincided with the birth of my own unlikely career in journalism.
I grew up in the Belz Hasidic community in London and had been working in a hardware store and pizza shop since moving to Brooklyn, but I had always been drawn to politics, and started blogging and live-tweeting about campaign events, news conferences and candidate forums.
I had only a small following and no institutional backing, but I paid attention to details — once drawing laughs from the candidates when I asked what they were drinking during an event. I considered my beat whatever was important to Jewish voters.
Using a pocket camera, I documented de Blasio welcomed as a hero at an Orthodox rally in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn after he pledged to repeal restrictions on a controversial circumcision ritual.
I also caught then-mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress after a sexting scandal, in a fiery exchange with a Jewish voter. It went viral within minutes and was a breakthrough moment for me. But since it happened hours before Rosh Hashanah, I couldn’t respond to the many interview requests from journalists who wanted me to discuss this very public argument.
Still , and especially since the release of a popular documentary on Weiner, people recognize me as the reporter who captured this pivotal moment in his political downfall.
By the time de Blasio became mayor, I had been hired by JP News, a local Orthodox media outlet. During the next eight years, working for Jewish Insider and eventually the Forward, I regularly attended City Hall events, policy announcements, legislative breakfasts, and in 2015 traveled with de Blasio — who called Jerusalem “the sixth borough” — to Israel. He took several staffers with him, but also Orthodox supporters.
As a reporter for Jewish outlets, I often zagged from what my colleagues in the non-Jewish press saw as the story of the day, focusing on religious affairs, Israel and antisemitism. Though I stood out because of my Hasidic dress and accent, de Blasio treated me no differently than other journalists, occasionally praising my writing but also challenging “the premise” of my questions. “Let’s come down to earth, my friend,” he said when I once asked about his response to a spike in antisemitism from the left.
De Blasio’s aides declined a request to interview him for this story and didn’t respond to questions sent by email.
Generally, the outgoing mayor is notorious for his combative exchanges with local reporters. Since the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020 he has had few in-person question-and-answer sessions. Daily press briefings moved to a virtual setting in which reporters dial in and may only pose questions if called upon. His reluctance to do exit interviews may also relate to his interest in running in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The more than a dozen Jewish leaders and former Jewish aides interviewed for this article -– many of whom who have known de Blasio for decades and spoke anonymously to share their thoughts more freely — noted that his friendships with Orthodox Jewish leaders predated his mayoral tenure by many years, and that he understood these relationships to be particularly valuable after his election.
Before he was mayor, de Blasio was an aide to former Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s. On the City Council from 2001 to 2009, he represented Park Slope and a portion of the heavily Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. He served one term as the city’s public advocate before his mayoral run.
One of his former senior aides said that de Blasio stayed in contact with some four dozen members of the Orthodox community after he became mayor, insisting on hearing directly from them, sometimes over the objections of his staff. “It meant a lot to him,” the aide said.
“There’s always been that comfort level that de Blasio has had with the Jewish community across the board from secular to ultra-religious,” added another Jewish leader who has had a personal relationship with him for more than three decades.
Herbert Block, who is Orthodox and served as Jewish liaison to former Mayor David Dinkins, said de Blasio cultivated friendships among the Orthodox and came to understand them intimately. He also genuinely “cares about the community,” said Block, who first introduced de Blasio to Dinkins in the late 1980s and has stayed in close contact with him since. De Blasio was also a groomsman at Block’s wedding.
De Blasio had authentic friendships within the Orthodox community and “was not just paying lip service to it,” said a senior aide who was involved in decisions that affected Orthodox Jews in particular.
These longstanding alliances helped de Blasio get to City Hall.
He barely avoided a run-off in the crowded Democratic primary in 2013 by winning the support of an influential Orthodox voting bloc, known as the Aharonim sect of Satmar in Williamsburg. They hedged their bets on de Blasio, who was competing for their votes with Bill Thompson, the city’s comptroller and a favorite to win.
Rachel Amar, who worked for de Blasio when he was on city council, said one of his biggest strengths as a progressive coalition builder was that he still found a seat at the table for the Orthodox “even if they had different political leanings.”
But nurturing these ties, de Blasio frustrated others who saw them as an obstacle to sound policy.
“He really missed out on being able to represent and get to know the vast majority of New York’s Jewish community,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.
Timoner, who is co-founder of the New York Jewish Agenda, a liberal Jewish advocacy group launched last year, noted that most New York City Jews are liberal and don’t appreciate de Blasio’s approach to yeshiva education or his affiliation with AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.
“Mayor de Blasio got it wrong,” she said. “He didn’t accurately see the Jewish population.”
Naftuli Moster, the head of YAFFED, a group founded by former yeshiva students and parents that campaigns for better secular studies at yeshivas, said New Yorkers are “disgusted” by how de Blasio embraces progressive principles but will abandon them “the moment when something is not politically expedient.”
Rabbi Joe Potasnik, executive vice president of the interdenominational New York Board of Rabbis, characterized de Blasio’s relations with the city’s Jews as positive overall. “The true test of a friendship is when you can have a disagreement and still retain the relationship,” he said.
Responding to critics’ charges that de Blasio tried too hard to please his Orthodox supporters, the mayor’s aides said that his progressive policies in general align with the majority of the Jewish community’s values.
A relationship gone wrong
De Blasio’s warm relations with Orthodox leaders often didn’t extend to average Orthodox voters in Brooklyn, who are generally aligned with Republicans on fiscal and social issues and loyal to former President Donald Trump.
De Blasio didn’t deny that tension.
“There are some members of the Jewish community who have been friends and supporters that I disagree with on some issues, they disagree with me on some issues,” de Blasio told me in 2016, “but we’ve found a huge amount of common ground in terms of the needs of the community, in terms of working on things like affordable housing, public safety, trying to make sure that all communities are respected and their faiths are respected, and their cultures are respected. And I think that will continue.”
The mayor managed to enrage much of the Jewish community with a single tweet in April 2020. After witnessing a large Orthodox funeral in Williamsburg, de Blasio warned “the Jewish community, and all communities” that police would vigorously enforce social distancing rules that prohibited such public gatherings. Many Orthodox leaders took offense to the singling out of their people and this particular funeral, and asked why de Blasio didn’t crack down on crowds in public parks. Others were infuriated by what they saw as “scapegoating” of all Jews based on the behavior of one sect.
Freddi Goldstein, then the mayor’s press secretary, said de Blasio’s outrage came “from a place of love and concern.” In the aftermath, de Blasio apologized repeatedly. His attempt to mend ties met with limited success.
A poll published in June by JP News showed 84% of registered Orthodox voters disapproved of de Blasio’s handling of his job as mayor, including 64% who strongly disapproved. Another poll, taken in October, had de Blasio’s favorability at 13% among registered Jewish voters in New York State.
Taking sides on Israel
De Blasio was proud to call New York City “the center of the Jewish universe in so many ways,” but this affinity also extended to Israel. He has been an ardent supporter and is also an outspoken critic of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement.
Barely a month in office, de Blasio delivered a fervent pro-Israel speech at a closed AIPAC meeting, and faced fierce liberal backlash. He had told the crowd that “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC.” Though he disagreed with its opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he maintained close ties with the pro-Israel group throughout his mayoralty. “I agree with AIPAC’s strong defense of the state of Israel, as a general principle,” de Blasio told me in 2015.
A former senior aide said both the far-left and the hawkish right seemed to be confused by de Blasio’s positions on Israel. But he said they shouldn’t be. “He believes the creation of Israel as a Jewish state is a correct and necessary outcome of the Holocaust. That’s all,” the official said. “That doesn’t mean its government can do no wrong or that its treatment of Palestinians doesn’t need drastic improvement.”
The former aide pointed to de Blasio’s strong support of a two-state solution and his condemnation of then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election remarks denigrating Arab voters and the idea of a Palestinian state.
On his only official trip to Israel as mayor, in the fall of 2015, de Blasio was criticized for not traveling to the occupied West Bank to meet with Palestinian officials. Instead, he took a field trip with a school that teaches both Jewish and Arab students to an olive grove near a kibbutz west of Jerusalem.
Amy Spitalnick, who was a spokesperson for the mayor at the time, said de Blasio “successfully walked the line” during that trip, which occurred during a spate of deadly terrorist attacks across the country. Spitalnick, who was previously a spokeswoman for J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby, said de Blasio’s support for Israel is “deeply personal” and that it was obvious that he would come under considerable scrutiny for it as mayor.
A former de Blasio staffer recalled a private conversation with him in the early 2000s in which he bragged about being more conservative on Israel than the young Jewish staffer, but still conveyed an understanding of the myriad views on Israel within the Jewish community.
Spitalnick said the most memorable moment of that trip was de Blasio’s heartfelt speech against antisemitism at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. “In many ways, his focus and concern for antisemitism all the way back then ended up being so prescient in a way that perhaps none of us realized at the time, and he deserves some credit for that,” she said.
In the race for governor, Jews will comprise a significant part of the electorate — about 9% — and many of the same issues de Blasio confronted as mayor of the city with the largest Jewish population in the world will follow him on to this next campaign trail.
On Friday at midnight, Eric Adams becomes mayor of New York City. He too has longstanding ties with Orthodox leaders and has indicated no inclination to pivot from de Blasio’s approach to the community. And though the event was eventually canceled due to rising COVID-19 cases, last week Adams changed the time of his inauguration to after sundown on Saturday so Orthodox Jews could participate.