Politics

How Haredi Priorities Get Heard in Albany

Activists, lobbyists, politicians and others make their voices count

CREDIT: Photo courtesy of NYS Senate Media Services

Mar 23, 2023 4:48 PM

Updated: 

While most Haredi Jews are busy preparing for Pesach, lobbyists across the Jewish world and beyond have traveled to Albany to try to secure their own slice of New York State’s $220 billion budget. The budget is due each year on April 1, which is when the new fiscal year begins. It doesn’t always pass on time; last year, politicians didn’t reach a deal until April 7.

Only items with a fiscal impact can be included in the budget, but sometimes, legislators sneak in bills that reflect their special interests. This year, important issues like yeshiva funding, private school educational standards and synagogue security are on the table, along with funding for housing, Medicaid, public transportation, land use and more.

Haredi leaders are also advocating for increased funding for programs that serve private schools. These programs include: 

  • a universal free lunch program, a program designed to combat food insecurity;
  • security funding as part of the Nonpublic School Safety Equipment Grant, which reimburses nonpublic schools for costs such as external cameras, security fences and walkie-talkies; and
  • Mandated Services Aid, which reimburses private schools for costs associated with meeting state requirements, such as taking attendance, collecting immunization records and administering ELA and Regents exams.

In drafts of the budget released by both houses of the legislature, the funding for all of these programs was increased.

Rabbi Hersh Horowitz of Monsey gives the Invocation on Opening day of the 2020 NY Senate Jan 8 2020 CREDIT Courtesy of NY

Shtetl has researched representatives of the Haredi community – such as legislators, organizations, and activists – who are involved in advocacy around the state budget to explain their roles and where they stand on issues particularly relevant to Haredi communities. 

This article is the first in a series of Shtetl articles covering Haredi leadership and the New York state government.

Simcha Eichenstein (D) is a New York state assembly member representing most of Boro Park and part of Midwood. When he ran for this seat in 2018, he was endorsed by rebbes of six major Hasidic sects, as well as Senator Chuck Schumer. Eichenstein, a Democrat, was also endorsed by former mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he spent more than three years working for as director of political and governmental services. He has criticized media coverage of yeshiva education. “I am a product of the yeshiva system,” he told Politics NY in 2018. “I really believe my yeshiva education is what prepared me for my professional life.” In 2019, Eichenstein helped expand a security program, allowing summer camps that are at heightened risk of hate crimes to access safety grants. He voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would enshrine civil rights for women in the state constitution. Recently, Eichenstein has sponsored bills to provide a rebate for some commuters who use the Verrazano bridge and prohibit unreasonable restrictions on religious land use, along with multiple bills focused on preventing and dealing with hate crimes. In 2022, Eichenstein won reelection against Working Families candidate Linda Holmes with over 94% of the vote.

Simcha Felder (D) is a New York state senator representing Boro Park and parts of its surrounding neighborhoods. In 2018, Felder held up the state budget in an attempt to reduce regulations on yeshivas. Felder has also blocked the installation of speed cameras near city schools, and called for armed police officers to guard schools. He voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would enshrine civil rights for women in the state constitution. Along with state assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, Felder helped pass a law that exempts Hatzolah from having to pay speeding tickets when responding to emergency calls. Most recently, Felder defended Maimonides Hospital management against the "Save Maimonides" campaign, calling it  “not kosher.” In 2022, Felder won reelection against Working Families candidate Marva Brown with over 95% of the vote.

Julia Salazar (D), a democratic socialist, is a state senator who represents Williamsburg. She recently sponsored legislation, along with state assemblymember Emily Gallagher, to strengthen laws against corporal punishment in schools. Last year, she introduced legislation that would allow private accreditation agencies to determine whether private schools are providing education substantially equivalent to that provided by public schools. She also worked with state assembly member Simcha Eichenstein to pass a law allowing some families to receive two SNAP cards as opposed to one. Recently, Salazar honored Shomrim, a controversial neighborhood watch group, on the senate floor.

Daniel Rosenthal (D), was elected in 2017 to represent Kew Gardens Hills and other nearby neighborhoods in the state assembly. He was endorsed in his 2022 race by Agudath Israel leader Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel-associated activist Sorolle Idels, former City Council member David Greenfield, City Council member Lynn Schulman and more. In September, Rosenthal introduced a bill that would require colleges to post campus crime statistics on their websites and inform incoming students about hate crime prevention measures. 

James Skoufis (D), is a state senator representing much of the Catskills. In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill Skoufis sponsored, opposed by the local Hasidic community, that would’ve made it more difficult for Kiryas Joel to expand through annexation. In 2018, Satmar rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum reportedly called Skoufis a “wicked and evil man.” 

Aaron Teitelbaum, the grand rebbe of the Kiryas Joel Satmar Hasidic community, is particularly influential in Albany politics. Teitelbaum worked with former governor Andrew Cuomo in 2018 to negotiate the Felder amendment concerning yeshivas. In an interview with Ami Magazine, he said that he had encouraged state senator Simcha Felder to work to pass the bill. He was also one of few Haredi religious leaders who endorsed Gov. Kathy Hochul in the 2022 gubernatorial election. In 2022, City & State called him and his brother Zalman Leib the fourth-most influential faith leaders in New York.

Agudath Israel of America is a national organization, headquartered in New York, that often sends lobbyists to Albany to advocate for yeshivas to get more government funding. They also advocate for increased child tax credits, government support for childcare and land use decisions that allow Haredi communities to grow geographically. Formed to represent the interests of Litvish Jews according to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, the Council of Torah Sages, it has recently made significant inroads in representing Hasidic interests as well. After the New York Times published a report about how Haredi yeshivas take government money without providing students with a secular education, and how corporal punishment takes place in those schools, Agudath Israel mounted a media and billboard campaign accusing the news organization of antisemitism. In 2019, the group opposed the Reproductive Health Act, which expanded abortion rights in New York State. It also opposed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages. Agudath Israel has employed lobbyist groups Mercury Public Affairs and Brown and Weinraub.

PEARLS is an organization that advocates for looser regulation and enforcement of private schools, so that yeshivas do not have to teach students English, math and science. Also known as Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools, it was formed in 2015 in response to a complaint yeshiva graduates filed saying they did not receive the “substantially equivalent” secular education to which they are entitled under the law. PEARLS employs the MirRam group to lobby on its behalf.

Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. He helps lead PEARLS, an organization that advocates for yeshivas not to have to teach students English, math and science. Zwiebel told Fox News he sees New York Times reporting on yeshiva education as "a crusade to get people to consider Hasidic Jews in a negative light." In 2015, Zwiebel and other rabbis successfully pressed former mayor Bill de Blasio to ease regulations on metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision ritual that can put infants at risk of getting herpes, a sometimes deadly virus. Zwiebel has met with Gov. Kathy Hochul to advocate for yeshiva funding.

Yeruchim Silber is a rabbi who leads Agudath Israel’s New York advocacy. He appeared before the state legislature in February and called on the state to increase funding by $17 million for Mandated Services Aid. Silber is also on the executive committee of Community Board 12, which includes Boro Park.

Chaskel Bennett is an activist with Agudath Israel. He is also on the board of directors of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush and a cofounder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition. Bennett helped enact a law that extends the state Tuition Assistance Program to rabbinical students. He has also criticized media coverage of Haredi yeshiva education. In 2021, Bennett met with Gov. Kathy Hochul to ask her to veto a bill that Agudath Israel believed was meant to prevent Hasidic Jews from moving to a town outside of Kiryas Joel; Hochul vetoed it, citing tensions in the community. Bennett has also met with Hochul to advocate for more yeshiva funding. Speaking to Ami Magazine, he listed some of his top priorities as “police presence, religious protections, help for yeshivos [and] anti-discrimination efforts.”

Sorolle Idels is the founder of the Queens Jewish Alliance, an Orthodox activist group that launched in 2019. The group endorsed Lee Zeldin in the 2022 gubernatorial election. Idels sometimes joins Agudath Israel of America to lobby state lawmakers for more yeshiva funding.

The Orthodox Union is an organization mostly aligned with the Modern Orthodox movement, best known for its kosher certification agency. In 2013, the OU started the Teach Coalition, which focuses on advocating for private schools to receive more government support in New York and other states. The OU has employed lobbyist groups Dickinson & Avella; Moonshot Strategies; Jenkins, Patrick B. and Associates and Capitol Consulting NY to advocate its interests in Albany.

Maury Litwack founded and leads the OU’s TEACH Coalition. In this role, he successfully lobbied the state to begin funding security guards and science education at private schools, plus expand funding for existing programs. 

Jake Adler is Gov. Kathy Hochul's Jewish liaison. Previously, he spent five years advocating for more yeshiva funding as director of the New York chapter of the Orthodox Union’s TEACH Coalition. Prior to that, he worked for former City Council members Simcha Felder and David Greenfield.

David Greenfield is the CEO of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty. He represented Boro Park in the New York City Council from 2010 to 2017. Prior to that, he led the New York chapter of the Orthodox Union’s TEACH Coalition. As councilmember, Greenfield passed a law requiring the city to reimburse nonpublic schools with at least 300 students for costs they incur hiring unarmed security guards. In 2014, when current governor Kathy Hochul was campaigning to be elected lieutenant governor, Greenfield campaigned with her in Boro Park; he has supported her since then.

David Niederman is a rabbi and the executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, which serves the Hasidic community. Niederman is especially influential in the faction of the Satmar community led by Zalman Teitelbaum. He helps lead PEARLS, an organization that advocates for yeshivas not to have to teach students English, math and science. In 2022, City & State called Niederman the eighth-most influential faith leader in New York; his political endorsements are reported to hold sway in his community. 

Gedalye Szegedin is a rabbi and the long-serving administrator of the Haredi village of Kiryas Joel. Szedegin met with Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2021 when he visited the village and also met with Gov. Kathy Hochul that year to talk about infrastructure.

Joel Rosenfeld is the director of government affairs for the Bobov sect of Hasidic Judaism. In the 2022 elections, Rosenfeld endorsed republican Lee Zeldin for New York governor and democrat Dan Goldman for U.S. Congress. He told Hamodia he believes the government should have no role in setting standards for secular education in yeshivas. Rosenfeld encouraged state senator Simcha Eichenstein to work to expand an anti-hate crime security grant program to summer camps.

Shiya Ostreicher is a Belz Hasid who is also very influential in New York city and state politics. He helped enact a law that extends the state Tuition Assistance Program to rabbinical students. He also helped found Relief, a nonprofit organization that helps people within the community access mental health care.

Aron Wieder, who is Hasidic, is a Democrat who represents Spring Valley in the Rockland County legislature. In the 2022 gubernatorial election, he endorsed Kathy Hochul. In 2022, Wieder welcomed busloads of newly-arrived immigrants from the southern border and helped provide them with food, footwear, and toiletries. In 2016, he ran for state assembly and lost after failing to win the support of the Satmar community. Wieder is director of public affairs and government relations at Hamaspik, an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities.

Ezra Friedlander is a public relations strategist who lobbies at the federal and state level. According to his firm’s website, His clients have included Haredi religious leaders in Kiryas Joel, Agudath Israel of America, the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, JCC Marine Park, and many other Jewish organizations and local political campaigns. He also leads Project Legacy, a nonprofit organization that, according to its website, funds Jewish history projects and helps preserve and restore Jewish heritage sites. 

Beatrice Weber became the executive director of Yaffed in 2022, succeeding Naftuli Moster, who is now the editor-in-chief of Shtetl. Yaffed is a group that advocates for the government to more strictly regulate Hasidic yeshivas to ensure they educate students in English, math and science. Yaffed has lobbied intensely for the state government to enforce the requirement that nonpublic schools offer students an education substantially equivalent to what public schools offer. Recently, Weber met Gov. Kathy Hochul in the Executive Mansion for Women’s History Month.

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.