Satmar grand rabbi heard bragging about deceiving state lawmakers on education bill

“To ensure that it passes, a schvartze senator introduced it”

Credit: Mo Gelber

Mar 29, 2023 7:00 AM


In a recording obtained by Shtetl, Aaron Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of the Satmar Hasidic community in Kiryas Joel, is heard bragging about the passage of a yeshiva-related bill he said state assembly members voted to pass without understanding as part of a strategy he credits to assembly member Simcha Eichenstein. 

“They had not the slightest idea what they were even voting on,” Teitelbaum is heard saying during a Chanukah speech in Williamsburg which was translated into English for Shtetl. “It was snuck inside another bill, and it was the last day, when they were all eager to head home, and there was no time to read through it all.”

Teitelbaum, talking on Dec. 22, was referring to a bill introduced in the 2021-22 legislative session that, if passed, would have allowed private accreditation agencies to determine whether a private school is providing an education substantially equivalent to what public schools provide. The bill was introduced on June 5, 2021. It passed almost unanimously in the state assembly on June 10, the last day of the legislative session. In January 2022, a majority of assembly members voted for the bill again, but it was never brought to a vote in the senate.

Michael Benedetto Assembly Member. Courtesy Governor Cuomo Media

In the recording, which was taken by an attendee and authenticated by Shtetl, Teitelbaum says the plan was for Haredi leaders to ask non-Jewish lawmakers to introduce the legislation on their behalf to mask who was really pushing for it. Teitelbaum attributes the idea to Eichenstein, a Democrat who represents most of Boro Park and part of Midwood. 

Teitelbaum is heard referring to sponsors of the bill as schvartze, the Yiddish word for the color black; shucher, a Yiddishized version of the Hebrew word for the color black; and shchoyrim, the plural form of shucher. These words often have a racist connotation.

“Simcha Eichenstein — a savvy Hasidic young man — came up with an idea no one knew about,” Teitelbaum said. “He organized a group of assemblymen shchoyrim and senators shchoyrim, who introduced legislation without it having his fingerprints on it, to keep anyone from knowing that a Jewish legislator was behind it, to keep it from being hindered.”

“On the last day of the legislative session, a shucher assemblyman introduced a bill to allow an accreditation committee to confirm that a school is a good school, and in such a case, the government needn’t interfere,” the rabbi is heard saying.

“To ensure that it passes, a schvartze senator introduced it,” he added.

The bill was introduced by Michael Benedetto in the state assembly and by Julia Salazar in the senate. Salazar represents South Williamsburg, where there is a large Hasidic, especially Satmar, population. Benedetto represents parts of the Bronx. Both are Democrats.

Benedetto is Italian American. Salazar is Latina. Neither legislator identifies as Black.

(05-07-19) NY State Senator Julia Salazar during Senate Session at the NY State Capitol, Albany NY

According to Joshua Shanes, a Jewish studies professor at the College of Charleston, the rabbi’s use of these words is complicated, because Yiddish doesn’t have many alternatives for referring to people of color or Black people. Still, Shanes said the rabbi could have opted to borrow a less offensive word from English, as Hasidic Yiddish speakers often do. “These words reflect a racial worldview,” Shanes said, “and they are tinged with a demeaning tone.”

Teitelbaum also describes a split between him and Avi Schick, a lawyer for Parents for Educational And Religious Liberty in Schools, an advocacy organization, associated with Agudath Israel of America, that is aimed at reducing state oversight of Haredi yeshivas. Accusing Schick of not wanting to work with other experts to fight against state regulations on yeshivas, Teitelbaum suggests that he’s a “shmegege lawyer,” using the Yiddish word for nitwit.

Schick graduated from Columbia Law School and is now a partner at the law firm Troutman Pepper. Previously, Schick served as a deputy attorney general under former New York attorney general Elliot Spitzer. In 2023, City & State called Schick and another partner at his law firm the 11th most influential legal professionals in New York politics and government. 

“I’m not saying he’s a bad lawyer,” Teitelbaum is heard saying. “He’s fine, if someone’s buying a house, or for some other real estate transaction, and so forth. But for the fate of all the Jewish people to hang on a single man?! I was unable to accomplish anything, so I split with them.”

Teitelbaum said Schick did not know that the accreditation legislation was going to be introduced in June 2021, but later learned about what Teitelbaum calls “the scheme” and worked to undermine the bill.

“When Avi Schick found out that this had been done behind his back, he insisted it be immediately undone,” Teitelbaum says, adding that Schick consulted with “three American rabbis” to oppose the legislation, a likely reference to Agudath Israel-associated rabbis Elya Brudny, Yisroel Reisman, and Yaakov Bender, who have all been vocal about yeshiva education and published joint op-eds on the subject.

“We certainly have not done anything to undermine anything,“ Bender said when called for comment on Teitelbaum’s speech. “Something is being quoted wrong. It’s a mistake. Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Avi Schick, Rabbi Brudny, Rabbi Reisman, and I are all very close, all on the same side of things.”

Asked if he was aware of the accreditation legislation, Bender said, “I don’t know anything about it,” adding, “maybe it was mentioned.”

Shtetl also reached out to Brudny and Reisman, who did not respond as of press time.

Teitelbaum leads one of the largest Hasidic sects in the U.S. He is the de facto leader of Kiryas Joel, which had a population of over 36,000 as of 2021. Teitelbaum has often been influential in Albany politics as it relates to Hasidic yeshivas. In 2018, he negotiated directly with former governor Andrew Cuomo on a policy introduced by state senator Simcha Felder that would affect Haredi yeshivas. In 2022, City & State named Teitelbaum and his brother the fourth-most influential faith leaders in New York State because of the weight their political endorsements carry among Satmar Hasidim.

Eichenstein’s office did not respond to multiple calls and emails from Shtetl. Neither did Benedetto’s office or Salazar’s office. Schick did not respond to calls and emails either.

Shtetl also called Teitelbaum’s haus bochur, or aide, but neither he nor the rabbi provided comment.