A group launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio to push his tax-raising plan for universal pre-K included the names of several rabbis in an open letter last week without their permission, the rabbis told The Jewish Week.
In interviews since the clergy letter was released by the grassroots UPKNYC on March 6, five rabbis said their inclusion was not authorized, although two of them asked not to be named publicly because they did not want to antagonize the mayor.
The Jewish Week was unable to confirm the consent of seven other rabbis, mostly Orthodox and all Brooklyn-based, who did not return calls or refused to comment. Six of the 18 rabbis listed in the letter confirmed they authorized their inclusion.
Rabbi Naftali Besser, dean of students at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School was not aware that his name was used in the letter until he was contacted by The Jewish Week.
“I have no idea,” he said, when asked how he thought he ended up on the list. He noted that pre-K was not an issue in which he is generally involved.
Shea Rubenstein, an ordained but non-practicing rabbi who is president of the Marine Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn, also learned of his inclusion from The Jewish Week. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said.
Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus, executive director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, said he did not agree to sign the letter and would not comment further.
A spokesman for UPKNYC, Dan Levitan, said the 12 Orthodox rabbis’ names had been provided by Rabbi Abraham Kahn, who signed the letter himself with his affiliation listed as the COJO of Flatbush, where he is the director of development.
“We had an understanding from Rabbi Kahn that he had written consent [from the other rabbis],” said Levitan. “Obviously there is some misunderstanding and we are asking him to figure it out.”
Insisting he had permission from all the signatories whose names he submitted, Rabbi Kahn told The Jewish Week Tuesday he was in the process of gathering the emails he says the rabbis sent expressing their consent.
“Every single new Yorker should be advocating on behalf of the afterschool programs and universal pre-K program,” said Rabbi Kahn. “It’s the most important initiative in our community today.”
Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Council of Labor and Religion said he had signed a card at a prayer breakfast held by the mayor three weeks ago that authorized his name to be used in the UPKNYC letter.
UPKNYC, founded by business, academic and civil right leaders with the encouragement of the mayor, supports his plan to raise taxes on households earning more than $500,000 to fund enough pre-K classrooms for every 4-year-old. The plan would also add afterschool programs for middle schools.
“As faith leaders, our faith calls on us to speak on the moral obligation that our city has to provide every child, and every family, an equal opportunity for success,” reads the letter.
“That’s why we must pass New York City’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-K for every four-year-old and after-school for every middle school student in our city. High quality pre-K and after-school programs level the playing field between low-income children and their higher-income peers, and provide vital economic security to families.”
The issue has become a political football between de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is unlikely to back a tax increase as he prepares for his reelection campaign next year. Cuomo favors paying for pre-K from existing state funds, saying a tax increase could always be rolled back in the future.
Some of the rabbis listed in the letter said they feared they would now be drawn into the battle between the two political titans.
In a boost to de Basio Monday, Assembly Democrats led by Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that they would authorize New York City to raise taxes for the pre-K program. There is no indication yet that the Senate wll do the same.
Confirming their participation in the letter were Rabbi Mark Kaiserman of Reform Temple of Forest Hills, Queens; Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan and Rabbi Seth Wax of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn. Rabbi Kaiserman said his colleague, Elizabeth Wood, from the same temple, also signed the letter.
On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center and Teach NYS, a group formed to promote relief for tuition-paying families, were slated to hold a press conference at City Hall asking officials to “create a UPK program that is inclusive of all school-aged children and make the program compatible with the religious observances of faith-based schools.”
A press release about the event was careful to stress that the groups do not take sides between Cuomo and de Blasio but “applaud” both initiatives.