Jewish group fears City Hall’s prevention of New Year ritual sets precedent for religious obstruction; Jewish delegation to lobby for state RFRA bill.
The only fireworks connected with New Year festivities in Chinatown this year will be rhetorical, thanks to a decree by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and at least one Jewish group is denouncing what it considers infringement on a religious observance.
“This policy is going up against a tradition that is an integral part of the Chinese New Year celebration and has great cultural and religious significance,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “I would urge the city to show some sensitivity.”
Chinese Americans celebrate the Year of the Tiger’s arrival through Sunday, culminating in the annual Chinatown parade, which until last year included the traditional detonation of hundreds of specially made firecrackers.
“The [firecrackers’] red color brings in prosperity and good luck,” says Josephine Chung of the Organization of Chinese Americans, the parade sponsor. “The sound of the firecracker and the smoke chases away evil spirits. If the evil is allowed to linger, we believe it can cause calamity. The tradition has been for several thousand years, and in New York for over 100 years.”
But last year City Hall — citing previous injuries and unsafe practices — cracked down on the fireworks. This year, the Chinese organization had retained an expert firm, Zenith Pyrotechnics of Long Island — which produces the Times Square New Year’s Eve display — for their parade display. But after some discussion, officials declined to allow it.
“The No. 1 concern has been public safety,” said Dwight Williams, a spokesman for the mayor. “Based upon our need to protect the public we decided to turn down the request for fireworks this year. We will revisit the issue next year.”
Some members of the Chinese American community reportedly view the firecracker display as insignificant and have declined to press the issue.
But Rabbi Schneier fears this incident could set a precedent for restrictions on other ethnic communities. For example, he notes, constructing a sukkah might be a violation of certain building codes.Several other Jewish organizations expressed concern about the issue, but said they were gathering more information. “If in fact this is an important religious aspect of the celebration for Chinese individuals, then it is troubling,” said Nathan Diament of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union.
# Such conflicts between public interests and religious observance are meant to be addressed by the Free Exercise of Religion Law, passed in the state Assembly this year but stalled in the Senate.
The law would restore protections previously contained in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, forcing authorities to prove a compelling interest before curtailing any religious activity. The U.S. Supreme Court voided the federal law in June.
A group of Jewish leaders will quietly go to Albany next week to lobby for the bill, Political Memos has learned. There will be no press conferences: The delegates are shunning publicity to enhance their deal-making capabilities.
A source said those sending delegations include the OU, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council who, together with Catholic and Protestant representatives, will meet with sympathetic members of the Republican-controlled state Senate. The bill must be scheduled for a Senate vote before the June break to have a real chance of passage, insiders say.
The bill is opposed by preservationist groups who fear it will harm the state’s ability to declare historic landmarks when the sale of religious property is concerned.
Gov. George Pataki has said he would sign the bill provided it contained provisions that prevented groups such as prisoners from claiming religious freedom in order to secure special privileges or exceptions from the law.
# Even before a federal court passes judgment on the latest law protecting the Kiryas Joel chasidic school district for developmentally disabled children, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) wants to pass an updated law as a sort of preemptive strike.
“There is some concern that the law as it’s currently enacted can’t withstand judicial scrutiny, and this is an effort to fix it before it’s broken,” said Kiryas Joel opponent Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress.
The New York School Boards Association has filed suit against the state, claiming the law is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court voided the first law, but left open the possibility of a broader law that extended to more than one district.
Last month, the court denied a plaintiff motion to close the district while the lawsuit is pending.
# Although Democratic Assemblyman Greg Meeks was the favorite to win Tuesday’s special election for the Queens Congressional seat vacated by Rep. Floyd Flake, his Conservative/Independence opponent, State Sen. Al ton Waldon, seemed to have more Jewish support.
“[Waldon] has worked very closely with the Jewish community,” said one Queens Jewish leader. Although most of the Northern Queens district is heavily non-Jewish, there are pockets of Jewish voters in Far Rockaway, Bellerose and Floral Park. Meeks, who won with 57 percent of the vote, got the nod of the Queens Democratic Party and Flake, but some Jewish voters may have been turned off by his ties to the controversial reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the Jewish source said.
Also on Tuesday, Adele Cohen — three-time unsuccessful candidate for City Council — captured the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Assembly seat vacated by Jules Polonetsky, now the city’s consumer affairs commissioner.
# As Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau battles the the Museum of Modern Art over the fate of two Egon Schiele paintings allegedly plundered during the Holocaust, State Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) is proposing a change in the state law which prevents artwork from being held for any reason.
Calling the law “irrational and overbroad,” Kruger wants to see the 30-year-old law amended to exclude cases involving Nazi war crimes. Anticipating resistance from museums and galleries, Kruger said he promises “to take every possible precaution to prevent this legislation from encouraging irresponsible, fraudulent and unwarranted claims.”
Undeterred by his City Council loss in November, Zionist activist-turned-politician Jeff Reznik is preparing for another campaign, this time for the Flatbush-Sheepshead Bay Assembly seat to be vacated by Democrat Daniel Feldman if he runs for Congress.Reznik, who works at the State Comptroller’s office, would not comment, but sources say he is actively seeking support.
Reznik has been increasing his name recognition in recent months as an outspoken supporter for the controversial Brooklyn Junction Shopping Center, facing down some community activists who oppose the project. He is expected to have strong support among Orthodox Jews and Asians, who want to open stores in the new Bay Ridge mall.