Rarely do people have to speculate on where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stands on an issue of keen interest to Orthodox Jews.
But when it comes to mounting pressure to push through some form of tax relief for parents who pay private school tuition, Silver has said little publicly as observers and activists try to predict his eventual position.
Silver, an opponent of tuition vouchers for private schools, recently said he does not accept the position of opponents that tax credits are a back door or stealth voucher program.
However, he is surrounded by conflicting interests on the tax credit issue, from teachers’ unions and their loyalists who oppose any diversion of money from public schools to minority legislators who want to give their constituents an alternative to failing public schools, as well as members of his Democratic conference who argue that any available funds should be used to satisfy a court order that the state spend more on New York City schools. And then there are civil liberties activists who fear erosion of the church-state wall.
"His conference is going to be somewhat divided," says lobbyist and consultant Norman Adler, who was an aide to a previous Assembly speaker, Mel Miller. "He will be faced with substantial cross-pressures."
Silver spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee on Tuesday said he was too busy to discuss the topic but said on his behalf "the conference will be looking at [tax credits] in the context of the governor’s overall education budget."
Gov. George Pataki has proposed a $500 credit for families in failing school districts who earn under $75,000. A bill sponsored last year by Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez and Republican Senator Martin Golden, both of Brooklyn, would allow a higher credit, up to $3,500, with a higher income cap (up to $150,000) and without geographic limitations.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a tax-credit supporter, said he has had regular conversations with Silver on the matter, as recently as last week, and predicted that the speaker would come through with a proposal of his own.
"He actually proposed to me an idea that is not on the table yet," said Hikind. "He is very interested in doing something. I’m very optimistic that we will have something this year."
Meanwhile, Agudath Israel of America is urging participation in a Feb. 14 Albany rally for the tuition tax credits. That is, unless you’re a yeshiva bocher.
"Our rabbinic advisors have said that this event, as important as it is, shouldn’t interfere with Talmud Torah," or yeshiva study, said David Zwiebel, Agudah’s vice president for government and public affairs. That shouldn’t, however, stop adults and yeshiva girls from attending, he said. "In terms of traditional obligation of Talmud Torah, that is something the Talmud itself describes as being an obligation incumbent on males."
Zwiebel acknowledged the value of a lesson in civics and public policy presented by the rally at Empire State Plaza, at which numerous legislators and activists will speak. "That’s the balance that has to be struck," he said. "Decisions will be made by individual principals. Some may feel that value may outweigh the concern about learning Torah [that day]." Assemblyman Ryan Karben of Rockland County, who is Orthodox and plans to participate in the rally, said, "It’s important for the [Orthodox] community to have a strong showing. Advocating for your communal priority is an important lesson that students should learn. But every principal and rabbinic leader has to make decisions for their own schools."
In the first such meeting since she became City Council speaker, Christine Quinn met with dozens of neighborhood-level Jewish leaders Monday night to get better acquainted.
The meeting was closed to the press, but participants said they felt the new speaker was in sync with their mission of solving problems on a grassroots level.
"She is very supportive of social service programs for the elderly and affordable housing, which are core to our agenda," said William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "She sees her role as galvanizing the grassroots and community organizations."
On the agenda were continuing City Council- Met Council collaborations such as a program that provides minor home repairs for the elderly, crisis intervention services, aid to at-risk kids and prevention of family violence and elder abuse.
Rapfogel on Tuesday said it was too early to judge the impact of the $52.2 billion preliminary budget announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the city’s social service infrastructure. Queens Councilman David Weprin, who chairs the Finance Committee, said "the mayor’s proposed cuts will affect the Jewish councils across the city, but I’m optimistic that through negotiation we’ll be able to restore or even enhance the funding."
While world leaders are scratching their heads over what to do about the stunning Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, former Mayor Ed Koch says Israel would be justified in bumping off the terror group’s leader.
Mahmoud Zahar "will and should be the target of execution by the Israeli Defense Forces," writes Koch in his weekly e-mail commentary, "since Hamas has declared war on Israel and, as reported in The Times, said after the election [Hamas would not] submit to pressure to recognize Israel because the occupation is illegitimate."
Koch, who also e-mails several film reviews a week to media and other interested parties, also expressed his support for the targeting of terrorists in his review of Steven Spielberg’s "Munich."
"If every country was willing to arrest, try, imprison or execute all terrorists," Koch wrote, "the State of Israel would not have to avenge the criminal spilling of Jewish blood because no one else would. I approve of that counter-philosophy."