Hate crimes, religious freedom, Kiryas Joel on radar screen in new legislative session; Ferraro’s announcement makes for tough Jewish choices.
As the state Legislature resumes sessions this week, beginning with the governor’s State of the State address Wednesday, numerous Jewish concerns linger on the agenda. They include efforts to pass a state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — recently voided by the U.S. Supreme Court — and the indefatigable but luckless bias crime bill.
Orthodox groups are considering a challenge to a law pertaining to gets, or religious divorces, which they feel poses halachic problems. And courts are considering challenges to the state’s kosher food laws and the latest bill protecting the Kiryas Joel chasidic school district, which may facilitate further legislation.
Jewish organizations are also likely to closely watch debates over abortion and immigrant aid.
“There isn’t any overarching Jewish issue which people are going to mobilize on, but there are a lot of smaller issues,” says Marc Stern, counsel to the American Jewish Congress.
Likely to succeed is the “Free Exercise of Religion Law,” sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn). It passed the Assembly in the waning days of last year’s sessions, but a Senate version, sponsored by Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) was never voted on, which means both bills must be reintroduced.
Scott Gerschwer, a spokesman for Kruger, said there was no substantial opposition to the bill, which would force the state to show a compelling interest before curtailing religious activity, such as the construction of a synagogue. But Gerschwer said it would still be a battle to schedule the bill for a vote. “It’s simply a matter of where it falls in the priority of the Senate,” he said.
The religion bill could pave the way for a challenge to the state’s archaic blue laws, which require liquor stores to close on Sundays, the Christian Sabbath. Some Jewish and Muslim Sabbath-observant merchants claim the laws force them to lose two days’ business, and may violate separation of church and state.
Geraldine Ferraro’s long-anticipated announcement that she’ll seek a political comeback, trying again to unseat Republican Sen. Al D’Amato, makes the race extremely interesting for Jewish voters.
Ferraro, the former Queens congresswoman and 1984 vice presidential candidate, has a solid pro-Israel voting record and enjoyed good relations with Jewish groups during her 1978-1984 tenure. That makes four candidates vying for the junior Senate seat with solid Jewish credentials — two of them Jewish.
“They all have close contacts with the Jewish community,” said a Jewish official, speaking anonymously, referring to D’Amato, Public Advocate Mark Green and Brooklyn Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn.)
This, said the official, creates a cash-flow conundrum for Ferraro, who is starting her fund raising relatively late in the game. “The question is how is [she] going to attract Jewish money? In New York, Jewish money is the name of game.” Schumer has about $8 million, D’Amato $8.5, and Green $1.5. “She will need $10 million to be competitive, and you don’t get $10 million in Queens.”
Growing sentiment for a woman in statewide office, and Jewish sympathy for those concerns, may give Ferraro an edge.
Schumer, who is behind in the polls and in name recognition, continues to be plagued by speculation that he’ll drop out of the race now that Ferraro is in, which he and his consultants vehemently deny. Schumer has until June, when petitions are due, to do so without losing his seat.
Councilman Noach Dear is literally banking on Schumer’s running. This week he hired a team of Washington-based, veteran Democratic campaigners to manage his bid for Schumer’s Brooklyn/Queens seat.
“There is every indication that Chuck is going to run, no matter what,” says Dear.
At Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s inauguration last week, Orthodox and Reform rabbis were chosen to deliver benedictions.
It was an attempt by Giuliani to, as one source joked, “be more pluralistic than the Jewish community is.”
But there was no such pluralism in the arrangement of the dais, which was packed with so many Orthodox Jews that one frum spectator commented “it looked like a melave malke at a shteibel.”
Some of the Giuliani supporters rewarded with seats behind the lectern included Rabbi Leib Glanz representing Satmar chasidim; Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Lubavitch; Joseph Menczer of Pupa; Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel of America; Kalman Finkel, vice chairman of the city housing authority; former finance commissioner Abraham Biderman, and Eli Blachman, a former editor of the Algemeiner Journal who was appointed by Giuliani as director of the City Record.
The benedictions were delivered by Rabbi Ronald Sobel of Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan and Rabbi Israel Miller of Yeshiva University.
Little change is expected in City Hall’s Jewish representation in the second Giuliani administration. With the transferring of former deputy mayor Fran Reiter to the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Giuliani’s inner circle remains half Jewish. The eight key positions include chief of staff Bruce Teitelbaum, deputy mayor for economic development Randy Levine, counsel Dennison Young and senior adviser Anthony Coles.
The latest Jewish appointees are Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jules Polonetsky and Criminal Justice Coordinator Steven Fishner.
The early favorite for Polonetsky’s Brooklyn Assembly seat is Adele Cohen, who has run three times for City Council, most recently against Howard Lasher.
In the last race Cohen, a union lawyer, picked up the endorsement of the county Democratic machine, which she is likely to maintain in the race for the vacant Assembly seat.
Also expressing interest is Martin Levine, head of the local community board, and Brian Gottlieb, a staffer for Councilman Anthony Weiner of Midwood.
Gov. George Pataki will schedule a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of Polonetsky’s term, which expires next January.