Jewish Councilmembers Seek More Inclusive Caucus
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Jewish Councilmembers Seek More Inclusive Caucus

Former officials, non-Jews welcomed as legislators focus on social service activism, pre-K for all.

To paraphrase the old rye bread commercial, you don’t have to be Jewish to be in the City Council’s Jewish caucus.

But it helps.

With a record-high 14 members this year, the caucus — which has a history of fits and starts over the past 20 years — hopes to have regular meetings with a focus on the unifying issue of social services.

And although non-Jewish members were always welcome to attend meetings in the past, the current caucus leadership for the first time will encourage non-Jewish officals and Jewish members who have left elected office to become at-large members.

“Not only do we have an all-time high but also the most diverse Jewish caucus,” said Mark Levine, a freshman from Upper Manhattan who was elected chair of the Jewish caucus last month.

“There are two Orthodox members [David Greenfield and Chaim Deutsch] and for the first time a Russian-speaking member [Mark Treyger], and we’re from every part of the city, from Riverdale to Brooklyn Heights. We really feel we can have a positive impact in the Council.”

The 12 men and two women currently serving, all of them Democrats, are believed to comprise the highest Jewish ratio of the Council since it was expanded to 51 seats in the early-1990s.

Before last November’s election there were 10 Jewish members. Six of them were re-elected, three outgoing Jewish members were replaced by Jewish successors, and five other districts elected new representatives who are Jewish.

On Wednesday the enlarged caucus was to meet with representatives of UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York for a briefing on the city’s Jewish poor and needy.

“There are a lot of ways that we can have more secular, progressive Jews like myself have common cause with more observant communities, and one of them is support for social services,” Levine said.

The focus on the needy comes at a time when the Council is hashing out how to apportion discretionary funding for local nonprofits as it moves away from a politically rancid system of rewarding cronies of the speaker, employed in the past.

In the most likely scenario, insiders say, each of the members will receive an equal share of funds for their districts.

But another possibility is that grants will be awarded on the basis of demographics. That has Jewish caucus members concerned that needy Jews will be shortchanged because they don’t necessarily live in the poorest neighborhoods.

“Jewish poverty really exists in the shadows,” Levine said. “It might tend to be mixed in with more middle-class neighborhoods.”

Another focus of the caucus, Levine said, is advocating for increased funding for universal pre-K, but making sure that religious schools are able to qualify for added programs.

“There is total consensus in the caucus that yeshivas and other non-public schools should be eligible to apply for funding for the secular portion of their [pre-K] programs,” Levine said.

But he said the group would likely stay neutral on the more thorny question of whether to back Mayor Bill de Blasio’s troubled plan to raise taxes on wealthy households to fund pre-K or Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to use existing funds.

Meanwhile, delegations from the Orthodox Union and TEACH NYS were in Albany on Tuesday and Wednesday lobbying for measures that help private schools. That includes the Education Investment Incentives Act, and more funding for the Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) and Mandated Services Reimbursement (MSR) programs, which allow schools to get aid for their compliance with state-mandated anti-truancy and other programs.

Ratcheting up his disagreement with the Obama administration over Iran sanctions, Sen. Charles Schumer on Sunday warned a Jewish audience in Brooklyn that that country’s nuclear ambitions remain “the greatest threat to Israel in our time.”

At the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush breakfast Schumer, joined by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, made no mention of the Obama administration’s deal with Tehran to ease some economic sanctions in return for reduced enrichment of uranium below weapons grade during a six-month trial period.

“We must do everything we can, and I know Congressman Nadler joins me in this — we must do everything we can in any way possible to avoid a nuclear Iran,” he told the crowd at Kol Yakov Hall. “And we will be leading the charge to make sure that the Iranians know that they will not go nuclear or face the most severe of consequences.”

In a brief interview after his remarks, Schumer told The Jewish Week that the deal was a mistake. “I thought [the administration] shouldn’t have given in and reduced the sanctions,” he said. “But now, the view of the administration in Israel, the Netanyahu government and all of us is we have to see what happens with the negotiations. If they don’t come to much, we’re going to tighten sanctions and do what it takes to prevent a nuclear Iran.

“We have a whole new proposal that we have on the table,” he said, referring to the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, backed in the Senate by 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans and introduced earlier this year in response to the State Department-brokered deal, which some members of Congress say has no teeth.

“It’s a question of watching and waiting. Congress is monitoring … to make sure the Iranian economy continues to decline.” Schumer would not comment further on the matter.

New York’s senior senator, whose political roots are in Flatbush, was the highest ranking official at the COJO breakfast, which honored City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s new Democratic committee chairman, Frank Seddio, and Simcha Felder, a state senator.

Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito were slated to attend but canceled because of scheduling conflicts, organizers said. De Blasio was given the COJO’s Distinguished Public Leadership Award.

Avi Fink, the mayor’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, accepted on his behalf. Councilman Chaim Deutsch accepted an Outstanding Legislator Award for Mark-Viverito.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also attended.

Yet another open letter is circulating regarding de Blasio’s solicitous speech at an AIPAC dinner.

Now it’s Iranian Americans who are mad at the mayor.

“AIPAC has relentlessly pressed for a more adversarial U.S. posture against Iran, explicitly promoting increased sanctions and implicitly pushing the U.S. to the brink of war,” reads the letter signed by 72 people, including students, professors and artists.

The letter, first published on the left-leaning website Mondoweiss, also criticizes de Blasio’s agenda on his last job.

“We were surprised and dismayed to find that the single foreign-policy position that you took as Public Advocate was calling for increasing sanctions on Iran,” said the group.

“We were deeply concerned to see you encouraged ordinary New Yorkers to enforce the sanctions regime through your “Iran Watch List” website, thus promoting the profiling of Iranians and aggravating post-9/11 Islamophobia. Because of sanctions, Iranians in the U.S. were arbitrarily chosen to have their bank accounts closed, and refused service at several retail stores, based on their appearance or names alone. We ask that support for sanctions against Iran be excised from your future political messaging.”

The mayor’s press office did not immediately respond to our request for comment about the letter.

On a personal note, this will be my final column for The Jewish Week. It has been a great privilege covering politics and other issues for this newspaper for more than two decades, and I wish all our readers Shalom, and the very best of everything.

adam@jewishweek.org

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