In the course of a conversation in a kosher pizza shop, Isaac Abraham whips out a pen and paper and draws a layout of Flushing Avenue in Williamsburg to show how the rerouting of traffic from the closed Brooklyn-Queens Expressway 20 years ago was harmful to the area.
“Heavy trucks ruptured the foundations of the synagogue and schools,” he recalls. “It was impossible for anyone to get anywhere. People were silent for six, seven months until we found out the truth — that the contractor walked off the job.”
Fed-up residents floated a rumor that the New York City Marathon might be interrupted by protests if the problem persisted, and soon enough traffic officials came to the neighborhood to hear suggestions. Abraham had many.
“We threatened civil disobedience. But we also told them, here is the solution,” he recalls, referencing the traffic-rerouting ideas he and others suggested.
On the same piece of paper, minutes later, he sketches the emergency room layout at Woodhull Medical Center, which he says was poorly designed. And in minutes, the man aspiring to be the first chasid in the City Council is telling you everything there is to know about the federally subsidized Mitchell-Lama project (not public housing, he stresses) where he has lived since 1979, including a history of rent increases. He can also tick off the names of key people in the Traffic Department and Housing Authority.
Abraham is a walking repository of civic issues in his Williamsburg bailiwick, and could easily hold his own in a discussion of local politics with urban affairs professors or paid commentators. With no formal education beyond the Satmar yeshiva he attended in his youth, he’s learned the ropes of public policy — and the art of public relations — on the streets, in the offices of agencies and public officials and in front of TV cameras.
He gained his highest profile during the trials related to the 1991 Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, as a spokesman for Rosenbaum’s Australian brother, Norman. And while no one has ever officially appointed him as such, the title “chasidic spokesman” frequently appears next to his name when reporters need a viewpoint from his community.
He threw his hat into the public arena when term limits for the current City Council were in effect. And when incumbents gave themselves a controversial third term, Abraham and five other Democrats lucked out: 33rd District incumbent David Yassky chose running for comptroller over re-election.
At a time when community organizer has become a resumé-building title, some might say this is Abraham’s moment, a chance for the chasidic voting bloc, seen as potent by so many tribute-paying aspirants, to flex its muscle by electing one of its own.
“The issues that I have dealt with were not chasidic issues but district, borough or statewide” ones, says Abraham 58, a father of four and grandfather of eight. “Everybody was affected by them. My batting average goes about .900 in being very effective in these issues.” He notes that as a member of the tenants’ council in his complex, he’s been a fierce activist against rent increases for its 534 families, about 60 percent of whom are not Jewish.
His command of housing issues is bound to resonate in a heavily poor district where the scarcity of affordable homes has stoked tensions between Jews and Hispanics and created headaches for successive mayoral administrations.
But the district is one of the most diverse in the city, and getting more so all the time.
In addition to Williamsburg, the 33rd includes Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Greenpoint, and is increasingly the home of brownstone yuppies, hipsters and artists, in addition to a longstanding black and Hispanic population — all of whom tend to vote liberal.
If he gets on the ballot (petitions are due this month), Abraham will face off in the September primary against four men and a woman whose views are more in sync with the neighborhood than a social conservative who opposes gay rights and abortion and doesn’t like bike paths going through his neighborhood in part because some riders are immodestly dressed women.
One of his opponents is gay rights activist Ken Diamondstone, who ran for state Senate in 2006. Also in the ring are Evan Thies, Yassky’s former aide; Stephen Levin, current chief of staff to Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez; district leader Jo Anne Simon; environmental activist Ken Baer; and Doug Biviano, an engineer and community activist. A Republican candidate has yet to emerge.
“It’s the person who works the hardest that wins these local races, and there are a few of us, including Isaac who are going to be working very hard,” says Thies. “The chasidic population is a very unique but important part of the district, and because of the high poverty there is a great need for services. It deserves a lot of attention from whoever the next council member is going to be.”
Ken Fisher, a former councilman who represented the 33rd from 1991 to 2001, says the next election will be interesting to analyze because of the recent influx of “unpredictable” voters.
“There are some young people who were attracted by the hipster mystique, but also a lot of condo owners and renters who moved into the new housing built in Downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO,” says Fisher, now a lawyer in private practice. “They don’t necessarily have any recollection of the battles over development and traffic or the issues that have gone by even a few years earlier. Isaac is going to have a tough time convincing people in the district that he reflects the most widely held values.”
Fisher, who has not yet made an endorsement, says it’s hard to gauge the level of chasidic support Abraham will muster.
“He has always been more of a media figure than genuine community leader, although he clearly has some visible following.”
Leib Glantz, a prominent figure in the Satmar community and an official of its yeshiva system, said Abraham is “an important candidate” and that “everyone who is running has a chance of winning.” Referring to the ongoing feud between two Satmar factions led by sons of the late Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, Glantz said Abraham had “walked a fine line so he shouldn’t step on anybody’s toes.” (Abraham doesn’t dispute the notion of neutrality, saying, “I’m on everybody’s side.”)
Glantz, who is in the camp of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, said that group had yet to decide on an endorsement.
In an interview, Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the community’s social service umbrella group, chose his words carefully when he said: “There are three people with direct ties to the Williamsburg community: Evan Thies, who worked with Yassky; Isaac Abraham, who was born and raised in Williamsburg and Steve Levin, who has very much support because of his work over the past few years in the Jewish community on [an issue] critically important to the Jewish community, as well as the general community, and that is affordable housing.”
Abraham, who was born in Austria and moved here as a toddler, is unfazed, busily fundraising — reluctantly, he says. “How dare I ask for money from people who are trying to feed eight kids, some [of those children] married with children, in order to get the message out?” he asks.
But ask he does, raising about $24,000 so far, placing him fifth in the pack, with Simon ($82,751) narrowly leading Levin ($82,348) at the top, according to the latest filings.
Because his candidacy makes for a colorful story, Abraham has won a bit more press coverage for his bid as the race takes shape.
But not all of it is good.
In March he declined an invitation to a debate in the basement of a Methodist church because the strictly Orthodox practice (disputed in some circles) is not to enter non-Jewish houses of worship. (“Jew Gotta Be Kidding,” screamed one neighborhood weekly’s headline.)
A local Democratic leader, noting that elected officials are expected to attend the funerals of cops and others, said this made Abraham unfit to represent the district.
“She later apologized,” Abraham says. “It was very disrespectful. In my adult life, since I have been active for the past 35, 36 years, I have met with many [Catholic] fathers, monsignors and bishops … I also launched a multi-ethnic tenant association. I don’t have to go to a funeral in a church to represent people.”
He cites his longtime friendship with Father Anthony Hernandez, pastor of the Transfiguration Church of Williamsburg, who serves with him on the tenants’ association. Father Hernandez, a leader of the Brooklyn Archdiocese, could not be reached for comment.
When asked what motivates his activism, Abraham reaches into his wallet and extracts three aged coins — a dollar, half dollar and quarter — that were blessed byRabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the leader who revitalized the Satmar sect in Williamsburg after the devastation of the Holocaust. “I got these as a yeshiva bocher when I was working with anti-poverty, and when I got married he involved me in many different issues,” says Abraham. “It shows that I’d rather make 100 phone calls to help other people than have one person make a phone call to help me.”
Blasting the mayor and Council’s overturning of term limits without a public referendum, Abraham says the next Council will need more independence. “If you’re looking for someone to stand between the king and the Quinn, I’m your man,” he says, referring to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “My message to the district and to the rest of the city is that people have to list their priorities, one to 10.
“If a gay rights bill is your No. 1 priority, I’m not your candidate. But if your priorities are the economy, transportation, congestion pricing, affordable housing, more government oversight, closing down the Board of Education, the Housing Authority and the MTA in one day, abolish them all and then restructure them, I’m your candidate.”