Politico

Yang close to winning support of New York’s powerful Orthodox leaders


NEW YORK — Andrew Yang is close to locking down almost universal support among leaders of New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — a loyal bloc of voters that can make or break a campaign.

Within the next week or so, New York’s leading mayoral candidate — who has already won the support of Orthodox political and religious leaders in Brooklyn’s Borough Park and Midwood sections — is expected to get the biggest prize of all: an endorsement from the Satmar rabbis in Williamsburg, the city’s most populous Hasidic neighborhood.

Yang has not been shy about courting the city’s powerful Orthodox community — adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward yeshiva reform, pledging to address an uptick in hate crimes targeting Orthodox Jews, and doubling down on his commitment to “freedom of religion” when asked if he will ban the controversial circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh, which runs the risk of transmitting herpes to an infant.

The city’s Orthodox Jews are a coveted endorsement in any election, but the coronavirus pandemic and the city’s aggressive response in Orthodox areas is weighing heavily in the minds of community members and leaders.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another leading candidate in the Democratic primary, was pushing hard for the Orthodox nod. He too has hit all the talking points: increasing the presence of law enforcement to respond to an uptick in hate crimes, praising local yeshivas and talking up the importance of “culture and religion” in city schools.

But according to interviews with roughly a dozen rabbinical and community leaders, Yang’s outsider status is proving a major draw for a community that has felt increasingly isolated over the past year, especially with what community leaders see as unfair treatment by city officials throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

During the height of the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio — who himself was often criticized for taking a hands-off approach to longstanding allies in the community — was forced to confront instance after instance of crowded weddings and religious services where congregants gathered without masks or any social distancing. Images of police evacuating synagogues and city officials breaking up weddings were splashed across the news.

“When positive test percentages were higher in other neighborhoods, they got resources and help,” said Council Member Kalman Yeger who, along with Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, endorsed Yang last week. “Our community got red zones and scoldings. Some neighborhoods got acknowledgment of the economic hardship they were facing — we got inspectors from an alphabet soup of city agencies marching through with ticket books.”

In 2020, some of the neighborhoods now supporting Yang were among the most ardent supporters of President Donald Trump, according to a POLITICO analysis published in December. Already conservative, many in the community cited Trump’s emphasis on reopening the economy even at the height of the pandemic — and chastised the strictures on business and religious gatherings imposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio.

Now leaders in Williamsburg, the last Orthodox holdout in Brooklyn yet to declare its loyalties in the mayor’s race, are leaning toward Yang, according to multiple community insiders. That’s despite a longstanding relationship with Adams, who is still making a pitch and has paid visits in recent weeks to leading rabbis in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Staten Island, Far Rockaway and Queens.

This month, Adams met with the leading rabbi of Munkatch in Borough Park, donning a yarmulke head covering for the visit and posing for photos. The rabbi subsequently voiced support for Adams, who has generally polled second behind Yang.

Adams campaign claimed that at least one of the dozen-and-a-half rabbis listed as endorsing Yang were “not authorized” to be speaking on behalf of their congregations. “The person listed under ‘Munkatch’ has no institutional authority to endorse Yang,” said Adams adviser Menashe Shapiro.

David Schwartz, Yang’s Orthodox liaison, contested the accusation that Munkatch’s endorsement of Yang was illegitimate, and pointed to reports in Jewish media outlets indicating the rabbinic endorsements claimed by Adam’s campaign had been falsified.

The intensity of the fight for Orthodox support underscores the political importance of New York City’s rabbis. And after heightened state and city scrutiny of yeshivas in recent years, the approach to religious schooling is central to their support.

“The yeshiva issue has gained more visibility than ever before,” said David Bloomfield, professor of education at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center and an advocate for greater oversight of secular education in yeshivas.

He criticized what he sees as “political catnip” leveraged by candidates to “win over a small number of ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders, whose endorsement could easily translate into thousands of constituent votes.” He said the emergence of yeshivas as a “major policy issue in this campaign” is a first — and a testament to the increasing importance of “winning over single-interest voting blocs.”

Yang first waded into the debate over secular education at yeshivas in February, affirming “parental choice” and calling to repair what he sees as a “complete lack of trust” between the Haredi Orthodox community and city government.

Adams paid a visit to a Borough Park yeshiva in March that had been one of the schools subjected to a city Department of Education probe in 2019 over some schools not meeting secular education standards. He came away from his visit to the Brooklyn yeshiva “genuinely impressed by what he’s seeing,” Shapiro said. In April, Adams followed up with a series of visits to Orthodox communities in all five boroughs, with hopes of building a coalition of support.

“As Brooklyn Borough president, Adams already has a natural rapport with this community,” Shapiro said. “He’s been working closely with this community for years.”

But Adams has also isolated certain leaders.

In 2008, he defended Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader known for making antisemitic comments, by criticizing late Rep. Major Owens’ decision to denounce the controversial figure. In 2015, Adams dismayed Hasidic residents of South Williamsburg by backing a bid to allow a local event space in the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank to acquire a liquor license, even after hundreds of neighbors expressed opposition. And in 2017, Adams’ opposition to a 1,146-unit apartment complex in the Broadway Triangle was decried by Orthodox community leaders like Rabbi David Niederman of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn as thinly veiled antisemitism.

“No other politician has been as disrespectful and meddling in our community as him,” said one community insider of Adams — who requested anonymity to speak freely — adding that rabbis in Williamsburg are leaning toward an endorsement of Yang in the coming weeks.

Shapiro said those claims are a “false and slanderous lie, most likely being spread by the reeling Yang gang.” He said “Eric has a great relationship with the Williamsburg leaders” and will likely be back in the neighborhood to meet with community leaders this week.

Though the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg has deep internal rifts, Yang’s targeted appeal to community interests — mainly a hands-off approach at yeshivas — could be enough to unite factions of the community who have previously been at political odds.

“There is usually a political detente between the two sides of Satmar,” said Council Member Steve Levin, whose district includes parts of Williamsburg. “It will be interesting to see if the opposing Satmar camps come together to support a mayoral candidate.”

Levin, who’s endorsed mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, said he’s “not surprised” that his neighbors in Hasidic Williamsburg have found a “compelling candidate” in Yang.

“His more moderate positions are appealing in that community, and the fact that he’s clearly willing to engage with them and try to understand their issues,” he said.

When pressed last week for specific promises Yang has made to the Orthodox community — including how or if he will respond to a December 2019 probe by the city Department of Education that found a number of yeshivas weren’t meeting state education requirements — Eichenstein said his “numerous conversations” with the former presidential candidate convinced him Yang would be an “unapologetic” advocate.

“Andrew Yang has shown that he understands the uniqueness of our community and wants to work with us,” Eichenstein said.

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