By Shimmy Blum
It has become an annual tradition by now: The Far Rockaway/Five Towns community gathers at a Sunday morning breakfast sponsored by Agudath Israel of America in honor of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a veteran local representative who is one of New York State’s three most powerful elected officials.
This year’s breakfast took place on Sunday March 15, and was hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Yechezkel Hartman in their Lawrence home. A large and diverse crowd of locals attended the breakfast, eager to thank Mr. Skelos for his accomplishments on behalf of the community and to discuss the issues currently on the front burner.
Rabbi Yonah Feinstein, director of special projects for Agudath Israel of America, opened the event and welcomed Senator Skelos and members of the audience. Yochanan Bodner, member of Agudath Israel’s Five Towns Steering Committee and the Lefkowitz Leadership Initiative, and breakfast chairman, set the stage for the morning’s program and then introduced Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s vice president for community affairs.
Rabbi Lefkowitz expounded upon the longstanding friendship that Senator Skelos – who has held his seat since 1985 – has had with the Orthodox community. Senator Skelos has been an instrumental force in the implementation of various pieces of legislation that help our community’s causes, including the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, nonpublic school transportation funding, infertility treatment funding, and more.
“I feel like I’m here with family,” the Majority Leader commented during his warm address, in which he thanked the community and pledged to continue working on our behalf.
Discussing the Issues
Many of the faces in the audience were familiar to the senator. Less than three weeks earlier, Agudath Israel held its annual mission to Albany, where activists and community members met Senator Skelos and some of his influential colleagues to discuss pertinent issues.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, introduced a brief video of the highlights of the Albany mission and then moderated a discussion of the key issues of the day.
One of the major issues discussed was the new proposal to impose a state-appointed monitor to oversee, and have the authority to override, the East Ramapo School Board. East Ramapo, like Lawrence, is a school district where the majority of the children attend yeshivos and day schools, and the majority of the school board are Orthodox Jews.
The East Ramapo Board’s Orthodox members have come under intense criticism from some members of the public school community, leading to a domino effect of painful strife.
Uri Kaufman, a member of the Lawrence School Board, relayed some of the Five Towns’ similar education related crises in previous years, and how community members and elected officials helped turn the tide towards the current positive relationship between the public school and Orthodox communities. Senator Skelos made it clear that he would not accept any proposal that would usurp decision-making authority from the democratically elected school board of East Ramapo.
Alleviating the enormous burden that tuition places on Orthodox families has long been one of the highest legislative priorities of Agudath Israel. Over the past several years, a major focus of the organization’s efforts in New York has been the Education Investment Tax Credit (EITC), which would offer tax credits for donations to scholarship funds that benefit needy nonpublic school students.
Yoily Edelstein, a member of Agudath Israel’s Five Towns Steering Committee, relayed his firsthand view of the tuition crisis as a member of the board of a prominent girls’ school in the community. “Parents often run up high credit card debt and risk their homes in order to pay tuition,” he said.
Under Majority Leader Senator Skelos’s leadership, the Senate has passed EITC legislation annually in recent years. Governor Andrew Cuomo also included EITC funding in his budget proposal for this year. However, the Assembly has yet to embrace the proposal. “This should be your highest priority every time you speak to your legislators,” Senator Skelos advised the audience.
Other education related issues that were raised included the funding that state government still owes to nonpublic schools due to underpayment in its CAP and mandated services programs.
In light of the precarious security situation for Jews around the world, security of our community’s institutions is of paramount concern. It was at the forefront of the discussions in Albany, as well as the subject of a special Agudath Israel webinar last week for school leaders.
Mr. Richard Altabe, chairman of Agudath Israel’s Special Education Advisory Board and headmaster at Yeshiva Shaare Torah in Brooklyn, elaborated upon the recent highly publicized incident at his school, where the security guard confronted a disturbed individual who entered the school and refused to leave. He implored the state government to boost funding for nonpublic school security above the $4.5 million currently allocated, in order to meet more of our institutions’ real world security costs.
The final issue discussed was the legislation pending in Albany that would legalize physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Agudath Israel has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the legislation. The organization submitted an official brief to the Assembly and Senate detailing our community’s position on this issue, and personally reiterated it to lawmakers during the Albany mission.
At the breakfast, oncologist Dr. Azriel Hershfeld presented his perspective on the issue. Legalizing assisted suicide, he said, would violate the physician’s oath to be a healer, not a killer. Moreover, it would convey a message that could lead to numerous abuses in the care of vulnerable terminally ill patients.
Senator Skelos vowed that he would not even let the legislation come to the Senate floor for a vote. He emphasized that certain core values, including preservation of human life, must never be compromised.
Rav Binyomin Kamenetzky shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of South Shore, culminated the event. He elaborated upon the warm personal relationship he has had with his senator for decades, as well as the senator’s dedication towards yeshivos and other community causes. Senator Skelos has on many occasions referred to Rabbi Kamenetzky as a “mentor.”
“It is nothing less than an open manifestation of Hashgacha Elyona that Orthodox Jews make up such a significant portion of the district that has elected Dean Skelos to the New York State Senate,” says Rabbi Zwiebel. “This man is one of the three most powerful political leaders in New York – and our community has the privilege to constitute a substantial part of his constituent base. It is an honor to have an opportunity each year to show him appreciation and have an open discussion on how we can best move forward.”