By Shimmy Blum
On Wednesday, for the seventh consecutive year, Agudath Israel of America held its annual mission to Albany. Over 60 Agudath Israel leaders, activists, and representatives of a cross section of Orthodox communities and institutions from across the Empire State, spent over four hours in the State Capitol and Legislative Buildings, relaying our community’s agenda to legislators in both chambers, as well as senior members of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
In the Assembly Conference Room, newly installed Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie welcomed the delegation. Speaker Heastie is new on the job but he had a visible interest in learning more about our community’s agenda. Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder of Queens attended as well.
Subsequently, the delegation made its way to the Senate Conference Room to discuss pressing issues with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Independent Democratic Conference Leader and Senate Coalition Co-leader Jeff Klein, Senators Simcha Felder and Martin Golden of Brooklyn, Senator John Flanagan, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator David Carlucci, whose district includes Rockland County, Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island, Senator Terrence Murphy of the Hudson Valley, and Senator Kemp Hannon, Chairman of the Health Committee.
After an off-the-record meeting with senior members of the Cuomo administration, the mission culminated with a special kosher luncheon in the Assembly Speakers Conference Room with members of the Assembly who represent various New York Jewish communities: Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, and Assemblyman David Weprin.
The issues tackled at the mission were multi-fold:
Education Tax Credit (EITC):
The EITC would provide a substantial tax credit for contributions to public schools and to organizations that provide scholarships for needy students attending private schools. The passage of EITC has been a top priority for Agudath Israel and other nonpublic school advocacy groups for the past several years.
Governor Cuomo called the EITC an issue of “justice” during his reelection campaign, and included $100 million in his proposed executive state budget for EITC this year, for the first time in history. The Senate passed an even more generous EITC bill in the first days of this legislative session. The bill still needs to pass the Assembly. A solid majority of Assembly members have cosponsored the legislation and Speaker Heastie has previously expressed support.
The Agudah activists repeatedly stressed the importance of this legislation to struggling Orthodox parents. Senator Skelos heralded the fact that there was “strong momentum on an issue we care about,” with Senator Skelos and other Senators leading the way. Assemblyman Hikind stated emphatically, referring to EITC, “It’s gotta happen. This is the year.” He noted that several major feats on behalf of Jewish education that were considered to be impossible have been accomplished in recent years, including TAP funding for religious post-high school institutions.
Mandated Services and CAP Funding
State payments to non-public schools for Comprehensive Attendance Program (CAP) and other mandated services were approximately $350 million short of the actual costs over the past decade. Religious Jewish students number approximately 130,000, approximately one-third of the state’s non-public school population Last year’s state budget included $16 million to begin paying down the debt and this year’s proposed budget includes $16.8 million.
The Agudath Israel activists thanked those who helped begin repaying the debt. They urged them to repay the debt at a more aggressive pace, as well as allocate an adequate $60 million a year for CAP payments. Rabbi Zwiebel and others stressed that covering these costs is a legal obligation for the state.
East Ramapo School District
The East Ramapo School District, which encompasses the Monsey area, is the rare district where non-public school students outnumber public school students by more than two to one. The standard state funding formula counts the district as one of the wealthiest districts in the state while it is actually very poor. The shortage of state funding has led to steep constraints in the education budget and strife between the Jewish community and the public school community.
The activists reiterated the importance of modifying the formula to account for the unique dynamics of that district, so that there will be adequate funding for all students. “Traditionally, we are here as advocates of non-public school students,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. “In this case, we are actually advocating for both public and non-public school students.” He added that if the funding issues are rectified, all the other challenges in the district are likely to be alleviated as well.
A bill has been introduced in the Assembly and Senate that would empower a state monitor to overrule decisions made by the majority-Orthodox East Ramapo School Board, in light of the crisis. Members of the mission expressed forceful opposition to the proposal, and pledged to advocate the entire legislature for its defeat. Aron Wieder, the Orthodox majority leader of the Rockland County Legislature and a former East Ramapo School Board member, delivered a powerful address denouncing the legislation, which negates the power of democratically elected officials. “This bill goes against the very core of our democracy. Our Founding Fathers are turning in their graves.”
A bill that would legalize physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is now pending in the Assembly and Senate. Rabbi Mordechai Biser, General Counsel of Agudath Israel, expressed strong opposition to the legislation, two weeks after Agudath Israel filed a detailed memorandum opposing the measure.
In an exchange with Senator Diane Savino, a sponsor of the legislation, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Vice President for Community Services for Agudath Israel, explained that the legislation could potentially have far reaching consequences. “When you legislate this, you are not only permitting it, but you’re saying that it’s a ‘kosher value,'” Rabbi Lefkowitz explained. “The medical staff members look at the patient and say that their life is not worth anything.”
Mrs. Leah Gelernter, a patient advocate, related stories of elderly patients who doctors advised to end their lives who lived additional enjoyable years; one woman lived to 114. “There is a Jewish saying that a prosecutor cannot be a defense attorney,” said Mrs. Gelernter. “A doctor can’t have the role of preserving and ending life.”
One major accomplishment since last year’s Agudath Israel mission relates to the application and funding process for children with special needs in non-public schools, which was plagued with stressful bureaucratic delays and lengthy court cases. Following a passionate speech on the Senate floor by Senator Simcha Felder, the Senate passed a bill making the process easier.
Upon the imminent passage a similar bill in the Assembly, sponsored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, an agreement was reached with Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City officials to streamline the process.
Richard Altabe, Chairman of Agudath Israel’s Special Education Advisory Board, related that the situation on the ground has indeed significantly improved for parents. Mrs. Leah Steinberg, Director of Special Education Affairs for Agudath Israel, who intensively lobbied on this issue, issued a personal thanks to the legislators who helped reach this accomplishment.
The activists urged the legislators to continue working to ensure that the fast growing population of special needs children receives the maximum educational opportunities available.
On the day that news broke of the arrest of three men in Brooklyn who were planning to join ISIS and commit local terror attacks, and following harrowing attacks in France and Denmark, the activists stressed the need for additional funding for security for non-public schools in our communities.
Currently, $4.5 million a year is allocated for the cause. “We thank you for that $4.5 million but that is inadequate,” said Chaskel Bennett. “We are a target; it’s no secret.”
In previous years, $4.5 million a year was allocated in the New York State budget for infertility treatments. Currently, only $1.9 million is allocated.
Noted activist Abe Eisner relayed the real importance of this funding. He related one anecdote of a “Baby Shimon” that was born to a couple after six years of marriage following successful treatment. “With additional funding, we can fill up this room with many more ‘baby Shimons.'”
On behalf of all the mission members and the hundreds of thousands of community members they represent, Chaskel Bennett, member of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, issued a passionate clarion call: “Our communities are growing and thriving, and are on the cutting edge of activism. This year, there cannot be an answer (from state government) besides for ‘yes.’ We’ve heard enough ‘no’ and ‘next time.'”