By Debbie Maimon
With just two weeks to go before the New York State budget is slated to be finalized, about 50 delegates from all parts of the state converged upon Albany under the banner of Agudath Israel of America to advocate for ten important points of legislation for the Jewish community. Headlining the list were tuition relief for yeshiva parents in the form of a tax credit and increased security funding for nonpublic schools.
In a series of meetings, delegates eloquently petitioned for tuition relief to low income and middle income yeshiva and other nonpublic school parents. They argued that yeshiva parents, who pay state taxes for public schools their children do not attend, are struggling with steep tuitions with little support or relief. Delegates also noted the gross disparity between funding for public school students in New York State (amounting to about $22,000 per student) and the vastly smaller budget allocations for private and parochial schools. The time has come, they said, for New York State to show that it values education for all children.
They petitioned for increased funding for security for Jewish schools, consistent with the mounting threats to Jewish institutions across the country. State funding for nonpublic schools, as one delegate testified, is simply not enough to meet the schools’ increasing needs. Other requests included government reimbursement for mandated educational services, and transportation and services for all of New York State’s special needs children, even if they go to school out-of-state.
Concurrent to the main meeting, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Agudath Israel’s vice president for community affairs and chairman of the board of Chayim Aruchim, Agudath Israel’s division dedicated to end-of-life issues; and Leon Goldenberg, member of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees and one of the leaders of its Government Affairs Commitee; met with legislators to explain the Orthodox Jewish opposition to controversial legislation promoting assisted suicide. Attending legislators included Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried; Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, sponsor of the bill in the Assembly; and Senator Diane Savino, sponsor of the bill in the Senate. Rabbi Shmuel Blech of Lakewood, New Jersey, an advisor to the Legislature of New Jersey on end-of-life issues, and infectious disease expert Dr. Dan Berman presented arguments against the legislation.
Other members of the delegation met with Senate Coalition Leader and Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Leader Jeffrey D. Klein, together with the entire IDC (Senators Marisol Alcantara, Tony Avella, David Carlucci, Jesse Hamilton, Diane Savino, and David J. Valesky). The delegation reinforced the urgency of passing the tuition relief bill and discussed possible amendments to overcome opposition in the Assembly.
Later in the day, the group met with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who could not attend the main meeting because of personal commitments, and with members of his staff.
Im Lo Achshav Eimosai?
The day began with a meeting in the Capitol Building, where the delegation hosted a group of senators. In this initial meeting, these legislators first heard the question which was echoed throughout the day. “Im lo achshav, eimasai? — If not now, when?” Rabbi Lekfowitz was the first to explain the unique relevance of this quote from Ethics of Our Fathers to the agenda at hand. It was a call to action to get key pieces of legislation critical to the Orthodox community passed in the coming two weeks.
Rabbi Lefkowitz said that the warm support for tuition relief legislation in the Senate must be translated into concrete steps to push the measure through the legislature. “If not in this current legislative session, when? There are no excuses left,” he declared.
Mrs. Rivkie Feiner, a dedicated activist from Rockland County, concurred. “With the cost of education straining families to the breaking point, the time has come for sorely needed tuition relief to finally receive priority in the State Budget.”
Also presenting to the senators were Mr. Chaskel Bennett, member of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees and one of the leaders of the organization’s Government Affairs Committee; Mr. Goldenberg; Mr. Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s associate director of education affairs; and a parent of several special needs children who were denied transportation to a special education school.
Senators John Bonacic; Simcha Felder; Martin Golden; Kemp Hannon; William Larkin, Jr.; Terrence Murphy; Elaine Phillips; Sue Serino; and Catharine Young affirmed their strong commitment to the tuition relief for parents in the form of a tax credit and other items on the Agudah agenda.
Senator Golden called for “equity, fairness and parity” in the state’s educational funding for all students in both public and nonpublic schools. “We’re staunchly behind you. There is no reason we can’t find a few hundred million dollars in the budget to close the gaps in security and educational funding,” he said. “Find us a partner in the Assembly [to help push through these bills]!” he urged the Agudah representatives.
Senator Golden then led the senators in a stirring tribute to Rabbi Lefkowitz, lauding his more than 40 years of devoted efforts on behalf of the Orthodox community. He presented the Agudah leader with a plaque bearing a Senate Proclamation of gratitude for decades of outstanding service and wise counsel. “You have fought the good fight and have educated us,” Senator Golden said. “Your ethics are your strength. You have helped us to do what is right for all our children and families, for our city and state.”
The delegation hosted members of the Assembly for lunch in the Legislative Office Bulding. They met with Assembly Members David Buchwald, Robert Carroll, William Colton, Michael Cusick, Steven Cymbrowitz, Richard Gottfried, Speaker Carl Heastie, Dov Hikind, Walter T. Mosley, Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz, Amy Paulin, Michael Simanowitz; Nily Rozic; Helene Weinstein, and David Weprin.
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel’s NY Director of Government Relations, introduced each of the legislators as well as the Agudah presenters.
Mrs. Shoshana Bernstein, who sits on the security committee of Yeshiva of Spring Valley, appealed to assembly members to allocate additional funding in the state budget for children in nonpublic schools. “School safety is an issue that cuts across party lines,” she stressed. “Every parent is entitled to know her child is safe.”
In making the argument for increased state funds, Mrs. Bernstein stated: “Increased funding must be allocated to ‘harden the target.’ Security systems from concrete barriers to video cameras to electronic lockdown systems cost prohibitive sums. A professional assessment of a school’s security needs alone can run to $25,000.”
Legislators also heard from Miss Hadassah Bennett, a seminary and Touro College student and a graduate of Masoras Bais Yaakov, on the subject of the yeshiva system’s overall academic standards. “In my experience, the standards could not have been higher,” she told Assembly members. “My education and that of my sisters and all my friends was rigorous; a dual track in Hebrew and secular studies prepared us well for both seminary and college. We are proof that the partnership between public support for private schools is working – and working well.”
Words Are Not Enough
Assemblyman Dov Hikind summed up the current impasse in the legislature whereby lawmakers have acknowledged the “unfair disparities” between state funding for public schools and that granted to nonpublic schools, but have nevertheless “failed to add any money in the budget to correct this inequity.” He decried this situation as totally unacceptable.
Echoing the warm esteem for Rabbi Lefkowitz displayed in the Senate, Assembly members led by Helene Weinstein presented the Agudah leader with an Assembly Proclamation citing his “distinguished service in the halls of government on behalf of his community and constituents for over 40 years.” Assemblywoman Weinstein remarked that she and her colleagues continue to seek his advice.
The delegates then met with senior governor aides Bill Mulrow, Secretary to the Governor; Michael Cerretto, State Police Staff Inspector and Director of the NYS Office of Counter Terrorism (DHSES); David Lobl, Assistant to the Governor/Jewish Liaison; Dr. Jere Hochman, Deputy Secretary for Education; Roberta Reardon, Commissioner, New York State Department of Labor; Jamie Rubin, Director of State Operations; and Rachel Small, Deputy Secretary for Public Safety.
Miss Chava Blauman, an eighth grade student in Bnos Bais Yaakov, Far Rockaway, thanked Governor Cuomo for being a friend and expressed admiration for the governor’s staunch commitment to security, especially now, when Jews fear that threats against them may turn into something worse. “At such a time,” the high school student said, “it is reassuring to see the strong leadership and principles of someone like our governor.”
Mrs. Stacy Siegel advocated for the rights of special needs students who are being denied government funding for the services they receive simply because they are being schooled out of state. Though the law clearly states that services follow the child, many of these children are being denied funding. Mrs. Siegal said that all it takes is one person who cares enough to read the fine print and rectify a mistake that is hurting so many families.
Mr. Bennett capped a day of intense advocacy with an impassioned address on two burning issues: security and tuition relief.
“These are the issues that unite our community left, right and center,” he said. “Without safety, nothing else matters.” He praised Governor Cuomo’s “stalwart dedication” to security for Jewish schools but noted that the proposed $25 million, increased to $35 million in the Senate’s version of the budget, is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the actual need.
Referencing the proposed tuition relief bill, Mr. Bennett recalled how many changes to the original bill had been crafted to satisfy critics and opponents. “We’ve reworked the bill over and over. And we continue to hear excuses, such as ‘It’s not the right time…not in an election year,’ or whatever the current objection is. When will be the right time? When will our needs be taken seriously?”
“Well over 400,000 children across the state of New York attend nonpublic schools. Their parents are sacrificing heroically to provide their children with an education unique to their needs. We plead with you and implore you to match words with action,” he urged the governor’s staff. “The governor supports this legislation. The Senate supports it. Two of the relevant players recognize the justice of our requests. That has to sway the vote. The opposition has to be told what is right and what is wrong.”
Photo Credits: Dov Lenchevsky and Marc Gronich