Agudah’s Annual Albany Mission Advocates for Tuition Relief, School Security and Special Needs

Continuing a years-long tradition of making the multi-hour trek to Albany to advocate for the needs of the Jewish community, members of Agudath Israel of America’s executive staff, community leaders and concerned citizens spent a full day meeting with high level officials, hoping to bring about positive changes that will benefit parents, students and yeshivos throughout New York State.

The annual Albany mission has become a productive vehicle that has historically yielded tremendous results, with legislators acknowledging that meeting face to face with the Agudah’s many constituents gives them a fresh perspective on the importance of agenda items. Issues addressed by this year’s mission included tuition relief, equitable reimbursements for mandated services, providing greater security for yeshiva students, creating transportation options for children with special needs, preserving the integrity of non-public schools and ensuring the sanctity of human life.

“Sometimes it can take us years of trying before we see actual results but we keep trying and sometimes we get rewarded,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Agudah. “Many of the positive developments that we are seeing today are the result of the hard work by people who came up to Albany five years ago. If they hadn’t come up to the capitol and spoken, we wouldn’t be receiving the things that we are getting today.”

The day began with a pre-mission briefing in the offices of Senator Marty Golden, who pledged his support to help lighten the burden on tuition-paying parents by supporting both the Education Investment Tax Credit and getting New York State to match the federal government’s newly approved changes to 529 plans. Continuing on a high note, Mrs. Deborah Zachai, director of education affairs at the Agudah, reported that reimbursements for mandated services and the existing CAP (Comprehensive Attendance Policy) debt for the 2016-2017 school year were on their way to yeshivos, thanks in part to the Agudah’s diligent efforts.

The mood was extremely upbeat as the more than 40 mission delegates met with Senate Majority Leader Senator John Flanagan and Senators Simcha Felder, Marty Golden, Kemp Hannon, Bill Larkin, Carl Marcellino, Terrence Murphy, Elaine Phillips, Susan Serino, and Catharine Young. Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at the Agudah, praised the State Senate for its efforts in the previous year, which helped result in its paying down of $60 million in outstanding CAP debt and providing funding for various programs, including newly passed legislation that would increase school security, a pressing issue whose importance has skyrocketed in light of the recent Parkland school shooting.

In a dramatic presentation, Avrohom Weinstock, associate director for educational affairs, praised legislators for increasing reimbursements on state-mandated immunization record-keeping from 60 cents per student, to a more equitable rate of $29.39. Noting that funding for immunization recordkeeping had been eliminated from the proposed executive budget, Mr. Weinstock asked the senators to restore those reimbursements. The Agudath Israel leader also requested that the state align its 529 savings plan with that of the federal government, a move that could provide significant relief to parents of students in grades K through 12.

Delegates had the opportunity to speak with and hear expressions of support for agenda items during a lunchtime meet and greet with Assembly members Peter Abbate, Stacey Pheffer Amato, Brian Barnwell, Rodneyse Bichotte, David Buchwald, Robert Caroll, Michael Cusik, Steve Cymbrowitz, Erik Dilan, Dov Hikind, Ron Kim, Dan Quart, Daniel Rosenthal, Helene Weinstein and David Weprin. Agudah board of trustees member Chaskel Bennett spoke warmly about the late Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, a true friend of the Agudah and leader in the Assembly who passed away earlier this year, whose mission and enduring legacy of fairness and equity for all New York State children continues despite his absence.

Mrs. Chedva Weingarten, the mother of two children with special needs, touched listeners’ hearts as she shared her story of having to invest countless dollars and hours to get her daughter to school after being denied transportation by the New York City Board of Education, calling on legislators to approve expanded transportation services for the special needs community. Mrs. Weingarten thanked Assemblywoman Stacy Pfeffer Amato for introducing legislation that would accomplish this purpose.

The mission concluded with an interactive meeting with members of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office Julie Frank, Adam Silverman, Megan Baldwin, David Lobl, Daniel Fuller and Terry Pratt. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul made an unscheduled appearance, emphasizing the importance of being sensitive to the unique cultural needs of the Orthodox Jewish community and taking a strong stance against acts of anti-Semitism throughout the state. Among the highlights of the discussion was a presentation by Mrs. Rivky Feiner offering a parent’s perspective on coping with daunting tuition bills and asking Governor Cuomo to support legislation that would offer some measure of financial relief. Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president of community services, discussed the efforts of the Agudah’s Chayim Aruchim division to uphold the sanctity of life in a climate that is embracing assisted suicide, stressing the right of every patient who has lived their life as a Jew to have their constitutionally guaranteed right to die as a Jew, as well.

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Numerous legislators throughout the day thanked the delegates for taking the time to come to Albany, noting that their very presence spoke volumes.

“It is clear that seeing that there is a real group of constituents behind us has a significant impact on lawmakers,” observed Rabbi Silber.

“We hear from every member that when a delegate takes a day off of work to come to Albany, they appreciate what we have to say that much more,” added Agudah board of trustees member Leon Goldenberg. “It is critical to keep coming up and to maintain relationships in order to be an effective voice for the Jewish community.”

The annual mission, part of Agudah’s ongoing series of advocacy efforts, was hailed as a success by Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of the Agudah’s board of trustees.

“I believe we accomplished our objectives and know that our presence here today is essential to the success of our Albany work,” said Mr. Werdiger. “We see real appreciation from our government partners and hope that it translates into positive results for our constituents. The hard work continues on well after today.”

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