With a vote on budgetary issues at the NY State Legislature slated for the end of the month, representatives of Agudath Israel of America together with about 50 delegates from all parts of the state converged upon Albany to advocate for increased funding for yeshivas, as well as for culturally sensitive legislation on educational, moral and safety issues of paramount concern to our community.

In a series of meetings in the Senate, the State Assembly and the Governor’s Office, delegates eloquently petitioned for the Education Tax Credit Bill (ETC) encompassing parental choice and tuition relief.

Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, Mr. Shlomo Werdiger, Mr. Leon Goldenberg, Mr. Chaskel Bennet, Mrs. Rivkie Feiner, Mr. Boruch Rothman and Mrs. Deborah Zachai advocated for increased funding for security equipment for our schools, for government reimbursement for mandated educational services; and for reimbursement for immunization record-keeping  within our yeshivas -one of the most woefully underfunded state-mandated services.

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Delegates also raised burning issues such as the East Ramapo School District bill that calls for the appointment of a “monitor with veto power” to oversee the decisions of the elected school board. In addition, they petitioned the legislature to reject a bill legalizing medically assisted suicide, contending it undermines the sanctity of life and erodes society’s moral and social fabric.

Other issues raised by the delegates in back-to-back sessions with elected officials included preserving the independence of non-public schools, by rejecting legislation that would allow state intrusion into administrative policies that go to the heart of the Orthodox community’s moral values. Delegates also requested the re-opening of an Office of Non-Public Schools that would deal with concerns unique to private and parochial schools.

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“While it may be weeks and in some cases, months, until we see results of our advocacy, one thing is clear,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel. “The large turnout of delegates from diverse communities all over New York sent a strong message to the legislature that when it comes to key issues affecting the Orthodox Jewish community, we are a strong and united constituency.”

The delegation started the day by convening in the Senate room, where Senators John Flanagan, Andrew Lanza, David Carlucci, Simcha Felder, Jeff Klein, Kemp Hannon, Marty Golden, Terrence Murphy, William Larkin and Catharine Young had assembled to hear the presentations.

Senate Majority Leader Flanagan opened the meeting by warmly supporting the key issues laid out in Agudath Israel’s¬†Mission to Albany handout. “Private schools need our help,” he told the attendees, referring to the huge cost of meeting the government’s mandated services. “And as we know, if the government mandates something, they’re responsible to pay for it.”

Sen. Flanagan praised the “dogged determination” of his colleague, Sen. Marty Golden, and other senators in championing ETC, and pledged to be “a facilitator” in bringing to fruition key proposals related to the welfare of the Jewish community. Sen. Jeffrey Klein underscored his support of the ETC bill and Sen. Cathy Young credited Sen. Simcha Felder for educating fellow senators about the importance of tuition relief.

Community activist Mrs. Rivkie Feiner, CEO of UCN, a consulting firm, delivered a forceful ¬†¬†appeal on behalf of fellow Jewish residents in the East Ramapo School District, thanking ¬†Sen. ¬†Flanagan and other senators “for upholding the constitutional rights of the voting majority in our district.”

Those rights are endangered, she said, by the proposal to install a monitor with veto power to oversee the town’s elected school board, presided over by a majority of Orthodox Jews. Such a move would undermine the democratic process, marking a dangerous precedent. The volatility of the situation has triggered an overt anti-Semitic backlash in East Ramapo, felt as seething resentment toward the expanding Jewish community.

“East Ramapo is a litmus test and is being watched nationally and internationally. ¬†Please continue to protect us [through your legislative power],” Mrs. Feiner appealed to the senators. She thanked Agudath Israel of America, “for giving a voice to our community and our rights, for their representation of our entire community, and for their constant guidance and leadership.”

At the close of the meeting with the senators, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president of Agudath Israel Community Services, summed up the concerns of the delegates and underscored the seminal role of government officials in crafting legislation to address the needs of the Jewish community.

The delegates reconvened in the State Assembly room where Assembly members Carl Heastie (Speaker), David Weprin, Dov Hikind, Helene Weinstein, Michael Cusick, Michael Simanowitz, Nilly Rozic, Peter Abbate, Richard Gottfried, Steve Cymbrowitz and Walter Mosely, heard passionate addresses from Mr. Chaskel Bennet and Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

Mr. Chaskel Bennett, a member of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees and a tireless advocate, eloquently drove home the message that enhanced security equipment and technology in our yeshivas is not a luxury but sheer necessity. He said the current state funding that breaks down to $10 per child in the non-public school sector is grievously inadequate.

“New York is at high-risk for terror attacks and the state’s Jewish schools are the most vulnerable targets of all,” he stressed. “Increased funding must be allocated to ‘harden the target,’ through the installation of security systems from concrete barriers to video cameras to electronic lockdown systems and other measures. No one wants to be haunted later by regret that we didn’t protect our children as we could and should have.”

Assemblyman Hikind echoed these words, noting that at that very moment, Israel was coping with the aftermath of three terror attacks that had taken place in different parts of Israel that same day. Jewish communities everywhere in the world are the number one target, he said. Government has to be responsible and be more proactive about affording all children security and protection.¬†Mr. Hikind pushed hard for passage of the ETC bill, urging that to make it happen, someone should take the position, “No budget without some form of tuition tax credit.”

Mr. Leon Goldenberg, Agudath Israel Board of Trustees member and indefatigable askon, made a stirring appeal for passage of the ETC bill in the Senate conference hall, the State Assembly room and at a meeting with officials in the Governor’s Office. He reminded all present that yeshiva education as the most vital link to the Jewish people’s continuity and stressed that even needy parents who can’t the meet tuition burdens will not dream of taking their children out of yeshiva.

Since all children are entitled to an education, Mr. Goldenberg said, parental choice should be facilitated by tuition relief for parents of non-public school struggling under tuition burdens. ETC would provide a substantial state tax credit-and thus a powerful incentive-for contributions to schools and scholarship organizations. This would be a life-altering boon for needy yeshiva students-who comprised 34.8 per cent of the non-public school sector in New York state.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel ended a long day of intense advocacy by thanking the dozens of delegates and community activists who had made the long trek to Albany. He noted that political progress is accomplished by relentless tenacity on the part of advocates, and that breakthroughs depend on steady, “drip-drip” perseverance in hammering away at the issues.

He shared his memory of a senior government official who many years ago, as the Agudath Israel vice-president was about to speak, memorably interrupted with, “Rabbi, let me make that argument for you.”

“He had heard that speech so many times, he’d memorized it,” noted Rabbi Zwiebel. “And eventually that speech was translated into policy.”

(Author: Debbie Maimon)