February: No Longer Just Black History Month
Black History Month is being celebrated with exhibits, artistry, awards, proclamations and discussions about how the Black and other minority communities can keep pace with more well-heeled sectors of society in New York. What was once known as the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus among the political powers in Albany has been renamed the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. More than one-third of the state Legislature belongs to the caucus.
This past weekend was known as Caucus weekend when the minority communities gather in Albany to celebrate accomplishments and complain about what needs to be improved in their lives. Nestled into the talk about Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian pride were the seminars about how menthol cigarette ads have been targeting the minority community for decades, killing a disproportionate number of minorities than white smokers who apparently are not attracted to flavored cigarettes. Also, women’s maternal health issues, including obtaining state aid for a doula, were on the docket, and the Women, Minority-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) was a topic of discussion over the weekend.
Rabbi Garth Marchant of Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation in southeast Queens told a panel of six experts of MWBE, including Hope Knight, commissioner of the Department of Economic Development, which includes MWBE, that the system is not working. Others in the audience agreed. Marchant told The Jewish Press the MWBE program is “a front for major companies that get all the contracts and are not giving contracts to minorities. This infraction is not being enforced by the state.”
Marchant wants New York officials to create a state bank so minorities can have easier access to capital.
Working the three-day event were two white elected officials, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander.
“It’s a great networking opportunity. We learned a lot from the workshops and just spending time with people,” DiNapoli told The Jewish Press. “For me, I enjoy the opportunity to honor individuals in the black, brown and Asian communities who are making a difference. Anytime you communicate with people who are leaders in their local communities you learn more about our state and that’s what Caucus weekend is about.”
Lander sat through many workshops including one on MWBE.
“I don’t know what could be holier than fighting for a more equal and inclusive world where everybody gets their fair shake,” Lander told The Jewish Press. “We have an obligation to build a more just and equal New York. This conference reminds you of that, and how are we doing relative to last year? Have we made the state and the city more just and equal? More inclusive? Have our numbers improved on MWBE contracting? This weekend I’m definitely most focused on the MWBE business issues both in our pension funds amongst our asset managers, where we invest, and in city contracting where the city has a $100 billion budget. Last year we did $40 billion of contract business but only about five percent of that was with minority or women-owned businesses. If you look specifically at black or Latino-owned businesses it’s a shonda [shame] how little of the share of the pie those people get.”
Then he quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who participated in the civil rights movement, including the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. The rabbi observed that their protests had a spiritual quality. He described their marching as praying with our feet. Heschel’s exact quote was “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
This month also saw the celebration of the Year of the Rabbit for the Asian community’s lunar New Year. Chinatown was all abuzz on Sunday, February 12, with streets blocked off and sidewalks barricaded to allow for the festivities. Taking front-row seats were Governor Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, state assemblymembers including David Weprin, Ed Braunstein, Grace Lee, Lester Chang and state senators including freshman lawmaker Iwen Chu and Brian Kavanagh, who represents the district.
When passing by a Chinese duo singing on a platform, the 72-year-old Schumer bounded up on stage and couldn’t resist taking over the microphone to sing his version of “New York, New York” and saying, “We sing ‘New York, New York’ because the Chinese-American community is one of the best things about New York.” He made his remarks after appearing on national television public affairs shows criticizing China for sending a balloon over the United States from Alaska to South Carolina. Some observers said it was a spy balloon, some said it was a weather balloon and others said it was a prank.
Of course, we all know that Tuesday, February 14, was a day of love and romance. The costumes in the lunar New Year parade were festooned with lots of red and pink.
With the Chinese community acknowledging its lunar New Year, Chabad of the Capital District celebrated Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, on Tuesday, February 7. The annual event at the state Assembly side of the Capitol featured Rabbi Israel Rubin, director of the Capital Chabad, who is still recovering from a stroke he suffered last spring. Even with his voice softened by the stroke and mostly wheelchair-bound, more than 20 state lawmakers stopped by to speak with and take a few photos with the 72-year-old rabbi, who also mustered enough voice to deliver a brief opening prayer about Tu B’Shevat and why the ceremony for trees happens during one of the coldest months of the year.
“Jewish tradition insists that we mark the New Year for Trees in winter. The branches may be bare, there are few outer signs of life, but this is now when the sap starts flowing deep inside the trees. The potential for growth is there,” Rabbi Rubin told the state Assemblymembers who listened intently in hushed silence. “Whether we know it or not, the fruits will soon be coming. May our efforts to persist and persevere to overcome the challenges. May we see the results of our efforts. I know this now from my own therapy. At first it was slow and hard to see results but thanks to my efforts therapy helped me overcome the challenge. I’m blessed to be here with you today and join in Tu B’Shevat. Believe it or not the fruits will come forth at the right time. May we merit in this great state with good growth and a healthy ecology.”
He then made a Borei p’ri ha’etz, on a carob from the Middle East. He then bit into the hard fruit.
Rabbi Rubin was also joined by a girls’ class from the Maimonides Hebrew Day School, where he serves as the Rosh Yeshiva [Head of School].
On a completely separate note, Robert Zimmerman, a Democrat who lost his Congressional bid to George Santos, a Republican, did not tell me he would run or is considering running for that seat in 2024.
He did tell me that his “only focus is putting together a bipartisan coalition to remove Santos from office.”
Two new Jewish-owned businesses opened recently in Albany. The War Room, a non-kosher bar and restaurant had its ribbon-cutting on Monday, President’s Day. The food-and-drink establishment is a political-themed establishment with memorabilia dating back more than a century. The owner is publicist Todd Shapiro, who saved up enough money to buy and restore two century-old buildings. He is relying on street traffic and supporters who are political junkies at the Capitol and those who are staying at two nearby hotels. He invested more than $1 million in cash to launch the building. Assemblyman David Weprin, a friend of Shapiro’s, moved his March 8 fundraiser to The War Room and is having kosher food catering brought in from a nearby supermarket, the Price Chopper Kosher Store.
The other Jewish-owned establishment is the Holiday Inn Express, located at 300 Broadway near a Greyhound bus terminal. The owner is Morris Oiring, who also owns Genesis Adult Day Care, located in Rockaway Park, Queens. The Holiday Inn Express serves a kosher breakfast for guests and is supervised by the Vaad HaKashruth of the Capital District. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Bomzer is the Rav HaMachshir [certifying Rabbi]. The food is catered by 518Kosher, a business owned by area resident Howard Gross.