Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Senator Backtracks on Alliance with Anti-Yeshiva Group

When Senator Marisol Alcantara (D – Chelsea to Washington Heights, Manhattan) appeared at a Yaffed rally in front of New York City Hall, she claims she did not know what she was getting into. She told The Jewish Press a constituent from her Upper West Side district in Manhattan requested her to show up at “an educational rally” and her chief of staff added the appearance to her schedule. She says she “went with the impression that she was advocating for education for everybody.” However, Alcantara, a native of the Dominican Republic and a union activist, seems to espouse the same principles as the group states on their website.


“If you’re in a yeshiva or Catholic school every kid should have the right to learn math, science and everything else that they need to learn,” Alcantara recalled saying at the rally. “Every kid has a right to be able to learn to be a functioning member of society. The yeshiva I visited after the rally, Chasan Sofer in Boro Park, seemed to provide those things that our kids need to learn.”

Yaffed, an acronym for Young Advocates for Fair Education, puts a positive spin on their mission as stated on their website: “Our work involves raising awareness about the importance of general studies education, and encouraging elected officials, Department of Education officials and the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox world to act responsibly in preparing their youth for economic sufficiency and for broad access to the resources of the modern world.

“We encourage compliance with relevant state guidelines for education while maintaining respect for the primacy of Judaic studies and the unique cultural and religious values of the ultra-Orthodox community. Our mission is to ensure that all students receive the critical tools and skillsets needed for long-term personal growth and self-sufficient futures.”

Not everyone is a fan. “Yaffed is a bunch of disgruntled former yeshiva students who did not like the way their lives turned out,” said Rabbi Avrohom Schwartz, a principal of Yeshiva Chasan Sofer, one of the oldest yeshivas in the United States with a history that dates back to Eastern Europe. “I was impressed and honored by her (Alcantara’s) visit.”


April Elections Add More Jews to Elected Office

Special elections were held in 11 Assembly and Senate districts across the state on April 24th. Increasing by one was the contingent of lawmakers who identify as being Jewish. There are now 28 Jewish lawmakers, 20 in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. There are still four open seats in the Assembly and another none members in the Assembly have either announced their retirement or that they are running for higher office. There are 105 democrats and 41 republicans in the Assembly. In the Senate, where the split is much closer, 32 democrats to 31 republicans with Simcha Felder (D – Midwood, Boro Park) tipping the balance of power in favor of the GOP by joining that caucus. Five Republican Senators have already announced their retirements.

In last month’s election, Shelley Mayer (D – Yonkers) moved from being a three-term member of the Assembly to the Senate where, a decade ago, she served as chief counsel to the Senate Democratic Conference. From 1982 to 1994, Mayer served as an Assistant Attorney General during the tenure of Attorney General Bob Abrams.

Mayer took her ceremonial oath of office on an ivory-covered siddur brought to the United States from Russia by her grandmother and used at her mother’s wedding, she said.

Mayer, 65, lives in Yonkers with her husband, Lee Smith. They have three adult children, Aaron, Julia, and Arthur Smith. She is a congregant of the Northeast Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Yonkers.

Mayer has been given the prestigious appointment as the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. She also has a seat on the Health, Insurance, Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation, Local Government as well as the Environmental Conservation committees.

Mayer is also a senator trying to woo Felder to the Democratic Conference.

“We’re going to be a majority one way or another,” Mayer told The Jewish Press. “I hope Senator Felder joins us sooner than later. The world has changed and I believe the democrats will win in a lot of races. I’ve always had a wonderful relationship with him (Felder) and I look forward to being his colleague. I believe in a big tent democratic party. I really do believe there is room for a difference of opinion, difference of philosophy. We have to have some shared values but I think Senator Felder would be an excellent addition to our conference. I hope he joins.”

In an “aw shucks” way, Mayer is clear that titles don’t mean much. “It’s always Shelley,” she says. “I’ve always related to people by my first name and I will continue to do so.”

Nine percent of the 63-member Senate is now Jewish.

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In the Assembly, two new Jewish members were sworn in to office.

Steve Stern, (D – Dix Hills), a former six-term Suffolk County legislator, won a seat controlled by republicans for 35 years. He ran on six political party lines and won with nearly 60% of the vote. Stern, an elder law attorney, has been appointed to sit on the Aging, Banks, Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry, Energy, Insurance and Veterans’ Affairs committees. Stern, 49, admits because of his legal background he wanted a seat on the Judiciary committee but that did not happen this time. “All of these committees reflect my passions and background experiences,” Stern said.

Stern interned for Congressman Tom Downey and was involved with issues impacting senior citizens while Downey served on the House Select Committee on Aging. That experience, he said, “shaped his life and career” and increased his passion to combat elder abuse and provide long term care services particularly for impoverished seniors.

Of the 28 legislative bad apples who were in trouble with the law from the Assembly since 2000, 23 were democrats. Stern says his race was not affected by the raft of corruption among Assembly democratic members who are legislative bad apples because “it’s time for a good apple,” he noted.

The 12 Assembly seats that encompass Suffolk County are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Over in the Senate, six seats make up the Suffolk delegation. Only one Democrat, a freshman, has broken through the red wall of Republican dominance on eastern Long Island.

“People will vote the person more than the party if they have a reason to do so,” Stern said. “It has everything to do with strong candidates, what they’ve done and what they can do going forward to deliver results for the community that they hope to represent. You have to have fresh faces and fresh perspectives.”

Stern lives in Dix Hills, with his wife, Meredith and their two teenage boys. The Sterns are members of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, an egalitarian conservative synagogue.

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Harvey Epstein won an open seat in Manhattan that encompasses seven neighborhoods from the Lower East Side to the United Nations in midtown Manhattan. It is considered a safe seat for a Democrat and usually attracts liberal candidates.

Epstein, 51, says he will be a full-time legislator. He ran a “legal services office for a while” and he left that to run for office. He counters those who bring up the corruption in the Assembly saying, “I want to go in and be an honest, ethical person like I have been my whole life.”

He has been awarded to sit on the Agriculture, Cities, Governmental Operations, Higher Education, Housing and Small Business committees.

On the issues he is passionate about, “We have an affordable housing crisis that we need to manage, anti-gun violence, gun control, early voting, voting access,” he told The Jewish Press. “We have too many guns in our society and we have to reduce the number of guns and we need to reduce the amount of gun violence. Guns are not used appropriately so we need to regulate that just like we regulate drivers licenses and other industries. It’s a responsibility that people have and people need to be trained to exercise that responsibility well and that requires oversight.”

Epstein resides in the East Village with his wife, Anita. They have two children, Leila and Joshua, and their rescue dog, Homer. Epstein says Joshua will become a bar mitzvah later this month. The Epsteins are members of Congregation B’nai Israel of New York, better known as The Village Temple, a reform synagogue.


Senate Honors Jewish Veteran

Jason Kaatz was honored earlier this month by the state Senate for his service during the Vietnam War. Kaatz, 75, began his service in the United States Army in March 1964. He served in Vietnam from November 1964 to December 1967 with the 161st Assault Helicopter Company, 52nd and 14th Combat Aviation Battalions, 17th Aviation Group, First Aviation Brigade. While in Vietnam, Kaatz was assigned to work with the Republic of South Korea Tiger Division, South Vietnamese 22nd ARVN Division, 5th Special Forces and Special Operations Group in Bhin Dhin Province, operating out of Lane Army Air Field.

Pictured (l – r) Petra Kaatz, a Holocaust survivor, Jason Kaatz, inductee into the Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame and Senator Tony Avella (D – Whitestone, Queens).

Kaatz, a resident of Bellerose, Queens, was honorably discharged from the Army in March 1970. His service to his country and community did not end when he left the Army, as he continued to serve with numerous veterans’ organizations. He served on the National Executive Committee of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States and was Queens County Commander and Commander of the Bell – Oak Post 648.

Upon being discharged from the Army, Kaatz worked as a security consultant and investigator. After his service, Kaatz met his future bride, Petra, a Holocaust survivor. They have been married for nearly 50 years.

Kaatz was inducted into the Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame by his Senator, Tony Avella (D – Whitestone, Queens).