Becket, a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths, on Wednesday issued a press release saying that just hours after being ordered by a federal judge to explain his shutdown of Jewish schools in court, Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference in which he reversed course and agreed to allow the schools to open in Far Rockaway.
The announcement came on the heels of the lawsuit filed by Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits, who send their daughters to Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM) – an Orthodox Jewish school for girls. The lawsuit alleged that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio had illegally discriminated against the school, even though there had been no cases of COVID-19 and both officials had previously admitted that schools have not been spreading the virus.
Meanwhile, in a related story, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday he has no reason to apologize to the Haredi community in Brooklyn and Queens, unlike Mayor Bil de Blasio (Watch: Mayor Bill de Blasio Says He Apologized to Haredi Leaders, Seeks ‘Positive Reset’).
“I am sorry that they feel the disruption, I am sorry that they are disrupted, their religious ceremonies are disrupted, how many people they can have in a synagogue is disrupted, how many people they can have at a wedding is disrupted, the operation of their schools is disrupted. I am sorry for that,” Cuomo told reporters.
On October 6, following an increase in COVID-19 cases that Governor Cuomo admitted “would be a safe zone” in many other states, the state-imposed new indefinite lockdowns on a select number of zip codes in New York that target the Orthodox Jewish community.
The new restrictions completely banned in-person instruction at BYAM and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City—stripping parents of their right to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children. According to Becket, these restrictions come after months of Cuomo and de Blasio scapegoating the Jewish community for the spread of COVID-19 while praising nearby mass protests. Last week, a federal judge in New York found the new restrictions to be specifically targeting the Orthodox Jewish community.
In Lebovits v. Cuomo, with help from Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, Yitzchok and Chana asked the court to punish Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio for their unscientific and discriminatory targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community that has caused immense suffering and pain for their neighbors and for their children who will never get back the weeks of instruction stripped from them at BYAM. Among other things, the lawsuit emphasized a recording of a conversation Governor Cuomo had with a group of rabbis in which he acknowledged that the policy was not tailored, was cut by a “hatchet,” and was driven by fear.
“We are grateful the lockdown order has been loosened and our children can get back to praying and learning together with their classmates,” said Chana Lebovits, mother of two Bais Yaakov students. “The Governor should never have targeted the Jewish community with his lockdown or his statements.”
“It’s unfortunate it took a lawsuit to bring us to this point, but we are grateful the Governor has heard our plea and taken action to loosen the restrictions on Far Rockaway,” said Bais Yakkov principal Rabbi Nosson Neuman. “At the end of the day, this is about the children, and getting our children and those of the entire community back into the classroom in a safe and legal way is the only goal.”
“The Governor shouldn’t have needed a lawsuit to tell him that shutting down Jewish schools was wrong. This was the worst kind of unscientific and harmful scapegoating, as the Governor himself knew that schools weren’t a problem,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket and counsel to the plaintiffs. “If Governor Cuomo wants respect, he has to give respect. Reopening the schools in Far Rockaway is a start, but elected officials have a lot of work to do to repair the pain and division they have caused.”