Photo Credit: Courtesy of Agudath Israel of America

A private meeting between 21 key employees, supporters and board members of Agudath Israel of America, and New York Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin, took place on December 13 at the Manhattan offices of the organization.

The 45-minute meeting included discussion of Benjamin’s support for Israel, yeshiva education, curtailing anti-Semitism, opposition to the BDS movement and the bonds between blacks and Jews throughout history, according to Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudah.

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“The message they were sending to me was more about educating me about the Orthodox community and some of the key concerns around education, healthcare and anti-Semitism and they wanted to make sure that I knew what their concerns were and how I can be helpful,” Benjamin told The Jewish Press. “When you talk about education and wanting to make sure in the Orthodox community your kids get a certain kind of education because you want them to know their faith, their history about who they are, I feel that very strongly.”

The remarks were positively received by Agudah.

“He did grasp the issues quickly. He was well prepped and he understood he was making a presentation. He made a nice impression on us,” Zwiebel said earlier this week. “I was impressed that he picked up on the concerns of anti-Semitism right away. I think he filters a lot of what he is hearing about the Chasidic community and what the ultra-Orthodox has to say from the prism of his own experiences as an African-American.”

Even though Agudah’s main mission is to influence legislation on a state level, Benjamin talked about Israel to the group.

“I’ve taken trips to Israel as part of a delegation of people of color who went to get a better understanding of Israel and what is going on in the region, so I’m a friend,” Benjamin said. “AIPAC had a group called the AIE (American Israel Education) Foundation trip so it was through AIPAC that I went [to Israel] and got better acquainted. People of the Jewish faith have been very supportive of me for my entire life. I’m a friend of Israel. As Lt. Governor, as we talk about some of these important issues, I wanted to make sure that I showed my interest. I’m going to be attending some of the yeshivas and spending more time getting better acquainted with [those of] Jewish descent in New York state. I look forward to being helpful around resources and the budget and some key priorities.”

Zwiebel said he realized Benjamin was using Israel as a means to relate to the group.

“It’s obvious that his point was to establish his bona fides and the best way he knew how to do that is how he came to his position on Israel,” Zwiebel recalled. “He doesn’t hide the fact that there are other elements of his own social and political allies who have different views on Israel. He went to Israel and came home with not necessarily the same attitude that he went with. He now feels what he was taught very clearly that claims of injustice on the other side of the Arab-Israeli War or conflict – those are pretty much mitigated by certain circumstances facing the Jewish people and the Jewish state, so he understands that it is an important thing for us to hear from a person who can do this as a representative of today’s Democratic Party where there are components including people of color who have a less benign view of Israel.

“On Israel, he obviously got his speech down and I would like to think it’s sincere that he feels that his relationship with the Jewish community was at least giving him considerable standing in the Jewish community and he wanted to establish his bona fides when he met with us,” Zwiebel said. “The first thing he did when he introduced himself was discuss his views on Israel and BDS. It was appreciated. People are very sensitive right now to the whole BDS movement. It’s long been a staple of the New York political declaration of love for the Jewish people. The way you do that is by visiting Israel and talking about how there is an unbreakable bond between the people of New York state and the people of Israel.”

Benjamin also related black history to Jewish history.

“We need to engage in dialogue and one of the things I was saying in the meeting was I’m always going to listen to what you have to say,” Benjamin pointed out. “This idea that people should not take trips to Israel to learn is absurd. We are people of different communities who need to understand all communities, and that involves visiting, that involves conversation, that involves putting yourself in a position where you are taking in what I wish people would do in some cases with the Black community, before speaking about the black experience. One of the things I’ve been championing is having more Black history taught in our public school system so that more young black men and black women can see themselves as kings and queens and get a better sense of who they are so it will help them in their lives.”

Benjamin also spoke about how he tied Jewish private school education and black public school education together at the meeting with Agudah.

“When you talk about education and wanting to make sure in the Orthodox community your kids get a certain kind of education because you want them to know their faith, their history about who they are – I feel that very strongly. One of the things I’ve been championing is having more black history taught in our public school system so that more young black men and black women can see themselves as kings and queens and get a better sense of who they are so it will help them in their lives. So, I can totally identify with some of the key concerns and desires of the community and I will continue to be a friend as long as I am in government.”

On this Zwiebel commented, “… Such as yeshiva education and protecting it against an effort to require schools to change their curriculum and their class schedules. This is an important issue for us to discuss with him.”

Even though Benjamin, 45, aligns himself in his Harlem neighborhood with the likes of Al Sharpton, he was trying hard to convince the Agudah audience he is on their side as well.

“When I look at my life and some key parts of my life, there were Jews who helped me all along the way, Benjamin said. “When I was applying to Harvard Business School, I had some Jewish friends help me with that [and] when I was going to Brown [University] … so for me personally I have a real strong affinity with the Jewish community and I want to make sure as Lt. Governor we are growing that friendship and I’m learning. We’re all brothers.”

 

 

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.