Photo Credit: Emes Production Photography
L-R: COJO Flatbush Social Services Director Shulamis Shapiro; COJO Board Member Meyer Zilber, ESQ.; COJO CEO Louis Welz; COJO First Vice President Leon Goldberger; COJO Chairman of the Board and special awardee Larry Spiewak; Mrs. Mindy Spiewak; Sharona Spiewak; COJO President Moshe Zakheim.
COJO President Moshe Zakheim congratulates Mayor Eric Adams on receiving the Distinguished Public Leadership Award.

The stars came out, as they always do, for the 45th Annual Community Legislative Breakfast of COJO Flatbush. It’s one of the most highly anticipated events on New York City’s communal-political calendar, and the stars in this case were the thousand-plus political and religious leaders, community activists, and other assorted movers and shakers who gathered at Brooklyn’s Kol Yaakov Hall on Sunday, April 7 to greet old friends and make new contacts – all while celebrating COJO’s transformative work on behalf of the community.

This year’s Breakfast had a bittersweet aspect to it, as it was dedicated in honor of Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus, OBM, who passed away last November and who served as executive director of COJO Flatbush for a quarter of a century, guiding the agency through its early growth years. The morning’s itinerary included an inspirational remembrance of Rabbi Pikus by his son Rabbi Yaakov Pikus and a moving video tribute featuring people who had worked closely with him during his career of public service.

City Council Member Farah Louis with COJO CEO Louis Welz.

The Breakfast had a somber side as well, with a moment of silence in memory of those killed by Hamas on and since Oct. 7 and in solidarity with those still being held hostage in Gaza. Many of the speakers referred to the ongoing war with Hamas and its repercussions for Jews everywhere, and several close relatives of hostages were on hand to speak about their missing loved ones.

But most of all this was a day for communal, political, and business leaders to express their appreciation for the assistance provided by COJO Flatbush to 30,000 clients this past year alone, through programs including Adult Education, Tax Preparation, Summer Youth Employment, Senior Enrichment activities, Immigration Law, Benefits and Entitlements, Financial Services, and preholiday Food Distributions.

Mayor Adams speaks with relatives of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

The Breakfast serves as COJO’s “annual showcase of services,” said CEO Louis Welz. “Our programs are supported by elected officials through government programs and discretionary funding, and subsidized by communal and philanthropic contributions. The Breakfast gives us the opportunity to talk about the work we do, and it makes a big difference in terms of our annual budget.”

In his opening statement to the still-arriving throngs of guests, Welz stressed that “All of COJO’s programs and services transform lives and create opportunities for all segments of our communities. I say all segments because while our office sits in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, our clientele is drawn from virtually every racial, ethnic, and religious group in out multicultural city.”

City Council Members (L-R) Susan Zhuang, Rita Joseph, Selvena Brooks-Powers; Farah Louis; Kalman Yeger.

Welz set the tone for the tributes that were to follow for Rabbi Pikus, describing him as a “true giant in delivering chesed to our community” and declaring that “everything we build stands on the foundation he helped create.”

Thanking State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein for his efforts to ensure that COJO will once again host a Chol HaMoed Family Fun Extravaganza this year, Welz urged everyone in the hall to save the date – Thursday, April 25 – and bring their families out for an afternoon of wholesome fun, free of charge. Welz expressed his appreciation to State Senator Simcha Felder, crediting him with originating the idea several years ago for COJO to hold what has since become a much-anticipated annual event in which a nondescript city block comes alive with the sights and sounds of an old-fashioned country carnival.

COJO CEO Louis Welz with State Senator Zellnor Myrie.

Welz also made special mention of COJO’s Board of Directors, noting that “Moshe Zakheim, President of the Board, Larry Spiewak, Chairman, and Leon Goldenberg, First Vice President, are all successful businessmen in their own right but they are all more known for their chesed than for their actual businesses. They are the foundation that supports everything that COJO does.”

COJO President Zakheim, prior to listing all the services and projects that COJO provides, spoke in searing terms of Oct. 7 and its aftermath, condemning the “demagoguery that has unfortunately insinuated itself into the self-serving proclamations of some of our elected officials whom we considered friends and defenders of our community. We can only hope that when we get together next year, good will have prevailed over evil, honesty over falsehood, and civilization over barbarism.”

L-R: IDF Captain Chaim Meisels, who recently served in Gaza; COJO CEO Louis Welz; COJO President Moshe Zakheim; U.S. Representative Michael Lawler; Council Member Inna Vernikov.

The double message of praise for COJO and condemnation of Hamas and its apologists was present throughout the morning, particularly in the acceptance remarks by awardees State Senator Zellnor Myrie (Lena Cymbrowitz Distinguished Legislator Award) and U.S. Representative Michel Lawler (Distinguished Statesmanship Award).

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (Distinguished Public Leadership Award) was introduced by COJO First Vice President Leon Goldenberg, who praised the Mayor as “a steadfast supporter of not only the Jewish community in New York but the Jewish community worldwide.” Adams characterized COJO as “an amazing organization that not only helps Jewish residents of the city, they help whomever is looking for support.” Turning to face the relatives of Israeli hostages, Adams declared, “Hamas must be destroyed and the hostages returned home and we can end this violence by taking the necessary steps to do so.”

L-R: U.S. Representative Michael Lawler; City Council Member Inna Vernikov; City Council Member Mercedes Narcisse; Alexander Gurevich, Kings County District Attorney’s Office; former City Council Member Ari Kagan.

One of the morning’s highlights was the presentation of the Distinguished Chesed Award to COJO’s beloved Chairman of the Board, Larry Spiewak, who spoke emotionally of his late parents and his commitment to community activism. “I didn’t come by my love for community work in a vacuum,” he said. “I learned from the best, my parents who were Holocaust survivors. Tragically, my father was murdered and my mother was critically injured shortly after my eighteenth birthday. The organizations that stepped up to help us were my first exposure to community involvement. I was lucky enough to marry into a family who are equally committed to the idea that you don’t only give with your pocket but with your heart.”

COJO CEO Louis Welz looks on as Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzales congratulates COJO Chairman of the Board Larry Spiewak on his receiving the Distinguished Chesed Award.

Longtime State Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1980 and recently announced her intention to retire at the end of her current term, was presented with COJO’s Distinguished Leadership Award by New York City Councilmember Kalman Yeger (himself a former awardee). Yeger saluted Weinstein for being a “visionary” whose “service is legendary.”

Also honored by COJO this year were New York City Councilmember Susan Zhuang (Distinguished Freshman Leadership Award); Chairman, President, and CEO of Apple Bank Steven Bush (Excellence in Banking Award); and Vice President of Stat Electric and Maintenance Corp. Yitzchok Landsberg (Volunteer of the Year Award).

COJO CEO Louis Welz speaks with three children of Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus, Z”L, in whose honor the Breakfast was dedicated – Rabbi Yaakov Pikus, Rabbi Avrohom Pikus, and Mrs. Avigail Altusky.

Beyond the usual intense chit-chat among guests, the continual search for late-arriving friends and acquaintances across and around the hall, and the reaching for platter after tasty platter of constantly arriving breakfast fare, the event succeeded in its primary purpose – highlighting COJO’s vast array of services to the community. “By noting these accomplishments,” said Director of Social Services Shulamis Shapiro, “our goal is to inspire more involvement and assistance, which will enable us to change the lives of even more individuals and families.”

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Jason Maoz served as Senior Editor of The Jewish Press from 2001-2018. Presently he is Communications Coordinator at COJO Flatbush.