A bevy of political stars appeared on Sunday, February 20, to show support for a growing 16-year-old social service agency in Flushing, Queens, which is heavily populated by Bukharian Jews who emigrated to the area. The group, Chazaq, a kiruv organization, is run by Rabbi Yaniv Meirov. He worked his contact list and burned up phone lines to attract just about every major statewide and local elected official for his first legislative dinner.
The stars, all Democrats, included Governor Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, area Congresswoman Grace Meng, state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblymen Andrew Hevesi and Daniel Rosenthal as well as City Councilmembers James Gennaro, Sandra Ung, Linda Lee and Lynn Schulman. Also filling the room were Met Council CEO David Greenfield, approximately one dozen area rabbonim, and Barry Grodenchik, a former city councilman as well as the Jewish community liaison for New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The only obvious no-show was state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
Except for Adams and Gennaro, all the above-mentioned elected officials are up for election or reelection and need the votes from the growing and mostly conservative Bukharian Jewish community. DiNapoli does not appear to be facing a serious threat from the Republican or Conservative parties.
Approximately 150 people attended the dinner at the Simcha Palace in Kew Gardens Hills, including the politicians and their staff. Only about half of the audience were paying attendees. There were seven sponsorships sold to spur financial support for Chazaq. The organization runs a food pantry in conjunction with Met Council; provides lectures, after school programs, education programs and counseling for people with addictions, and finds yeshiva placement for public school students in the area as well as in Florida, Arizona and Canada, Meirov told The Jewish Press. Estimates from the Met Council show the food pantry has distributed more than 270,000 pounds of food to 220,000 people.
Speaking for less than five minutes, Governor Hochul was first up to address the group.
“This is an organization that is formed to really meet the people when they really need help. Whether it’s food insecurity and the incredible work you’re doing to feed people, especially during this epidemic when so many people were desperate and lost their jobs and you stood up,” Hochul said. “Education is so critically important and support for nonpublic traditional education is really important to all of us. I want to make sure we have support for our yeshivas, support for the STEM program where we increase our support by nearly 20 percent in my budget for this year.
“This is a vibrant community. This is a growing community. We have about 80,000 members now. I think it’s going to continue to grow because your families are getting larger. I think that’s wonderful and we’re going to continue to support yeshiva education,” Hochul added.
And then the governor stumbled on the Hebrew word for repairing the world:
“I want to thank all of you for the core of what you’re doing. It’s subscribing to our philosophy of repairing the world, Tikkun Olam. Did I say that correctly? Tikkun Olam, right? I want to get it right because the philosophy behind that is what inspires me to be your governor,” Hochul said. “We all have a responsibility to repair and heal the world to make it better. While we’re here on Earth is to repair the world and make it better for generations to come. I want to celebrate with all of you. I look forward to celebrating with you at your second, third, fourth and fifth events because this is going to grow in popularity.”
Rav Doniel Lander, Shlita, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr HaChaim, based in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, and the dean of Lander and Touro colleges, offered the opening prayer for the dinner. He spoke to the elected officials about having a heart and wisdom when considering legislation. He based his prayer on the teachings of one of the great men of Spanish Jewry during the 13th century, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides.
“Based on the insights of Nachmanides, the Talmud is telling us that the grantor of wisdom gives this gift to those who know how to use it properly,” Lander cautioned the political honorees. “To those who know to spread the wisdom from the mind to accompany it with the wisdom of the heart. May the Almighty G-d grant our political leaders the wisdom of the mind to approach the issues that vex our society with the correct analytic and intellectual approach, but that wisdom should be accompanied by the wisdom of the heart with compassion and sensitivity. For those who have the capacity of the wisdom of the heart the grantor of wisdom will gift the wisdom of the mind.”
The common thread in everyone’s speech for the evening was fighting antisemitism and hatred. The attorney general also spoke for less than five minutes, giving her stump speech to Jewish audiences about not tolerating antisemitism and hate crimes.
“We must also come together and stand arm in arm with no space between us against antisemitic attacks against our friends, our neighbors and our family who are Jewish. It is unacceptable,” James said. “Hate has no place in the state of New York and we will stamp it out for the cancer that it is. We will not tolerate antisemitism. We will stand with Israel. We will stand against hate crimes.”
Then James quoted from Isaiah 58:10: “You all know the words of the Torah that says, send yourselves on behalf of the hungry, as the rabbis prayed for us, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. ‘Then your light will rise in the darkness.’ When our skies are the darkest that is when we can see the light and all of us must remember to continue to look up ahead for the lightness that will continue to guide our path.”
Meng continued on the theme of wiping out antisemitism and hate speech.
“I’m so proud of the work that Chazaq has done and continues to do every single day for our communities, bridging the different parts of the Jewish community and also expanding our coalitions in our community with communities beyond the Jewish community as well, which is so important these days,” Meng said. “It’s important for me as someone who is not Jewish to make sure that we are standing in solidarity and united in calling out antisemitism and racism when it happens to any community. We cannot be silent. It’s important that we unite, stand strong and condemn those acts of violence and dangerous rhetoric as well and do it together in one loud voice.”
Rosenthal continued on Meng’s message of fighting antisemitism.
“It’s so good to see the Jewish community come out in force. It’s more important than ever for the Jewish community to be involved politically. We are all frustrated in what’s going on in politics today,” he said. “We do not have a voice if we do not speak up, if we do not organize and if we do not show up. As everyone has said, antisemitism is up, the violent attacks are up and we cannot let that be the new normal in New York City. Think about how you are going to get involved in your local community, your politics, so we can continue to raise our families here safely and comfortably.”
Adams told the Chazaq supporters what they are doing mirrors what he wants his administration to replicate. The newly-minted mayor also said that when he grew up his mother had trouble always putting a full meal on the table.
“What you are doing is amazing. You just see it as doing a good service by providing food, what you’re doing in schools, you see it as just a good deed,” Adams told the group. “Trust me, there’s an Eric Adams out there somewhere as a child that that food pantry is giving them the opportunities they need. It’s allowing them to believe in themselves and it’s allowing them to believe in mankind. This city must take care of the people who are in need. That is what you are doing.”
When Schumer took to the podium to speak there was so much noise and lack of interest in hearing him that he had to scold the audience by saying “sheket b’vakasha” (silence, please), which he has used at other Jewish functions such as the COJO Flatbush breakfast in Brooklyn a few years ago. He came to the event in the midst of the wedding for one of his former staff persons. After speaking for four minutes and extolling his own virtues, the Senate majority leader left to go back to the festivities.
“My job is to bring money to New York and to the frum and Jewish communities. This year I have done more of that than anyone has ever done,” Schumer said. “We made sure that our religious institutions could get the PPP program [Paycheck Protection Program loan as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act]. We made sure that our yeshivas and Jewish institutions would get the education funding in spite of many people who didn’t want it to happen but I made sure it did. We made sure as well that we’ve gotten much more money in security grants so our Jewish institutions, which have been subject to antisemitic attacks, can get federal money. We doubled the amount from $90 to $180 million, more than 25 percent has come to New York and the vast majority [of that went to the Jewish community]. I’ve told a lot of our non-Jewish institutions they should apply but because of the good work of our community, the Jewish institutions applied and got a huge proportion of the money for doors, windows and security guards. Bigotry against one, we’ve learned, is bigotry against all.”
Then Schumer praised the organization he was there to honor.
“In this great organization of Chazaq, when we help one, we help all. When the Jewish people always has tzedakah as one of the greatest goods we’ve ever had, the greatest teachings we’ve ever had, help one, we help all. I want to commend Chazaq for the great work you do,” Schumer added.
Met Council CEO David Greenfield reverted to his days as a city councilman and urged state lawmakers to coddle citizens and not criminals.
“Today we’re at a crossroads and we have to make a decision. Are we going to take hate crimes seriously or not? There is a 300 percent increase in hate crimes against Jews and against Asians, in the same percentage in the last year. We always say this, we started raising the flag for Jews because we knew that after the Jews, they [racists, hate mongers] would come after someone else and they did,” Greenfield railed. “They came after the Asians. Hate crimes, it’s like a pandemic. It spreads if you don’t stop it. We have a very clear decision to make right now. Anybody who works in Albany has the same decision as well. Whose rights are more important? Is it the rights of the people who are going to be murderers? Or is it the rights of the innocent civilians who walk down the street who decide to live in New York, pay their taxes and be card-carrying members of our society? It just seems like we’re not picking the side of the citizens, because a 300 percent increase in antisemitism and a 300 percent increase in attacks against AAPI [Asian-American Pacific Islanders] New Yorkers is unacceptable. If someone has mental health issues you can’t let them roam the streets with a knife and then let them go in and out on bail. It’s unacceptable. Stand up, don’t be silent and let’s be united against hatred in New York City. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.”