People are still talking about the recent COJO Flatbush 43rd annual Community Legislative Breakfast, which featured blunt talk about what many view as unjustified harassment of yeshivas by the New York State Education Department, as well as rousing and at times emotional affirmations of support for Israel from both Jewish and non-Jewish elected officials.
More than a thousand political and religious leaders, community activists, and other notables gathered at Brooklyn’s Kol Yaakov Hall for the Breakfast, which has become one of the most highly anticipated events on New York City’s communal-political calendar. While the focus was on the vital work performed by COJO Flatbush in servicing more than 30,000 clients a year, it’s a testament to COJO’s reach and influence that the Breakfast is regarded as a singular occasion for networking – meeting old friends and making new contacts – among the city’s movers and shakers.
The Breakfast also serves as COJO’s “main fundraiser for the year,” said CEO Louis Welz. “Our services and programs are supported by elected officials through government programs and discretionary funding, and subsidized by communal and philanthropic contributions. The legislative breakfast gives us the opportunity to showcase the work we do and our growing menu of services, particularly in such areas as Adult Education, Immigration Law, Tax Prep, and pre-holiday Food Distributions, and it makes a big difference in terms of our annual budget.”
This was the first COJO Flatbush Legislative Breakfast since the onset of COVID in March 2020, which forced the cancellation of that year’s event and, as it turned out, the 2021 Breakfast as well. When the 2020 Breakfast was called off – just days before the scheduled date – Welz had stated, “I can assure all those who looked forward to the Breakfast that when it does take place it will be the special event they’ve come to expect.” It may have taken somewhat longer than he ever imagined it would, but two years later, the 2022 Breakfast was indeed “the special event [everyone has] come to expect” from COJO.
As is always true of COJO Legislative Breakfasts, the buzz began well before Welz took the stage to welcome the guests. The excitement this year, however, was fueled by a pandemic-long period of absence and anticipation. An air of reunion was palpable, with many old friends and acquaintances greeting each other for the first time in what one woman said “seemed like an eternity.” Vigorous handshakes and heartfelt embraces were quickly followed by the requisite taking of photos – lots and lots of photos, with group selfies apparently the order of the day.
In his introductory remarks, Welz expressed relief and gratitude that the “dreadful two years of the pandemic” were behind us and welcomed the return of “mingling with friends.” He noted that COJO Flatbush had continued serving the public through even the worst periods of Covid and had in fact expanded many of “the programs that transform lives and create opportunities for all segments of our communities.”
He also cited, as a sign of the return to normalcy, the resumption this past April of COJO’s wildly popular Passover Chol HaMoed Extravaganza, the first since 2019, and announced that Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, whose efforts made this year’s Extravaganza a reality, has already secured funding for next year.
“The smiles on the faces of thousands of kids and their parents” – as they experienced an afternoon of rides, concert performances, interactive shows, and pony rides – “was all the feedback we needed,” said Welz.
COJO Flatbush events always draw an impressive Who’s Who of elected and communal leaders, so it’s no surprise that the Legislative Breakfast had more than its share of frank talk on serious issues. For example, COJO President Moshe Zakheim knew his remarks concerning what he characterized as a continuing assault on yeshivas by the New York State Education Department would make some people in the hall uncomfortable, but he felt strongly that silence can equal complicity. So he spoke from the heart about the 170,000 elementary and high school students currently enrolled in the state’s 450 Jewish schools, the quality of education they receive, and the decades-long success story of yeshivas and day schools turning out – with no outside interference – upstanding young people who go on to substantial accomplishments in all walks of life.
City Councilmember Kalman Yeger, who received COJO’s Councilmember of Distinction Award, addressed the rise of anti-Semitism and the phenomenon of “our friends in public office who when speaking to Jewish groups say all the right things but who react to anti-Semitic incidents with apathy and silence.” Referring to the shooting at a Buffalo supermarket by a white supremacist gunning for African Americans, Yeger stressed the need for Jews and Blacks to stand together against violent extremists on both the left and the right, saying “we have to recognize that we’re not in this alone; people who hate others hate us and people who hate us hate others.”
Concern about the rise of racist rhetoric and hate crimes was shared by former City Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr. – who presented Yeger with his award and who as a young man spent time in Israel living on a kibbutz and playing professional basketball for Maccabi Petach Tikvah (he’s 6-foot-10) – and Congressman Ritchie Torres, who received COJO’s Distinguished Statesmanship Award.
“What people need to see,” said Cornegy, “is a room like this, where we’re celebrating each other….your friendship as a community is vitally important to my community and vice versa.”
Torres, who forcefully reaffirmed his deep and longstanding support of Israel, called the Buffalo shootings “a reminder that we all have an obligation to ensure that extremism – whether it’s racism or anti-Semitism – is fought at every turn and in every form.”
Cornegy’s appreciation of the spirit of inclusion so visible to anyone at the Breakfast was seconded by attorney Howard Sokol, the Kesser Shem Tov awardee. COJO, he said, is “an organization that has ‘Jewish’ in its name and we see here literally a kaleidoscope of colors and a diversity of backgrounds that you will not see at just about any other organization’s function.”
Even with so much attention directed at events of the day, the focus of the Breakfast always came back to COJO Flatbush. To its phenomenal growth (Senator Chuck Schumer told the audience he remembers when COJO was founded “in a little room on Coney Island Avenue, and I’ve seen it grow from strength to strength”). To all the things COJO does for those in need. To the ever-expanding range of COJO’s programs and services. And to the determination – voiced by CEO Welz and President Zakheim and Chairman of the Board Larry Spiewak and First Vice President Leon Goldenberg and Social Services Director and Breakfast Coordinator Shulamis Shapiro – to continue carrying on COJO’s mission and fulfilling its promise that “Help Starts Here!” until the day arrives when it is no longer necessary.