Each year the leadership of the Council of Jewish Organizations (COJO) of Flatbush hands out as many as nine awards to political leaders, volunteers, elected officials, community leaders and law enforcement. This year’s breakfast, held at the Kol Yaakov Hall in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, was like every other feast. Lots of good food and friends wanting to mix and mingle instead of hearing speeches from the awardees.
More than a dozen times the audience of nearly 1,200 people had to be asked to quiet down and offer respect to those accepting the awards. The first speaker began with, “All the elected officials sit down and stop yacking. Sheket B’Vakasha.” Those words were spoken by none other than United States Senator and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D – Prospect Heights).
“Because of the great increase in antisemitism, we put together the nonprofit security grant,” said Schumer. “This program started at $19 million and I’ve gotten it up to $305 million. Who got more money than anyone? Our yeshivas. Shhhhh. With all the antisemitism and attacks on our people and our institutions, this money can go to protect our yeshivot. It can go for windows and doors and fences. It can’t go for personnel but you can hire a security guard firm to do it. It’s called the payroll protection program.”
Schumer also spoke about the trip he and nine other U.S. Senators took to Germany and Israel.
“I took nine senators on my first Kodel, that’s a foreign trip … We went to Dachau, Germany, where I showed my senators what happened and everyone saw when you have no vigilance against antisemitism what can happen.
“Then, of course, we went to Eretz Yisrael and we visited Yad Vashem. I have visited Yad Vashem many times, but every time something hits you differently. As I was going through the end of Yad Vashem, they have the Gallery of Children. It’s a beautiful gallery that commemorates the one million Jewish children who were exterminated by the Nazis. They showed pictures of some of the children who were exterminated. Who were gassed. They show different pictures every time. This time I happen to see beyond the wall a little girl, five years old, it said Rosalie from Romania. She looked exactly like my sister. This could have been all of us. We must redouble, Jew and non-Jew alike, we must redouble our fights against bigotry and our fights against antisemitism, which is rising higher than any other hate crime that we have seen. We must all speak out against it,” Schumer concluded.
Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso took the stage to accept the Distinguished Leadership Award.
“The people with the most need should get the most help. That is the foundational principle of which I was raised. COJO, as an organization, has dedicated its entire organization to do just that. The people that need the most help get it. I’m grateful for that organization,” Reynoso told those in attendance. “Let’s not forget that COJO assists folks outside the Jewish community and the work they are doing. I want to thank them for everything they do. Don’t forget to spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”
Combatting antisemitism seemed to be a thread through the program that every awardee focused on. The COJO leadership did so as well.
“The senator spoke about it and I’m going to harp on it,” said Leon Goldenberg, first vice president of COJO Flatbush. “That’s the antisemitic attacks that are taking place, specifically in Brooklyn, but in New York which has the highest number of antisemitic attacks anywhere. Recently there was a resolution in the City Council, which six people did not vote for. I don’t know why antisemitism should be so difficult to vote against. It is something our community is under attack almost on a daily basis. What I do want to bring out is the FJCC [the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition] met a few months ago with the council speaker. She heard us and you can see clearly, she felt our pain about the issue. Since then, the speaker has been on the forefront of condemning antisemitic attacks, attacks against Israel and recognizing them for what they are.”
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (D – Southeast Queens) accepted the Public Leadership Award.
“Our magnificent city is overflowing with talent and it is up to all of us, elected officials, religious and community leaders, teachers, and advocates to work together to deliver the essential services that help New Yorkers realize their full potential,” Adams said, battling the din of noise from the audience. “Our city’s non-profits, like COJO, play a critical role in strengthening families and communities by providing support through food and housing assistance, health care, youth programs and so many other supportive services. This year alone, COJO has served more than 25,000 people in the Jewish community and in other cultural and ethnic communities throughout our city. COJOs programming goes beyond borders and allows us to unite as one. This work is especially important as our Jewish community has faced an increase in antisemitic hate violence over the last year. We must stand united against hate and work together across communities to deepen our care and our understanding of each other.”
When the Kings County District Attorney took to the stage to introduce the next awardee, the chatter was so loud you almost thought the DA was going to have everyone arrested. His frustration was evident.
“Let’s have some decorum in the room for a second, please. If everyone can take a moment to settle down for a second,” Eric Gonzalez reprimanded the crowd. “As district attorney of Brooklyn for the past six years, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of COJO in strengthening the welfare of our neighborhoods. COJO does more for our communities … alright folks, we’re about to honor the most high-ranking police officer in all of Brooklyn South. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to ask everyone to just be quiet for a minute to acknowledge our chief. Alright folks, folks I’m serious over there. Calm down. Calm down. This is the [assistant] chief of Brooklyn South being recognized today. Give him a moment of respect … I’m just going to bring up [Assistant] Chief Charles McEvoy, [Commanding Officer, Patrol Borough Brooklyn South]. He’s going to be honored today with the Distinguished Guardianship Award for a lifelong commitment protecting the Jewish community in all communities of Brooklyn. Here in Brooklyn South, he has helped lead a reduction in violent crime. In particular, hate crimes are down 25 percent in the city and 50 percent as it relates to anti-Jewish hate crimes. That partnership is extremely important to me as the district attorney and it should be important to all of you.”
Goldenberg also heaped praise on McEvoy’s efforts in the area of Brooklyn richly populated by Jews.
“Make no mistake, the Jewish community, especially the Orthodox community, feels the protection of the NYPD on a daily basis. They are out there anytime there is an antisemitic incident. They are out there and you will see the police cars patrolling our neighborhoods, sitting in front of the shuls and I really want to thank the NYPD for that,” Goldenberg said.
New York City Controller Brad Lander, who was rebuked by Schumer earlier in the program for contributing to the noise in the room, was given a spot on the speaker’s platform to say a few words.
“What a beautiful thing it is to be in a room with so many dear friends, almost none of whom voted for me. I’m optimistic about winning Pinny Hikind’s vote next time. Let’s hear it for Pinny Hikind who does a great job representing this community and who is a treasure in our office,” Lander said, hoping to gain a few more votes from what he perceives as a right-wing audience.
“What we want for our country is a place where everybody is safe. Where you can walk around visibly Jewish and not be attacked for it and where we can live together in peace even if we disagree about how to get there. Building bridges to make sure we get there is really critical. Sometimes, left-wing Jews like me and pious Jews like you have been working together side by side at the most critical times like in the ghetto or at the founding of the State of Israel and sometimes we’re at each other’s throats. Like in the Chanukah story, it’s better to be cousins, it’s better to sit down together and build those bridges when we agree and when we disagree.”
Also receiving awards were Rep. Yvette Clarke (D – Canarsie, Brooklyn), the Distinguished Statesmanship Award; New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov (R – Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn), Councilmember of Distinction Award; Danny Sherwinter, chief of surgery at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, the Distinguished Medical Rofeh Award; Charles Rose, director of research at Manhattan-based Cruiser Capital Advisors, Distinguished Chesed Award; Mill Basin resident Gil Cygler, newest board member, COJO Flatbush, Kesser Shem Tov Award; Miriam Belyavskiy, devoted COJO volunteer, Volunteer of the Year Award.
COJO of Flatbush offers residents in Brooklyn 30 programs encompassing adult education, assistance with health insurance, legal matters, employment, immigration law, tax preparation, youth development, financial services, benefits and entitlements, career preparation, housing advocacy, domestic violence services, and after school and senior programs as well as social services case management. In 2022, the organization’s leadership boasted they helped more than 25,000 clients receive more than 58,000 services through COJO of Flatbush programs for the Jewish community and in other cultural and ethnic communities throughout the city.