New York’s Orthodox Jewish Community and Mayor Bill de Blasio Are In Step

From the Wall Street Journal

Before New York Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed in November to pay for security guards in private schools, Orthodox Jewish leaders flooded his office with thousands of letters and calls, cornered him at parties, and spent more than $300,000 on lobbyists and a political campaign.

Mr. de Blasio didn’t seem interested for months, and his office signaled annoyance, saidMaury Litwack, political director for the Orthodox Union, a group pushing for the guards.

But over protests of public-school supporters and some City Council members, Mr. de Blasio agreed to support it.

“Sometimes you have to be loud, and we were loud, and he responded,” Mr. Litwack said.

The Orthodox Jewish community, politically potent and known for reliably showing up to vote, has lobbied the de Blasio administration on a number of issues—and won. While the Orthodox are more socially conservative than the mayor, their leaders say they have been satisfied with several compromises on their issues made during Mr. de Blasio’s first two years in office.

Last summer, Mr. de Blasio added funding to a voucher program largely used by Orthodox parents for after-school child care. Earlier in 2015, his administration oversaw changes to city rules on a circumcision policy that many Orthodox opposed. In 2014, he made it easier for parents with special-needs children to enroll them in private schools at city expense, a change eagerly sought by the Orthodox.

More broadly, Mr. de Blasio also signaled support for churches to hold services in public schools and allowed some concessions for religious schools to participate in universal prekindergarten, giving them time to pray.

Rabbi David Niederman, director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, said his community received more attention from the de Blasio administration than from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We were basically ignored then,” said Mr. Niederman, an influential Orthodox Jewish leader who broke with the Bloomberg administration over the circumcision policy.

A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg declined to comment.

Mr. Niederman, who said he had a relationship with Mr. de Blasio dating to the mayor’s years as a City Council member and as the city’s Public Advocate, said his community of about 100,000 in Williamsburg would largely vote for the mayor’s re-election.

City Council Member David Greenfield noted that the security-guard bill failed to gain traction in the Bloomberg administration, and that Orthodox Jewish leaders couldn’t get what they wanted on the circumcision issue, either.

“The issue that helped us is the relationship with the mayor,” Mr. Niederman said. “He came in understanding and not to have to go through the learning curve.”

The ability of the Orthodox community to sway the de Blasio administration has surprised some, considering Mr. de Blasio is liberal and not religious. Aides to the mayor cite relationships he developed during his decade as a Brooklyn councilman. One of his top longtime political aides, Avi Fink, is an Orthodox Jew who is plugged into the community. A spokeswoman for the mayor said engaging with the community “leads to more productive outcomes.”

Their victories, however, have sometimes angered other allies and even some inside the administration. “I get the sense what he’s done sometimes has been greeted with eye rolls at the agency level,” said Michael Tobman, a political consultant who often works with the Orthodox community.

When Mr. de Blasio’s administration changed course on the circumcision ritual—repealing the Bloomberg-era rule that required parental-consent forms before a mohel sucks away blood during the procedure—“it was completely politicized and they caved to political pressure,” said Jonathan Zenilman, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has studied the policy.

Mr. Zenilman said the decision was “shameful” and put children at risk for herpes. De Blasio administration officials said the practice would occur anyway, and their policy advised families of the risk and was more inclusive of the community.

Deciding to spend $20 million to pay for security guards in private schools was a decision that discriminated against public schools that could have used the money and upset gay and lesbian council members because Orthodox Jewish leaders oppose gay relationships, said Rosie Mendez, a Manhattan Democrat who voted against it.

“He’s trying to acquiesce to the lobbyists, to the religious community that has been looking for money for their private schools,” she said.

Ms. Mendez said the administration wasn't “fiscally prudent” like the Bloomberg administration. Danny Dromm, another Queens Democrat, said he expected the compromise would embolden leaders to push for more.

The de Blasio administration noted the original bill called for $60 million to be spent on the guards and said it negotiated a better deal.

Despite the work the Orthodox community has done with the mayor, points of tension remain, according to Mr. Greenfield and others. They have pushed for shorter days for universal prekindergarten, so they have more time for religious education. Some also prefer the more aggressive law-and-order crime policies of the Bloomberg administration.

And they weren’t happy when Mr. de Blasio voiced for more support for Palestinians. Mr. de Blasio did visit Israel earlier this year.

A headline in “The Jewish Week,” an influential periodical, in November read: “De Blasio Support Plummets Among Jews; Approval rating down to 28 percent, despite nods to community.”