The Art of Advocacy: Maury Litwack

Maury Litwack, the director of state political affairs at the Orthodox Union, has over fourteen years of public policy and political experience. In his role at the Orthodox Union, Maury develops and implements state-by-state advocacy plans for the OU’s many communities around the country. Prior to working with the Orthodox Union, Maury served as a policy staffer for two members of Congress and helped launch the Washington lobbying office of Miami Dade-County, the sixth largest county in the country.

In the battle for tuition affordability, Maury has engaged tens of thousands of community members in grassroots advocacy, created coalitions of opinion leaders and elected officials and crafted impactful media campaigns. Last year, Maury’s leadership helped the OU secure tens of millions of dollars in local, state and federal funding across the country.

Jewish Action: It seems to have been a remarkable year for advocates of increased New York State aid to parochial schools. Tell us how OU-Teach NYS helped secure $96 million in new funding for non-public schools across New York for 2016-2017.

Maury Litwack: We had some extraordinary victories this year in three different areas: One, security; two, financial aid—increasing the amount of money that yeshivot receive from the state and local government; and three, recognition by the state and city of the non-public school community and, specifically, the Jewish day school and yeshivah community.

Let’s start with security. When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred a few years back, there was significant pressure from day school advocates and others to improve security for the public and non-public school communities. Unfortunately, there have been many school security incidents around the country; for our community there are obviously additional security concerns. In fact, as we discuss this very topic [in early May], there have been no less than three troubling incidents in our community in the past week alone, including a school bus being set on fire in front of a yeshivah in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

When we poll yeshivot [OU-Teach NYS polls yeshivot and day schools regularly], administrators tell us time and again that security is their greatest concern, the one issue that parents talk about incessantly.

JA: So you made obtaining security funding a priority this year.
ML: Yes, we put a lot of resources into fighting for serious security funding for the 150,000 students in New York’s yeshivot and day schools, which is an incredibly large constituency. Most people don’t know this, but in New York City alone, there are more yeshivah and day school students than there are Catholic students. We knew that obtaining significant security funding was possible because a decade earlier, OU Advocacy Executive Director Nathan Diament spearheaded the creation of a federal program that has provided tens of millions in security grants for yeshivot and shuls. Nathan innovated and championed this model on the federal level; we wanted to do the same on the local level.

JA: Tell us about the specific victories.
ML: Our talented OU Advocacy-NY team, including Jake Adler, policy director, and Arielle Frankston-Morris, director of field operations, worked diligently to have Intro 65 passed by the New York City Council, the first piece of legislation in the nation that provides non-public school students with the same security as their peers in public school. In January 2016, our advocacy efforts paid off. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Councilman David Greenfield’s Intro 65 into law. For the first time, New York City will provide $19.8 million for non-public schools across the city to hire security guards.

Additionally, we were able to increase New York State security funding to non-public schools to $15 million over the next two years. Aside from security equipment, this new funding can be used to pay for security personnel costs. We got the state to essentially triple the amount of security funding it was providing.

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JA: Extraordinary—especially for those of us who live in New York City. What about accomplishments in other areas?
ML: Our second major victory this year pertains to financial aid. About four years ago, when the OU started on this path of trying to obtain more government funding for yeshivot and day schools, there were critical programs that were being underfunded by the state including Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) and Mandated Service Reimbursement (MSR). These programs reimburse schools for taking attendance and for fulfilling a variety of specific mandates the state requires.

JA: What do you mean by “underfunded?”
ML: There was not enough money allocated in the state budgets over the years to pay the total cost of what the schools were entitled to under various legislative enactments. The schools were noticing [that they were not getting paid the full amount of their entitlements] and had been complaining about it for many years. To their credit, lay leaders like Jack Bendheim and Sam Sutton really pushed us to demand that the state fully reimburse the schools.  

During the last three years, not only have we advocated for increases to these two vital programs, CAP and MSR, and have therefore grown both programs to historic levels [see charts on pages 16 and 18], but we have gotten the state to reimburse the schools the money that was owed. Our advocacy persuaded Governor Andrew Cuomo to allocate over $250 million in back payments to CAP for the many years it was severely underfunded. We estimate that yeshivot and day schools, representing 40 percent of the total non-public school enrollment in New York State, are receiving some $90 million as a result of this agreement. Just to give you a sense of the scope of this program, an administrator at a yeshivah with a student body of about 1,000 told me that his yeshivah received over a half a million dollars in back payments.   

Our third victory is the recognition by the state and city that they have an obligation to our kids; they now recognize that there is responsibility for funding not only public school students, but all students.

JA: You’re referring to the creation of New York’s Office of Religious and Independent Schools. 
ML: Yes, the state has now determined to create that office, which is an acknowledgment that it has to start investing more in our children. This victory, albeit a very modest first step, has been one of OU Executive Vice President Allen Fagin’s primary goals in the fight for education reform. As Allen sees it, our battle is to secure unprecedented levels of funding for our schools and to ensure the safety of our children. But these battles must be premised on the fundamental recognition that parental freedom to choose where and how their children are educated is a basic civil right, a right that can and should be exercised without the inherent discrimination of affording some taxpayers subsidized education for their children, but not others.

Maury Litwack addresses parents and school representatives in the Senate Chamber in Albany on a community mission in support of day school and yeshivah affordability. Photo: Semeraro Photography

Maury Litwack addresses parents and school representatives in the Senate Chamber in Albany on a community mission in support of day school and yeshivah affordability. Photo: Semeraro Photography

JA: Did you envision working for a Jewish organization when you entered politics?

ML: Truthfully, no. I envisioned spending my career in the political arena. However, when the opportunity to work on tuition affordability came up a few years ago, I felt I had to embrace this cause. When I first joined the OU, Simcha Katz was the president at the time. He passionately believed that there was only one way to deal with the tuition crisis: government funding. Much of our current success reflects his early vision and foresight.

The tuition crisis and Jewish education funding are at the top of the list in terms of priorities for our community. I hear people talk about the crushing tuition bills nearly every day and the opportunity to attack it from the political side, which I have always enjoyed, was something that I just could not resist. The issue is also somewhat personal for me, as I have kids in the yeshivah system.

JA: Can you elaborate on the grassroots effort here? Seems like a David/Goliath story. How were you able to overcome the “Goliath” of government?
ML: It has been a grassroots effort. At the same time, it has been about tactics. We have done things dramatically differently than the way we used to. When Allen became executive vice president, he insisted that we approach tuition advocacy the way a major corporation or interest group would—approach government advocacy for a matter of singular and critical concern with the most sophisticated tools at their disposal. We engaged in extensive fundraising in order to hire top political consultants, communication strategists and lobbyists. If a real estate firm or a finance group wants to achieve their objectives in city politics, they hire the best people; we did the same.

We also brought along the top lay leaders from across the state—people like Sam Sutton and Neil Cohen, New York co-chairmen of OU-Teach NYS. These men are deeply passionate lay leaders with extensive experience in day school leadership who realize that bringing government money into the yeshivah base is a game changer. They have been to Albany with me, they have accompanied me to City Hall. But perhaps even more importantly, they have encouraged their individual communities to make their voices heard, and they have been instrumental in our efforts to celebrate politicians who help us and to make politicians who are not helpful to us understand that our community will not back down. All of these community activists understand the very real need for greater funding for our yeshivot and tirelessly dedicate themselves to this cause. Such lay leaders are critical to our success.

JA: Are these lay leaders new to the OU network?
ML: Yes. They are mostly activists in the school community. But when people hear how serious we are and learn about our tactics, they want to get involved. Nearly every day we have people knocking on our door saying they or their schools want to get involved. When you start to produce results, as we have these past few years, people start to notice. Both the management of the OU and the lay leadership involved in this effort expect that we will do even better going forward.

JA: This is a story in itself, the power of grassroots advocacy. What about the political leaders? Have they been supportive? 
ML: I would be hard-pressed to find a greater champion in state politics than Councilman David Greenfield, who has been and continues to be a tremendous asset. On the state level, Senator John Flanagan, who is majority leader of the Senate, has been incredibly helpful as well. Governor Andrew Cuomo has done a tremendous amount of work with us over the last few years. And we are optimistic that the new speaker of the house, Speaker Carl E. Heastie, is going to be a friend to our community on these issues as well.

JA: Which organizations are working with the OU to achieve these goals?
ML: We are working with anyone and everyone who wants to make a difference with regard to government assistance to yeshivot and day schools. We work with organizations across the spectrum, including the New York State Catholic Conference as well as Jewish organizations such as Sephardic Community Federation, Agudath Israel of America, Torah Umesorah and UJA-Federation of New York, to name a few.

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JA: Who are your main opponents? 
ML: Honestly, I think that the main opponent to this endeavor is ourselves. If our community members realized the impact of voting at 100 percent of our capacity, if they realized that there is strength in numbers and that state and local politicians can have a meaningful impact on tuition affordability, they would view education reform the way they view support for Israel. For this to work, people need to get involved. There is simply no substitute for direct contact with members of the State Legislature.

Most Orthodox Jews living in New York and New Jersey have no idea if their state and local representatives voted for or against funding for yeshivot. We need to hold elected officials accountable for their positions vis-à-vis education reform the same way we hold them accountable for their views on Israel. We would never tolerate officials representing us if they are anti-Israel; why do we tolerate officials representing us if they do not promote our interests and vote against funding for our schools?

JA: Is there any other message you want to convey to our readers?
ML: I would encourage people to stop complaining about tuition on social media and around the Shabbat table and realize that there is something we can do. Our OU-Teach NYS team travels to communities and attends more yeshivah board meetings than any other organization.

We need hands-on volunteers who are passionate and dedicated. Something is already happening that can really change the future of Jewish schools; if we had everyone’s involvement, a lot more would be happening.

JA: How can readers get involved?
ML: Educate yourself about the issues. Know who represents you. Make your voice heard. You can make your voice heard when you vote. You can make your voice heard when you let politicians know they are not doing enough for you.

There is strength in numbers. The one thing politicians care about is getting elected and the way they get elected is through votes. Too often state and local politicians get away with saying “I am pro-Israel” and that’s it. Truthfully, an elected official in Albany has very little pro-Israel work to do. And even if he is engaged in pro-Israel activity, it requires maybe 1 percent of his time; the rest of his political time—99 percent of it—is spent working on local issues, such as education reform.

The message I want to spread is simple: we are winning. The proof of concept is over—our efforts have generated more outside funding for yeshivot than any other source. The fact that we can go from having little or no security funding for non-public schools to having city-sponsored security guards in non-public schools, as well as millions in other security funding—all within the space of one year—should convince our community that there is a lot more we can accomplish. There is much that we have achieved; there is far more that we can do if we put ourselves and our resources to work.

To get involved in the fight for tuition relief, call 212.613.8228 or visit www.advocacy.ou.org.

Special thanks to the devoted members of our OU-Teach NYS New York Executive Committee including Chuck Mamiye, Morris Smith, Cal Nathan, Jack Cayre, Barry Lovell, Elliot Gibber, Moishe Bane and Jack Bendheim. Additionally, we thank tireless lay leaders Abe Eisenstat and Ira Balsam

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