On Thursday evening, February 23, Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, President of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, welcomed everyone to a Zoom program on advocating for our rights as a community in Albany. He acknowledged the presence of the rav of the shul, Rabbi Daniel Rosenfelt, and the Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld. He shared that the guest speaker is an advocate for our community, and he lobbies in Albany on our behalf. He focuses on three areas, educational autonomy, religious liberty, and assistance for nonpublic schools.

Next, Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Relations at Agudath Israel of America, spoke. He shared that he brings groups to Albany and coming makes a difference. “They see that I am there representing a community of people.”

Agudath Israel of America was formed in 1922 and world-wide it was formed in 1912. The goal was to address the pressing issues of klal Yisrael. During the 1940s, Mike Tress was the legendary president, and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, his cousin, was later the president of the organization. Both advocated on behalf of the needs of klal Yisrael.

Today, the focus is on nonpublic school advocacy, which includes issues of funding for schools. Currently, he is fighting for funding for mandated services. In 1974, Rabbi Sherer helped the legislation pass that nonpublic schools should be reimbursed for mandated services. Every few years, the state puts language in bills that has to be fought.

He noted that hate crimes against Orthodox Jews are more than hate crimes against any other group.

He shared he is fighting for religious liberties. The yeshivah system is what fueled and fuels our religious growth. This keeps our community growing. We face threats from people who want to bring down the yeshivah system. He shared that Mayor Adams is an advocate for the yeshivah system. In a speech, the Mayor noted that the people we are incarcerating are not from your community.

Rabbi Silber spoke about the front-page article in The New York Times that appeared in September. It claimed that the yeshivah system was failing its students. Any positive comments sent online were ignored, and they only printed negative ones. They claimed that the yeshivos are flush with cash because we have a billion dollars of government funding. However, Rabbi Silber pointed out that the budget for public school education is 34 billion. We have the highest spending in the country for public school education and one of the worst results.

The money that yeshivos gets goes to transportation and food, and some was COVID relief money. The total government funding in nonpublic schools is $350 million, which is little more than one percent. He noted that we are not getting our fair share.

There were 18 articles in The New York Times that posed a relentless campaign against yeshivos. Even the ADL said anti-Semitic jokes are on the rise.

Rabbi Silber shared that they created a website to explain what yeshivos are all about. It’s called Knowus.org. They also paid for huge billboards in New York City to counteract the one-sided reporting of The New York Times.

He testified in Albany that yeshivos produced outstanding citizens, and we have almost no crime or drugs. He is also working on security grants for shuls and yeshivos in a new round of funding.

He shared that every time the Jewish community looks to expand, there is opposition. They put obstacles to stop the growth of our community. There are groups out there spewing hate. He shared some successes with legislation that was stopped so it couldn’t keep Jews out of an area near Monroe. He said it’s important to vote in elections and to voice your opinion in letters to the editor and to your local officials. “Push back and fight for our community.”

He noted how a couple of years ago, when there was a candidate running with values opposed to our community, people in Queens lined up to vote and it made a difference.

He gave a shout-out to Sam Verstandig, the youngest lobbyist in Albany. “I’m proud to see him. Our goal is to get young people involved in public service.”

The program ended with a lively Q&A session. We thank Rabbi Verstandig and the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills for these outstanding, important programs!

By Susie Garber