On Tuesday, we will once again have the opportunity and the responsibility of electing the people who represent us and to vote on several ballot issues. The winners of Tuesday’s election will make important decisions that will impact on our community for many years to come. The only way in which our voices will be heard is if we come out to vote. The most important position up for election is Queens District Attorney. We will have the chance to elect someone who has consistently been there for us, Melinda Katz.
Our community has backed Melinda Katz from the very beginning of her career. She began as a 28-year-old insurgent challenging the leadership of the Queens Democratic Party by running for the New York State Assembly in a Special Election. Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander zt”l held a meeting in his home to introduce her to the community and we rallied around her. It was something of a gamble to place our hopes on a 28-year-old novice, but it was one of the best political decisions we ever made. As an Assembly Member, Director of Queens Community Boards, City Councilmember, and Borough President, Melinda Katz has been there for us time and time again, even when it was tough.
When many were afraid to speak out against anti-Semitism, Melinda Katz was not. Even many Jewish members of the City Council were reluctant to speak out when Columbia University allowed a professor to harass Jewish students. Melinda Katz prodded those who were reluctant and made sure the Council took a stand against anti-Semitism on college campuses.
One of her most important achievements came in her role as Chair of the Land Use Committee, where she played a historic role in protecting our right to build shuls.
For many years, the city’s zoning laws have required that community facilities like shuls provide parking. The requirement for parking was based on the number of fixed seats. Shuls were able to getting around the parking requirement by having folding chairs rather than fixed seats.
In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg’s City Planning Commission proposed a change in the zoning laws that would have based the parking requirements on the size of the facility. The impact of this proposal was that any new shuls would have to have parking lots. This would have greatly added to the cost of building new shuls since they would be required to incur the additional cost of acquiring and maintaining space for parking. In many of our communities, adequate space for both a shul and a parking lot is simply not available. Shuls would have been forced to spend money that could better be used for other purposes on parking lots that they don’t need. In some cases, the lack of adequate space would have made it impossible to build a shul at all.
Changes in the city’s zoning laws must be approved by the City Council. The Council at large will usually follow the recommendation of the Land Use Committee. This put Melinda Katz in a pivotal position to decide whether the zoning change would be adopted.
As a neighborhood activist, Melinda Katz understood the problem of traffic congestion caused by people driving to community facilities. As a committed Jew, she realized that shuls are not part of the problem, since halachah forbids driving on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
In the face of significant opposition from the Mayor’s office and community groups throughout the city, Melinda Katz made it clear that she would not allow a zoning change to pass in the City Council that would make it difficult or impossible to build new shuls.
She proposed granting an exemption from parking requirements to neighborhood-based community facilities that certified that 80 percent of their members live within a one-mile radius of the facility. It was her proposal that was eventually adopted.
This is a typical example of Melinda Katz’s ability to deal with difficult issues. She found a way to address the concerns about traffic congestion while protecting our right to build shuls. Every new shul built in the City of New York since 2004 can thank Melinda Katz for making it possible. That alone has earned her our hakaras ha’tov.
In more recent years, Melinda Katz has preserved and expanded upon the Borough President’s Office’s traditional role of looking out for the needs of the Torah-observant community. She has sponsored Jewish cultural events and made sure our community institutions were funded. When the Queens Museum tried to cancel an event honoring the 50th anniversary of the United Nations vote to support the establishment of the State of Israel, Melinda Katz joined Assembly Member Mike Simanowitz z”l and Councilmember Rory Lancman in reversing the museum’s position and making sure the program would be held. It was at that event that Vice President Mike Pence announced that the United States would soon recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In the recent primary for Queens District Attorney, our community rallied and came out in strong numbers to provide the crucial votes that put Melinda Katz over the top in an extremely close race against Tiffany Cabán, a candidate backed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Linda Sarsour.
Many in the Democratic Party want to close all jails and favor “alternatives to incarceration” that would allow dangerous criminals to be out on the streets. Melinda Katz realizes that while midas ha’rachamim may often be called for, there is also the need for putting the most dangerous criminals behind bars. She will work to help people who made a mistake and broke the law turn their lives around, while making sure that law-abiding citizens of all races and ethnic backgrounds are protected and can feel safe.
Melinda Katz lives in central Queens. While she is not Orthodox, she does keep a kosher home. She walks the streets that we walk and shops in the stores where we shop. She knows our community and is part of our community. Melinda Katz’s victory in the Democratic Primary was an important win for those in the Democratic Party who support Israel and take a strong stand against anti-Semitism.
On Tuesday, we can complete the victory by making Melinda Katz our next Queens District Attorney.
Manny Behar is the former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several elected officials.