Andrew Yang, Eric Adams and the battle for Orthodox Jewish support

The two frontrunners have jockeyed for the backing of the city's varied Orthodox Jewish communities ahead of the June 22 primary

Before Andrew Yang announced his bid for New York City mayor in January, upending what until then had seemed like a fairly stable Democratic primary field, the favorite candidate for Orthodox Jewish support throughout the five boroughs was, by most accounts, Eric Adams, the brash and outspoken Brooklyn borough president.

Adams, a former police captain who is building his campaign around a public safety message amid an uptick in violent crime across the city, has maintained long-standing ties with Orthodox leaders, particularly in Queens as well as Hasidic enclaves of Brooklyn like Borough Park and Crown Heights, a neighborhood he represented as a state senator from 2007 to 2013.

Having set his sights on Gracie Mansion after decades of public service, Adams is now depending on those relationships as he builds a coalition capable of propelling him past his opponents in the crowded June 22 primary, for which early voting began on Saturday. “I have a lot of credible messengers that know me,” Adams, 60, said in a February interview with Jewish Insider, predicting that he would pull in strong support from the Orthodox community, certain sects of which represent powerful voting blocs in local elections.

But Yang’s candidacy has tested that expectation. The 46-year-old mayoral hopeful, a former presidential contender who rose to national prominence last election cycle on a widely popular pitch for universal basic income, has aggressively courted the Orthodox vote with a similarly straightforward message. 

Early in his mayoral campaign, for example, Yang forcefully denounced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as antisemitic while expressing his steadfast support for Israel. “Not only is BDS rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy,” Yang wrote in a January opinion piece for The Forward. “Strong ties with Israel are essential for a global city such as ours, which boasts the highest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. Our economy is struggling, and we should be looking for ways to bring back small businesses, not stop commerce.”

Jewish leaders have appreciated Yang’s views, even as they have garnered criticism from progressives.

“Looking at the field, I felt he was the best person for New York City and the best person for the Jewish community,” said Daniel Rosenthal, an Orthodox assemblyman in Queens, who offered an early endorsement for Yang in mid-March and values his opposition to BDS. “In a time when some people in the Jewish community felt like they were being shunned, he was proudly standing with us.”

Perhaps most consequentially, though, Yang’s unequivocal defense of the yeshiva education system has given him a unique advantage within the Orthodox community. He has vowed to take a hands-off approach to imposing state-mandated instruction on secular subjects at the Jewish religious schools, many of which have been found to be lacking in that regard, according to an investigation by the Department of Education.

Mayoral Candidate Andrew Yang rides the subway following his appearance at the Barclays Center on March 3, 2021, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

“People feel that a lot of the candidates were fumbling and dancing around” the yeshiva question, said Alexander Rapaport, a Jewish community leader in Borough Park who runs Masbia, a network of soup kitchens. Yang “was the only one who was ready to just say it everywhere,” Rapaport told JI. “So for the people who are in the trenches about this, they notice something.”

Over the past few months, Yang has succeeded in peeling away several key endorsements that would likely have gone to Adams — if not Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, who also developed ties with Orthodox leaders while in office. 

“The relationship that Andrew has built with Orthodox communities around the city in a relatively short time, the concern in very real ways that he has demonstrated to us about the challenges that we face in the city, surpasses any other candidate in this race,” Yeger told JI in a blunt assessment.

But Stringer, whose campaign has been hobbled by allegations of sexual impropriety, alienated large swaths of the Jewish community when, in an effort to shore up progressive support not long ago, he endorsed a string of left-leaning candidates who were backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Stringer has since failed to pick up any meaningful support from Orthodox leaders.

“I know of the frustration or anger,” said Ezra Friedlander, a Democratic consultant who is backing Stringer. “Sometimes putting together a winning coalition could leave an aftertaste, so to speak,” he added. “I think Scott would have been able to navigate his many allies, both old ones and new ones, and everybody would be happy.”

But Leon Goldenberg, an Orthodox real estate executive and talk radio host in Midwood who has maintained a personal connection with Stringer for years, disagreed. “He’s not going to be getting any support from the Orthodox community,” Goldenberg told JI. “You can’t endorse DSA candidates.”

Instead, it is Yang and Adams, two of the leading moderates in the field, who have battled it out for the Orthodox vote — a fierce and occasionally chaotic rivalry that has only intensified in the final weeks of the race as the candidates have pivoted to attack mode. 

Until recently, it seemed as if Yang — whose campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment — had all but locked up Hasidic support in Brooklyn. In April, after placing first in a number of public polls, Yang earned the support of a coalition of Hasidic sects in Borough Park, followed by endorsements from two influential Orthodox elected officials — Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and City Councilman Kalman Yeger — who represent the neighborhood.

“The relationship that Andrew has built with Orthodox communities around the city in a relatively short time, the concern in very real ways that he has demonstrated to us about the challenges that we face in the city, surpasses any other candidate in this race,” Yeger told JI in a blunt assessment.

Then, in late May, Yang announced that he had scored a coveted dual endorsement from leaders of Williamsburg’s rival Satmar factions, a rare and significant development his campaign touted in a triumphant email blast. 

There was indeed cause for celebration. “The haredi community is the best opportunity for a candidate to win votes wholesale,” said David Pollock, director of public policy and security at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “You’re talking about the potential for 6,000 votes-plus in an election which might have low turnout,” he added, speaking only of the majority Satmar faction. “Show me a union that can turn out that many voters.”

“I like him because he speaks his mind and says what he has to say and he’s not thinking twice,” Rabbi David Niederman, a Satmar leader and president and executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said of Yang. “When I say ‘not thinking twice,’ that’s a bad statement,” he clarified. “In other words, of course, he speaks what he believes in, doesn’t go back. He fought for the issue of the education, which is the most important issue for us.”

For Adams, the endorsements were a notable snub given his well-established presence in the borough, notwithstanding questions — amplified by Yang — over the location of his permanent residence. Throughout his tenure as an elected official, he has helped secure funding for bullet proof vests and cameras, while standing with the Orthodox community against antisemitism, despite having praised the antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at an earlier point in his career. 

Then-State Senator Eric Adams attends a news conference with members of the Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish community to discuss the recent deaths of a Orthodox couple and their unborn child in a hit and run crash in the Brooklyn borough on March 4, 2013 in New York City.

The two-term Brooklyn borough president has since explained that such praise was aimed at the Nation of Islam’s approach to public safety and had nothing to do with Jews. “I’m not a Muslim, I’m a Christian,” he said in the interview with JI. “I’m never supportive of any antisemitic statements and would never be supportive of that. I don’t believe in that philosophy.”

Still, some leaders felt as if Adams had not gone far enough in supporting the community, particularly on more substantive issues like affordable housing. “On photo ops, he was good,” said a Hasidic leader in Brooklyn who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “Always to get a picture, he was here.”

Tensions seem to have culminated during a meeting with Satmar leaders in which Adams spoke threateningly after it became clear that he would not be earning their support, according to sources familiar with the discussion. Adams’s campaign denies this account, which was first reported by Politico and confirmed by JI. 

Last week, however, the minority Satmar faction suddenly reversed course and went with Adams — a decision coinciding with new polling indicating his emergence as the apparent frontrunner with just over a week remaining until the primary. “If you have a chance, we want to join,” said Rabbi Moishe Indig, a leader of the Aroni Satmar sect who is credited with boosting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s longshot bid for mayor in 2013. 

Indig denied backpedaling, even though he had signed his name to a recent ad clearly positioning Yang as the top pick in a ranked endorsement including Adams and Stringer. He said he had never explicitly endorsed the order, adding that his loyalty to Adams motivated his decision above all other considerations. “If you have a friend that helped your community, who was here for you,” Indig reasoned, “it’s not fair to just dump him and throw him under the bus and just take a new guy.”

“Yang may be better, I don’t know,” Indig told JI. “If he wins, we would like to have a good relationship with him.”

Such uncertainty underscores the difficulty of navigating a race that is still very much in flux: Kathyrn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, has seen a late wave of momentum thanks to endorsements from The New York Times and Daily News, while Maya Wiley, a former de Blasio aide and MSNBC commentator, is hoping for a last-minute surge of progressive enthusiasm after a recent nod from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). 

Yang, for his part, has recently fallen behind after months of promising polling, making his endorsements within the Orthodox community, should they hold, all the more essential if he has any hope of pulling off a victory despite no prior history of involvement in New York City politics.

Adams appears to have upped his Orthodox outreach in recent months, running an ad in Yiddish casting him as a Jewish community stalwart with a long history of helping yeshivas and other institutions. He has managed to rake in a number of endorsements from Orthodox groups in Queens, Staten Island and now Brooklyn, where he earned the backing of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition as well as the Chabad community in Crown Heights. 

“Eric is making his gains, which was part of his original plan just to bring everybody in,” said Menashe Shapiro, a consultant on the Adams campaign. “He’s all over the community. Every corner of the Orthodox community from Hasidim to Far Rockaway and all in between are coalescing around him.”

“I look at Yang like another Trump,” he told JI, referring to the Orthodox community’s vociferous support for the former president. “He’ll say today whatever it takes to get elected. It just shows that the leadership has lost its way, and just like they supported Trump, they’re supporting Yang.”

“We feel like the right thing to do is work with our friends that we have come to know and respect over many years,” Josh Mehlman, chairman of the FJCC, said of Adams, commending his approach on several issues including public safety, small business and addressing antisemitism.

Rabbi Chanina Sperlin, a leader in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, echoed that view. “He’s a friend,” Sperlin told JI, noting that he has never met Yang despite having communicated with his campaign. “I just hope I made the right pick, and then we go from there.”

A Hasidic community member in Brooklyn who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussion believes that Yang’s endorsers are making a strategic error and that they have abandoned a reliable ally in Adams. “I look at Yang like another Trump,” he told JI, referring to the Orthodox community’s vociferous support for the former president. “He’ll say today whatever it takes to get elected. It just shows that the leadership has lost its way, and just like they supported Trump, they’re supporting Yang.”

“They’re not looking at long-term relationships and long-term supporters of the community,” he added.

But Yeger, the city councilman in Borough Park, offered a more nuanced reason for backing Yang. 

“For me, it’s not an abstract question of who the mayor of our city is going to be. It’s actually looking at the day-to-day work. I need to know for myself, my constituents and for my city that on the other side of the building is a mayor who is going to treat us equally, fairly with every other community in the city,” he said, offering what might be interpreted as a veiled critique of Adams. “With Andrew, I believe I have that. I believe we all have that.”

Still, whether such endorsements from the Orthodox community will help carry Yang to victory remains to be seen.

“This is an attempt to show their power, and that will be tested,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant in New York. “They’d better hope that Yang wins. That’s the other side of it. Because if not, nobody owes them anything.”

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