Bronx Boundaries

Ritchie Torres to pick up Riverdale in latest redistricting

Residents of the heavily Jewish Bronx neighborhood are energized that the freshman congressman and pro-Israel stalwart could soon represent them

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Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) speaks at the IAC National Summit at The Diplomat Beach Resort on December 11, 2021, in Hollywood, Florida.

New York State Democrats revealed a new proposed redistricting plan on Sunday that showed the 15th Congressional District, currently represented by first-term Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), is set to expand northward to include the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale.

“I am looking forward to representing a congressional district that serves as a bridge between iconic neighborhoods: the South Bronx and Riverdale,” Torres told Jewish Insider on Monday. “Combating antisemitism and advocating for an abiding American-Israeli relationship have long been passions of mine. To have the opportunity to represent Riverdale, in light of those passions, feels like a marriage made in heaven.”

The new lines came as a surprise, if also a welcome one, to Jewish residents of Riverdale. Stu Loeser, a veteran political strategist who lives in the area, said “nobody expected” that Torres would pick up the affluent Bronx enclave that has long been home to a sizable population of Orthodox Jews who “vote Democratic up and down the ballot.” Torres currently represents a district that is among the poorest and most geographically condensed in the country.

The redesigned House map, which has been accused of partisan gerrymandering because it is highly favorable for Democrats across New York, could be approved by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul as early as Wednesday. The redistricting process had initially fallen to a bipartisan commission established in 2014, but when the panel failed to arrive at a consensus, Democratic lawmakers, who hold majorities in both chambers, set forth their own boundaries.

Despite the somewhat awkward outline of Torres’s new district, which connects to the North Bronx by way of a jaggedly shaped ribbon of land that shoots up from his current territory, Jewish residents of Riverdale suggested that the pairing made sense. Torres, a former New York City councilman who has built a sizable Jewish support base that extends beyond the largely Hispanic 15th District, is no stranger to Riverdale, where he has built strong connections with Jewish community members in the area thanks in large part to his vocal support for Israel. 

Such enthusiasm was on display on a recent Saturday in November, when Torres, 33, filled the Modern Orthodox Riverdale Jewish Center, the largest synagogue in the town, for a local AIPAC event.

Jeffrey Dinowitz, a New York State assemblyman whose district includes Riverdale, said he was “thrilled” that Torres, who is one of the first openly gay Black men in Congress and who has described himself as “the embodiment of a pro-Israel progressive,” seems likely to represent the neighborhood. 

“He has an incredible record,” Dinowitz told JI. “He’s a progressive, but he’s a progressive who is a staunch ally. I know, based on his statements and actions, that people who care about Israel are going to have someone who takes Israel’s interests to heart.”

Though the map has yet to be finalized, supporters of Torres were anyway coordinating a fundraiser in Riverdale on Feb. 17 ahead of Torres’s first planned trip to Israel as a congressman.

“People are excited,” Harry Feder, a former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center who lives in the district and is helping to organize the fundraiser, told JI. “Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief.”

The warm reception stands in contrast with the relatively lukewarm manner in which many Jewish community leaders in Riverdale have accepted their current congressman, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). With backing from Justice Democrats, the freshman lawmaker, 45, assumed office last year after unseating former longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), a prominent pro-Israel stalwart who had chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Throughout his first year in Congress, Bowman has at times found himself at odds with Riverdale’s Jewish community over his approach to the Middle East. Last April, for instance, Bowman was on the receiving end of a highly critical online petition organized by local Jewish leaders who condemned the congressman for co-sponsoring legislation that would place restrictions on U.S. military assistance for Israel.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, was among the authors of the petition and has consistently expressed strong reservations over Bowman’s approach to Israel since even before he was elected. He said he was “delighted” by the possibility that Torres would pick up Riverdale as a result of redistricting. “Torres,” he told JI in a recent email, “is the real deal: a leader who believes in the inestimable value of all people while passionately and unequivocally supporting the State of Israel.”

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who lives in Riverdale, said he was similarly pleased by the news that Torres is poised to become his new congressman. “He is a principled, independent-minded Democrat who will be an excellent representative of the diverse population that lives in our neighborhood,” Lieberman told JI. “It will be good to have a congressman who is a liberal Democrat who strongly supports Israel.”

For his part, Engel, who is also a resident of Riverdale, said he has spoken with Torres “several times” since he was elected and would be “ecstatic” if the freshman lawmaker were to represent him in the House. “I think, intrinsically, he has a good, warm feeling toward the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that’s just not something that we have seen recently,” he said in an interview with JI.

Engel, who has refrained from commenting publicly on Bowman’s record, declined to address his former challenger’s positions on Israel.

Even as Jewish leaders in Riverdale said that Torres was a natural fit for the traditionally liberal redoubt, however, local pro-Israel activists who have disagreed with Bowman’s foreign policy views emphasized that they have valued his continued engagement on Israel issues.

“Certainly there was some tension along the way, and there are obviously lots of people who are concerned,” Binyamin Krauss, a rabbi who serves as the principal of SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, told JI.

Still, he said his exchanges with Bowman have always been “based in mutual respect,” and he commended the congressman for in some ways having differentiated himself from other Israel critics in the House during his tenure.

In recent months, Bowman has walked a somewhat precarious path on Israel as he balances relationships with Jewish constituents along with his traditional allies on the left. Last September, for instance, Jewish leaders said they appreciated when Bowman broke with his fellow Squad members as he voted in favor of $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

But the congressman had also found himself at odds with the Democratic Socialists of America, whose Madison, Wis., chapter called for his immediate expulsion after the vote. Later that fall, Bowman faced further scrutiny following his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories on a congressional delegation hosted by the left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street.

The DSA, which endorsed Bowman in 2020, supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. In December, the DSA’s national political committee said it had decided against revoking Bowman’s membership but condemned his Iron Dome vote as “egregious” while also criticizing the J Street trip, during which he and a group of House Democrats met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

In witnessing such blowback, Krauss told JI he recognized that Bowman had put himself in somewhat risky political territory. He said he had spoken with Bowman “at length” about his trip to Israel, and was encouraged that the congressman had expressed interest in visiting again.

But not everyone has been so understanding. “He has been a disaster for Israel,” said Feder. “Yes, he has had some engagement, but it really hasn’t shown itself in votes or support.”

A spokesperson for Bowman’s office declined to comment on the record when reached by JI on Monday. If the updated House lines are approved, Bowman’s district would stretch north to take in new territory in Putnam County.

Torres, who is largely in alignment with Bowman on such progressive policy initiatives as public housing, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, has for his part faced some vocal criticism from the far left for his pro-Israel views.

Torres has dismissed accusations that “you cannot be both progressive and pro-Israel” as “a vicious lie.”

Before his election to the House, Torres had visited Israel twice on delegations hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He has credited those experiences, which took place during his time as a city councilman between 2014 and 2020, with shaping his views on the Jewish state.

During an introductory Zoom call at the beginning of the pandemic, Krauss said he spoke with Torres about how the trips had impacted his approach to Israel as a congressman. The rabbi said he admired that Torres had already given serious consideration to America’s longstanding relationship with Israel, which he has vehemently defended in the House amid increasingly vocal divisions over Middle East foreign policy issues within the Democratic Party. 

“Whoever our member of Congress is,” Krauss said, “I think it’s important for them to be aware of that.”

“Ritchie knows the issues,” Engel emphasized in conversation with JI on Monday. “He understands Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. He understands that Israel is under threat every day from terrorists. He knows it, he understands it, and he feels it.”

When Feder first met Torres at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., three years ago, he said he was immediately impressed with the level of interest the New York lawmaker had demonstrated on issues pertaining to the Middle East, even before his election to the House.

That dedication seems to have grown considerably since he assumed a foreign policy portfolio as a federal official. Last November, for instance, Feder recalled meeting with Torres on Capitol Hill just as Idan Roll, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, was leaving the congressman’s office. “You could see that they were developing a strong relationship,” Feder said.

“He has really taken the time to build relationships and learn about Israel and antisemitism,” Eric Dinowitz, a New York City councilman whose district covers Riverdale as well as some surrounding neighborhoods that are also represented by his father, Jeffrey, said of Torres. “With that knowledge, he has been a source of passion and reason when it comes to policies that affect both Israel and the Jewish people.”

Loeser, the Democratic strategist in Riverdale, echoed that sentiment, praising what he described as the congressman’s “broader fights against antisemitism” in addition to his vocal support for Israel. “He feels in his bones it’s the right thing to do,” said Loeser, who has known Torres since his City Council days, “even if, up to now, he never had many Jewish constituents.” 

Michael Davis, a Jewish community leader in Riverdale and the founding partner of The Plymouth Group, a New York City-based real estate investment firm, said he was confident that Torres would meet the needs of Riverdale’s “diverse” voter base. “Ritchie consistently puts principles over politics,” he told JI, “and our community feels blessed to have him as our partner and advocate in the halls of power and leadership.”

“He’s delighted to have Riverdale, and Riverdale is delighted to have him,” Engel said of Torres. The former congressman, who was unseated during his 16th term in the House, suggested he would not be surprised if Torres ultimately served longer than he did. “I always joke that he’s going to beat me one day.”