A Brooklyn ‘bridge’ of his own

Antonio Reynoso, the Brooklyn borough president, has forged close ties with the Jewish community and looks to balance his progressivism with pragmatism

Antonio Reynoso, the borough president of Brooklyn, coasted to victory in 2021 as an outspoken progressive, notching key endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), state Sen. Julia Salazar and the New York City public advocate, Jumaane Williams, among other influential figures on the activist left.

But more than a year into his role as Kings County’s chief ambassador, Reynoso, a former city councilman from Williamsburg and the first Latino to hold the position, has largely embraced a more measured and perhaps deferential approach to governance than his political allegiances might suggest, even as he insists that his core values remain unchanged.

“I’m a progressive, uber left, and I believe that I have my principles that I abide by,” he explained to Jewish Insider in a recent interview at his offices in Downtown Brooklyn. “But I don’t want to impose them on everyone. These communities are very different. They have different needs. And they’ve been here for a long time.”

In his outreach to Jewish leaders, Reynoso, 39, said he has tried to uphold his own vision for the borough by focusing on areas of agreement rather than quibbling over policy differences, particularly as he has made overtures to Hasidic communities that have traditionally leaned moderate or conservative and make up a crucial voting bloc.

There is more than enough common ground, he suggested, citing efforts to counter antisemitism as well as more practicable concerns like addressing food insecurity and organizing street cleanups. “And all the things that we don’t agree on, it’s just like, let’s leave that for another day. There’s no need to fight. There’s no need to engage in hostilities,” he told JI.

“I hope that I can push issues that I care about through education and informing people and have them come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea,” Reynoso added. “I don’t want to force anything.”

For the most part, he has found a receptive audience, he said, notwithstanding some divisions over issues including rezoning and affordable housing development, which are among his top priorities. “That gets pushback in moderate neighborhoods,” said David Greenfield, the chief executive of the Met Council, a Jewish community poverty-fighting agency, and a former city councilman who overlapped with Reynoso in the legislative body. “He’s definitely worked to bridge that divide and reach solution-oriented results.”

To Greenfield, such engagement is significant, especially as progressive activists on the City Council have, in recent weeks, doubled down on a series of hard-left agenda items that have been criticized as uncompromising. “Reynoso is trying hard to be a bridge between the left and the more moderate constituencies in Brooklyn,” Greenfield told JI. “It’s an important effort and, if successful, would make him one of the most important officials in New York.”

As the successor to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who served for eight years as Brooklyn’s borough president, Reynoso inherited a title that has long been occupied by some of the most gregarious personalities in local politics. Before Adams, the position had been held by Marty Markowitz, an avuncular cheerleader of all things Brooklyn who oversaw the borough’s rise to prominence during the aughts.

But while Reynoso included Markowitz as a co-chair on his transition committee and said he has enjoyed a “great relationship” with the mayor as they have both settled into their respective offices, he explained that he feels no pressure to emulate his predecessors. “That type of promotional stuff is not as necessary as it was back then,” he said of the Markowitz era. “Eric used this office to become mayor, so he had his form. I guess we all have our different personalities, and we all want to use this office to do what we think is right. I’m just looking to chart my own path.”

Until recently, Reynoso had frequently been exploring that path on a bicycle, his preferred mode of transportation. Last summer, he rode more than 50 miles a week, he estimated, visiting constituents in such far-flung neighborhoods as Coney Island, Canarsie and Borough Park, which is home to a sizable population of Orthodox Jews. In January, he enlisted a driver to bring him to work everyday from his home in Williamsburg, but he intends to return to biking this summer, he said. “It burns a lot of calories.”

Rabbi David Niederman, a leader of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community, recalled one occasion last August in which Reynoso’s biking habit helped lead to what he described as a particularly good deed. “He was biking here in Williamsburg and a community member, an elderly Holocaust survivor, was trying to put some stuff in his car and could not lift it,” Niederman said in a phone interview with JI. “Antonio stopped and simply helped that person to put his packages in the car. The person wanted to give Antonio money. He said he didn’t need money and that he was the borough president.” 

“He’s a really true mensch,” Niederman said of Reynoso, whom he has known for years thanks to Reynoso’s previous position as a city councilman. Even as Reynoso now oversees a much broader constituency than he did as a legislator, the borough president “has been continuously available for issues that we have brought to his attention,” Niederman enthused. “He speaks out against antisemitic incidents,” which have risen sharply in recent years, “and when people dehumanize the Hasidic community, he speaks out for us.”

During his time in office, Reynoso has sought to expand his relationships with Jewish leaders beyond Williamsburg, where he was born and raised by Dominican parents. “Antonio really values learning about communities that he has not historically been deeply connected to,” Mark Levine, the borough president of Manhattan and a Jewish Democrat, told JI. “Plenty of times we’ve spoken about matters related to the Jewish community,” he added. “He is nothing but thoughtful and reflective and open.”

For his part, Reynoso said he is “proud” to now represent the largest Jewish population in the world outside Israel, which he visited as a city councilman. “I want the world to know that, and I want to celebrate them,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that, and I hope that they’ve seen that.”

He recently met with Jewish community members in Crown Heights, for instance, and is planning a Jewish heritage celebration that will likely be held in May, according to a spokesperson for his office. Not long ago, he spoke with Rachel Timoner, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Park Slope, in a conversation touching on recent instances of antisemitism among celebrities.

In weighing the issue more broadly, Reynoso said he hopes to promote a “proactive” rather than a “reactive” approach to anti-Jewish prejudice, which has hit Brooklyn’s Orthodox community particularly hard in recent years. “It’s fine for everybody to tweet that they’re angry at antisemitism and ask for more police or whatever it is that folks want to ask for,” he told JI. “But for me, it all comes from education, or ignorance, and we need to start being more proactive about the work we’re doing and informing and educating people.”

He said he intends to launch a task force to combat antisemitism in partnership with the city’s Department of Education, but declined to go into detail because the project is only at an incipient stage. “We’re talking about how we can engage,” he said, while clarifying that he is approaching the matter with some caution because his office is not allowed to dictate curriculum. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job at talking about the Holocaust at a younger age, or introducing people to different religions.”

“I think it’s all education,” Reynoso told JI. “People just don’t know, and a lot of people are just scared of what’s different, and then they react to that in violent ways.”

Regarding the hot-button issue of yeshiva education, which has come under increased scrutiny following a series of investigations published by The New York Times in recent months, Reynoso took an evenhanded view. “I went to Catholic school, so I’m very sensitive to this,” he said. “We can have a high-quality education and have something where, parochially, folks are also getting the education they deserve.”

“My biggest issue is how we get there and who’s involved in getting there,” he added. “It’s easier to destroy than it is to build, and I just can’t stand the conversation just being, like, us against them, or the conversations being about ‘bad versus good.’ We don’t need to do that.”

Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said in a statement to JI that Reynoso “has been a friend and effective advocate for the Jewish Community of Brooklyn since his time in the City Council,” having accompanied the JCRC on study tours to Israel and more recently joining the advisory board of its Bridges-NY fellowship, which seeks to connect emerging leaders from differing religious and ethnic backgrounds. 

“He truly understands just how damaging the rising hate in our city is, and we are proud to be working closely with him in an effort to combat it,” Taylor added.

In addition to such efforts, Reynoso has pushed for increased investments in maternal healthcare, a commitment he made during his campaign and one among a range of achievements he highlighted during his first state-of-the-borough address in January. 

As he enters his second year in office, Reynoso said he finally feels as if his office is now operating at full steam. In recent months, he finished hiring a staff of 60 full-time employees, including some members of the Jewish community, and is looking forward to working on initiatives related to community board reform and land use, among other things. “I feel like I’m doing something that’s a lot different,” he said, “and that is going to reflect what I believe the new normal should be.”

While his immediate predecessor used the position as a stepping stone to higher office, Reynoso clarified that, in contrast with Adams, who built close relationships with Orthodox leaders that helped propel him to the mayorship, he has no such designs — even as some of his supporters expect that he will change his mind. “We wish that he continues to grow and he will grow in his job and grow out of his job,” Niederman told JI recently. “After two terms, he will seek higher office because he’s made for that.”

But Reynoso isn’t making any such commitments just yet. “I want to be a great borough president, and I want to be remembered in a positive way,” he said. “The borough presidency is all I’m thinking about. My aspirations in the future are not things that I dwell on. I’m happy here.”

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