Climate activist Jessica Haller seeks her seat at the table

For Jessica Haller, 2006 was a watershed year. A managing consultant at MasterCard, her daily commute — from her home in the Bronx to New York’s Westchester County — gave her plenty of time to contemplate the issues of the day. That summer, some 5,000 miles away, a deadly war was raging between Israel and Hezbollah. Haller, whose father is Israeli and who has family in Israel, felt a mixture of discontent and helplessness.

It was during one of those commutes that Haller made the decision to quit her job and refocus her time on making a lasting impact.

“I remember driving to work up the highway to Westchester from the Bronx and the absolute utter frustration I had knowing that there is not anything that I could do for my people and the State of Israel,” Haller recounted in a recent interview with Jewish Insider

Knowing she was unable to end a war on the other side of the globe, Haller considered the ways she could make an impact a little closer to home. A national conversation about climate change was beginning around that time, and Haller’s interest was piqued.

“That was sort of my evolution, waking up and saying, ‘I need to learn about this. I am frustrated by not being able to help or prepare anything for my children in the future,’” explained Haller, who announced her run for the New York City Council in early 2020. 

Months later, she took part in a climate change-focused training session led by former Vice President Al Gore and began applying for graduate school to study environmental science. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Haller, 46, was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Her father, who was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in post-World War II Germany, grew up in Azor, near Holon in central Israel. He came to the U.S. in 1970 and married Haller’s mother, a native of the Bronx. 

After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Haller worked as a consultant for the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and later as a managing consultant for MasterCard. 

She received her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. After graduating, Haller partnered with two NASA scientists to create a climate data startup to bring data from the global climate models to municipalities and businesses. After it failed to secure funding, she started her own entrepreneurial and environmental consulting firm while working for various nonprofits and in local government. 

Haller, a mother of four, suggested that climate change “has come to the point where we need leaders in elected office to understand what’s going on so that we can move as quickly as we need to.” 

Candidate Jessica Haller during a recent interview in a New York City park. (Jacob Kornbluh)

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With many New York City councilmembers term-limited and leaving office at the end of next year, Haller had hoped to become one of at least 35 freshmen entering the 51-member chamber on January 1, 2022, as part of a new group of local legislators ready to push a progressive agenda. But the coronavirus pandemic and the early retirement of Councilmember Andrew Cohen, who will vacate his seat in the coming weeks after winning a state Supreme Court judgeship in November, has changed both Haller’s priorities and her timetable. 

The special election to represent the 11th district, which includes the Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Wakefield, Woodlawn, Norwood and Van Courtland Village, will take place within 80 days of Cohen leaving his post. 

Haller is running in a seven-person race, which includes Eric Dinowitz, a local public school teacher and son of State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz; attorney Daniel Padernacht; social worker Abigail Martin; and local Democratic district leader Marcos Sierra. Dinowitz, who has both name recognition and establishment support in the district, is considered a leading candidate along with Haller. The two have each raised more than $70,000, enough to grant them public matching funds of $142,000. 

The winner of the nonpartisan election — which will be one of the first races to use the city’s new ranked-choice voting system — will serve out the remainder of Cohen’s second term, which ends next December. The winner of the special election will have to simultaneously campaign for a full term that will begin in 2022. The winner of the district’s June primary is all but assured to win the general election later next year. 

For Haller, winning the special election will give her a seat at the table ahead of the upcoming city budget debate, with the assistance of some veteran lawmakers including Councilmembers Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, with whom she has established relationships. “It’s exciting to hit the ground running and to learn from people currently serving in senior positions, and I think it would put me in a very good position for the new council,” Haller said in an interview with Jewish Insider in the River Run Playground in Manhattan, where she once played as a child. 

Haller is a supporter of the Green New Deal and backs an initiative to cut the New York Police Department’s budget by $1 billion. But she is hesitant to define herself as a progressive candidate, in the mold of fellow Bronx native Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). “All these things come with so much baggage, and I don’t want to carry the baggage,” Haller explained. 

“I share a lot of progressive values, but I’m not waving flags and screaming hashtags that are absolutes,” she continued. “There’s a lot of nuance and there’s a lot of balance that needs to go into making policy decisions for the future of the city.”

Haller has the backing of the Vote Mama PAC, the 21 in ’21 initiative, Women for the Win, the Jewish Climate Action Network, Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice. 

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Haller has another reason to run for City Council. Of the 16 members that are not term-limited and up for re-election in 2021, only Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) is Jewish. The current council has 14 Jewish members, all but one of whom are part of the council’s Jewish Caucus, which was founded in 1991. Haller is worried that the number of Jewish legislators will be largely reduced after the 2021 election, leaving a lack of “voices of Jewish leadership for the next eight years in the council.” 

And Haller is determined to serve on the council as both a woman and as a Jew, to speak out and advocate for the issues that she believes are most important. 

Haller said she feels that her progressive bona fides are sometimes met with skepticism by her colleagues, which she attributes to her staunch pro-Israel positions. “I feel like sometimes that I’m holding it in, that I have to say that ‘I’m willing to stand with you for equity, and I’m willing to stand with you about Rikers Island, and I’m willing to stand with you and fight for racial justice, for climate justice, and that I have to make you comfortable, and you have to make me comfortable.’” she said. “And not everybody is willing to do that.” 

Stu Loeser, a political consultant and resident of Riverdale, described Haller as “a model for a lot of young women who know they want to bring change in the world and also want to be great mothers of strong Jewish kids, an approach I think we can use more of in politics.”

Loeser, who first met Haller at Wharton, told JI that the candidate “has propelled herself forward in multiple worlds at the same time” and used her learning “to drive the fight against climate change forward.” 

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Despite suggestions from supporters that she should seek the backing of more progressive political groups, Haller told JI she would not seek the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.

In August, the DSA’s New York City chapter came under fire for distributing a questionnaire that asked city council candidates to agree “not to travel to Israel if elected… in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.” 

Haller told JI that the DSA erred by inserting themselves in a debate that is largely irrelevant to the local races. Educational trips to Israel, she suggested, are of interest for lawmakers serving in the U.S. Congress because it is “vitally important” for them to experience what is happening on the ground before making foreign policy decisions. But for candidates running for city council, “we’re not going to govern differently” having been on a trip to Israel. 

Even though the city council doesn’t determine foreign policy, Haller noted that many rising political stars use the council as an entryway to a further political career. It would be, she said, “a mistake to cut off a learning opportunity” for them by placing conditions on an organization’s support. 

Haller suggested that the DSA questionnaire underscores why it’s “really, really important to have a voice that represents the width, the breadth and the depth of the Jewish community in this city, and why we need that voice to be strengthened by a Jewish caucus.” 

Jessica Haller (Courtesy)

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In addition to being members of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Haller and her husband, Chad, co-founded The Kehilah of Riverdale led by Rabbi Dina Najman in 2014. The synagogue, which has no permanent location, has about 120 active members. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, the congregation has met regularly for prayer services in Haller’s backyard — in compliance with social distancing requirements — with a screen separating the area where they have only 14 men and 14 women at the weekly prayers. 

Najman told JI that Haller “has inspired our synagogue to be committed to not only being responsible citizens and to encourage sustainability in our community, but to also be teachers and exemplars. And when we’re not, she makes sure — in a very responsible and respectful way — to reshift course, to make sure that we don’t lose sight of what’s important.” 

In the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship, Haller told JI that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having an observant Jew on the city council. Having Jewish councilmembers, she suggested, may result in government officials being more sensitive to religious practices.

“I think there needs to be Jewish engagement around what the future of the Jewish caucus and the council looks like,” Haller said. “Given what’s going on, and given that there are different kinds of Jews with all different kinds of views, do we care? I maintain that I do care.” 

Ari Hoffnung, COO of Vireo Health, a leading multi-state cannabis company, who considers himself a close friend of Haller and worked with her in the city comptroller’s office in the early 2010s, told JI: “There’s no question that she could be a passionate voice for Jewish New Yorkers, and that she will stand up against antisemitism and hatred in all of its forms.” 

Part of that inspiration is derived from Haller’s mentor, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, with whom she served on the board of Hazon. Messinger was one of the first people to encourage Haller to seek public office, and continues to offer her political advice from time to time. 

Messinger told JI that she has long found Haller to be an “analytic and strategic thinker and somebody who is very interested in policy change, which is where I come from — it’s not just to do the right thing in your home kitchen, but try to change the government policies.”

In a post Haller published on her campaign website last week, she described her Shabbat observance and pledged to keep her office open with a dedicated and diverse staff so that constituents are served even when she’s disconnected and home with her family. “Shabbat, in my tradition, is not meant for working. It is a time for being with the community and for reflecting on our collective values and responsibilities: to ourselves, to the planet, and to the society we live in,” she wrote. “You can trust that my office will be available and if the community needs me, I’ll be there.”  

Najman suggested that as a lifelong public servant, Haller “will continue to use her voice as an elected official for more action and more advocacy and be a voice for the people.” 

Messinger said she was “very impressed” to see Haller committed to public service as she squares it with her Shabbat observance. “I think it takes skill in the industry to do a good job of representing everyone in your district.”

NY AG: New hate crime stats undercount antisemitism

Recently released statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation — indicating the highest number of antisemitic hate crimes in a decade — “severely” undercounted the number of incidents, New York Attorney General Letitia James said on Monday.

James and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost joined a webcast hosted by the American Jewish Committee to discuss the release of the FBI’s annual hate crimes report, which found that hate crimes targeting the Jewish community had increased by 14% in 2019.

James said she questioned the accuracy of the data, suggesting that underreporting from both local law enforcement and the impacted communities themselves led to a lower number.

The New York attorney general — who described herself as an “honorary member of the Orthodox community,” having represented Crown Heights in the New York City Council for 10 years — sees the latter issue as a particular problem in what she called the “insular” Orthodox Jewish community.

“Going forward, obviously we’ve got to do a better job, particularly in the Orthodox community,” she said. “We’ve got to inform them and educate them and encourage them with respect to reporting these crimes.”

Yost agreed that underreporting is an issue for many categories of crimes, not just hate crimes, but noted that the victims of hate crimes are more than statistics laid out in data.

“We’re talking about hate crimes. That’s measured one life at a time. One case file at a time. This doesn’t happen to X number of people, it happens to one person… Someone who’s going to carry that trauma with them, the rest of their lives,” he said. “As much as I care about the data, it’s not the numbers that move me, it’s the stories.”

The Ohio attorney general criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his particularly stringent enforcement of coronavirus mitigation measures in Orthodox Jewish communities.

“When you single out a particular group and other similarly situated groups are not called out, I think you’re really sending a subtle message that helps to create a fertile seed bed for antisemitism or for racism or what have you,” Yost said.

James and Yost diverged on recent discussions and protests over police accountability. While James saw them as a potential step toward rebuilding trust between citizens and the police — thereby increasing reporting of hate crimes — Yost painted a darker picture. 

“The notion of law enforcement being a tool of the popular will frightens me and… it should frighten every American who knows anything about history,” he said. “The Holocaust, the things that happened in Nazi Germany were popularly supported. Law enforcement famously looked by while lynchings occurred in the South. Why? Because it was popularly supported… I’m really concerned that in our rush to make policing more responsive in some communities, that we risk unleashing the genie from the bottle.”

Eric Adams joins crowded field of candidates for NYC mayor

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams became the third elected official to formally announce his bid to become the next mayor of New York City on Wednesday.

In a virtual kickoff rally conducted over Zoom, Adams pledged to make the government “work much better than it is now” to lower the number of coronavirus cases in the city and deal with the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the city’s most vulnerable communities. Evoking a phrase Mayor Bill de Blasio used in his first mayoral campaign in 2013, Adams said, “People talk about a ‘tale of two cities,’ but we need to acknowledge that the dysfunctionality of government is the author of that book. We need action, and we need it now.” 

Adams is among a dozen candidates, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) and several former de Blasio administration officials, to announce a mayoral bid ahead of the Democratic primary on June 22, 2021. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was considering a run for the city’s top job, bowed out earlier this year to focus on his mental health. 

Adams has already raised more than $2.5 million for his race, according to recent campaign finance board filings.

Adams, 60, who previously represented Brooklyn’s 20th state Senate district, has longstanding ties to the borough’s Jewish community. He has been a leading voice in combating the rise of antisemitism across the city’s five boroughs. In 2018, following the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Adams, a retired NYPD captain, said he would begin carrying his handgun whenever he attends religious services. 

In recent months, Adams criticized de Blasio for the lack of outreach to the city’s Orthodox Jewish community amid an uptick in coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations. “For the last six months, I’ve sounded the alarm to demand the city’s COVID-19 outreach reach those who don’t access traditional media, those whose first language isn’t English,” Adams said after de Blasio expressed ‘regrets’ for the approach he took in responding to the virus. 

In 2016, Adams headed a delegation of law enforcement officials to Israel in a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Earlier this year, Adams denounced the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for the distribution of a questionnaire asking local candidates seeking their support to agree not to visit Israel if elected. “I encourage every New Yorker to visit Israel and other places important to understanding the cultures essential to the history of people in our great city,” Adams said in a tweet.

Reverend Rubén Díaz, Sr. looks back

In the lead-up to New York’s June 23 primary, it looked as if Rubén Díaz, Sr., the brash Pentecostal minister and city councilmember, was in a strong position to defeat his Democratic opponents in the crowded race to represent the 15th congressional district, which includes most of the South Bronx.

The prospect of Díaz in Congress filled Democrats with dread, due in large part to his opposition to gay marriage and his comparison of abortion to the Holocaust. The 77-year-old, Puerto Rican-born city politician, who is perhaps most closely identified by his trademark cowboy hat, has also expressed positive views on President Donald Trump. 

But when the votes were finally tallied, it seemed that Díaz was less popular in the district than had been assumed. Coming in third, he lost by a resounding 18 points to Ritchie Torres, the 32-year-old progressive city councilman, who has characterized Díaz as “the Donald Trump of the Bronx.” Torres, an openly gay man who identifies as Afro-Latino, declared victory in mid-July and was ruled the official winner three weeks ago. 

In many ways, Torres’s win functioned as a symbolic rebuke of Díaz and the views he represents. Díaz appeared visibly shaken on primary night when an NY1 reporter, Juan Manuel Benítez, tried to interview him live on the air. The city councilmember, dressed flamboyantly in a red cowboy hat and bolo tie, refused to answer Benítez’s questions, pointing an accusatory finger at his interlocutor and calling him “bad.”

But in a recent phone interview with Jewish Insider, Díaz — who has largely avoided the limelight since the election — adopted a care-free tone in discussing his loss. “I have no regrets,” he said. “No regrets.”

“Anyone that runs for public office — anybody — anyone is excited to win,” he told JI. “People don’t want to lose. Somebody has to lose.”

Ruben Diaz, Sr.

“I did what I had to do. I congratulate Ritchie Torres,” said Díaz, adding that he had not spoken with his former opponent, who is all but assured a seat in Congress in the sapphire-blue district.

Still, the city councilman sounded somewhat aggrieved in assessing the reasons he believes he failed to garner a plurality of the vote. 

He blames Trump. 

Or, rather, he blames Torres’s apparently successful effort — along with the efforts of other candidates in the race — to link Díaz with the president. “I thought people would not believe it, but they did,” said Díaz. 

“People should know me,” he added.

Díaz — who admitted in a March interview with Jewish Insider that he did little campaigning in his district — averred that there was nothing he would change if he had the chance to do his campaign over, implying that his record stands on its own. “No elected official does more activity for that community than me,” he declared. “No one.”

“I do a Christmas party, the biggest Christmas party in the Bronx,” he told JI. “I do street fairs. I do back-to-schools. I’m telling you, I do so much activity.”

Díaz seemed surprised that his enthusiasm for Trump’s first presidential campaign — “I do like Donald Trump,” he told The Washington Post in the spring of 2016 — might have hampered his prospects in the Bronx. “I have supported Republicans in the past, and I have no problem with that,” he said. “Most likely, I will do it in the future.”

When asked who he would vote for in the upcoming election, Díaz put forth a roundabout response. “I’m not voting for Biden,” he said matter-of-factly. “No. I’m not voting for him. Definitely not, because I’m not voting for him. I’m in America. You’re free to choose whoever you want to choose.”

So who did he plan to vote for?

“I don’t know who I’m going to vote for,” Díaz shrugged. “I don’t know.”

What about Trump?

“I don’t know,” Díaz said. “I might vote for Trump, who knows? Hey, I’m deciding. I’m probably — I’m a Democrat. I am a Democrat. And I might be voting for Biden, yes. I’m just joking with you. I think that I am a Democrat.”

JI pointed out that it did not sound as if Díaz was joking.

“I tell you what you want to hear,” he said with an impish chuckle. “You want to play games, then I’ll play games with you.”

Finally, he clarified that he would probably not vote for Biden, but that if he did, it would be because he likes Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Biden’s vice presidential running mate. “She’s good,” he said, without elaborating any further.

Diaz during a campaign stop in the Bronx. (Matthew Kassel)

Díaz told JI that he will retire from the city council at the end of his current term in 2022. “Next year I’m not running,” he said. “I’m out of politics.”

“What do you want me to do, die there?” said the reverend, who previously served in the New York State Senate and has been a city councilmember since 2018.

Díaz suggested he might not have served his term in Congress if he had won the primary. At first, he said he would only have served one term if elected. But then he added, “Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t even serve. Maybe I would have resigned before I was sworn in.”

“I was trying to prove something,” he concluded. 

What he was trying to prove, however, Díaz failed to explain. “There were those plans of how long I was going to serve,” he said. “Should I serve if I win? I just wanted to run and see.”

Though his experiment didn’t seem to yield the result he would have liked, Díaz said he has nevertheless been keeping busy in his current capacity as a city official. 

His district office is open, he told JI, pointing out that he has been working to serve his community amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

“Everybody has to worry about the virus. Everybody. Everybody has to worry about that,” he said. “That’s something that’s dangerous, so people have to wear their masks, and I’ve been giving masks here and there, and helping different groups, and now I’m planning to give back-to-school book bags.”

“This is my last year and that’s it,” he added. “But I’m going to keep doing what I always did.”

Did he plan to stay in the Bronx after his term is up?

“I’m not moving,” said Díaz, who has been in the borough since 1965. “I will die here in New York.”

New York lawmaker’s office vandalized in antisemitic attack

Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright (D-Manhattan) called on the New York Police Department’s hate crimes unit to investigate the antisemitic vandalization of her office in New York’s 76th Assembly district.

Seawright’s office, located on Park Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was sprayed with white paint overnight on Monday. A vulgar and antisemitic message alluding to Jewish donors was written on a large poster and slid under the door. 

“I want to speak loud and clear today that we will never be intimidated by this criminal act,” Seawright said during a press conference, flanked by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and faith and community leaders, outside her office on Tuesday. “We will stand together, speak up, and remain vigilant against this violence and antisemitism.” 

Though not Jewish, Seawright is a member of the Assembly’s Jewish Legislative Caucus. Her husband, Jay Hershenson, who serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Queens College of the City University of New York, is Jewish.

Seawright, who has represented the district since 2015, was knocked off the ballot’s Democratic line last month after missing a key deadline during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak. Following the ruling, she gathered more than 5,000 signatures to get on the November ballot on the “Rise and Unite” independent party line. 

Maloney, who represents the neighborhood as part of the 12th congressional district, told JI that the incident was “extremely disturbing.” Maloney pointed out that the Never Again Education Act, which she sponsored in the House and which allocates resources to Holocaust education, is aimed “to stop this kind of hatred.” 

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis, who participated in a virtual town hall on combating antisemitism hosted by Seawright’s office last month, said that it’s important that people of all faiths speak out against acts of antisemitism. ”The truth is that antisemitism is anti-Christianity, is anti-Islam. A person who hates me today is going to hate you tomorrow,” he explained. “You scratch the skin of an antisemite and you will find a racist and many other layers of bigotry.”

This New York Democrat hopes to win again in Trump country

For Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY), the hardest part of his job is leaving his family behind at the beginning of each week to head to Washington. But as a public servant, the father of two has found a way to ease those departures. On the flight from New York to Washington, D.C., Brindisi — who has represented New York’s 22nd congressional district since 2019 — writes a note to his 13-year-old son and 9- year-old daughter about why he’s going to Congress that week. 

“Hopefully, they can look back at that later on and understand that daddy was trying to make the world a better place,” the first-term congressman told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, “and that’s why he had to go to Washington every week.”

For Brindisi, 41, the notes don’t just add up to a collection that his kids will have to look at later in life, but also for himself, as a lawmaker, to “document and remember all the things that have been happening this last year and a half.”

Born and raised in Utica, New York, Brindisi earned his law degree from Albany Law School after graduating from Siena College. After graduation, he joined the law firm founded by his father, Brindisi, Murad, Brindisi & Pearlman. In 2011, he ran for a State Assembly seat, succeeding former Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito (D) in a special election to represent Oneida County. 

In 2018, encouraged by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Brindisi ran for Congress and beat first-term Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) by less than 2 percentage points. Now, the roles are flipped: Tenney is challenging Brindisi in November, hoping to take back the seat she lost.

“It has been a crazy time and an exciting first year and a half,” Brindisi said of his time in Washington. “There’s been so many history-making moments that have happened since 2018, and it’s interesting to have a front row seat to all of them.” 

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The 22nd district is considered a toss-up, according to The Cook Political Report. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the district by more than 15 points and it remains a top target for the GOP.

Brindisi co-chairs the whip role for the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of Democratic lawmakers who identify as fiscally responsible, and is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is made up of Democrats and Republicans looking for bipartisan solutions to Washington’s biggest challenges.

Brindisi boasts about being one of the few freshman members of Congress who has had four pieces of legislation signed by President Donald Trump, among them bills on veteran affairs and health care matters. “It was not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re in divided government right now,” he told JI. “But I believe in bipartisanship and trying to solve problems.” 

Working in a bipartisan manner “has really been my recipe for success,” Brindisi said. “I spent a lot of time trying to build relationships with other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. And when you take the time to listen to other members, sometimes you can find consensus and then work together to solve a problem.”

Brindisi believes this approach is greatly appreciated by his constituents. “The one thing I hear over and over again from constituents is, ‘We don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican. We just want you getting things done.’ And that’s what I focused on in my first couple of years, in addition to being visible in the district,” he stressed. 

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At the age of four, Brindisi lost his mother after a protracted battle with cancer. Brindisi told JI that his three older sisters, who he credits with raising him, instilled in him the values that he feels guide his work as a public servant.

“One of the lessons that always stuck out was, don’t be a bystander. When you see something wrong, you have to do something about it,” Brindisi said, adding that those words “were in the back of my head” when he first ran for Congress. “I didn’t like seeing what was happening in Washington and people not working together to solve big problems. I guess I could have sat back and stayed in the state legislature, but I decided to run for Congress in a seat that traditionally isn’t held by Democrats to do something to change that.” 

“I’ve always enjoyed public service,” Brindisi continued. “It has its moments — it definitely has its ups and downs. But when you can help a constituent who’s trying to get health insurance or if you can pass substantive legislation that’s going to improve the lives of people in your district and across the country, to me, it makes up any of the low points.”

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Victor Pearlman, executive director at the Jewish Community Federation of the Mohawk Valley, is married to Brindisi’s older sister Eva. “[Anthony] is an amazing young man with an innate ability who understood my Jewish upbringing and my values like I don’t even think many Jews could understand,” Pearlman told JI in a phone interview. “He has participated in Passover Seders, he has come to shul to read passages at my children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.”

Although the Jewish community is relatively small in Utica, Pearlman said that the local Jewish community “supports [Brindisi] almost to a person.” 

Brindisi first visited Israel in 2016 on a delegation of New York assembly members. He described the trip as “remarkable” and said it had a significant impact on how he views the U.S.-Israel relationship as a member of Congress. “I think being able to see firsthand the strong bond between our two countries and the shared values was important and has helped shape and strengthen my view of why we need to support our ally Israel and maintain a strong bond between our two countries,” Brindisi said. 

Pearlman told JI that following his brother-in-law’s trip to Israel, “one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I felt like I was in America, and I didn’t expect that because I was in the Middle East.’ And all I said to him was, ‘I told you so.’” 

***

The New York Democrat supported Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Brindisi was also one of 12 House Democrats who broke party ranks last year to vote in favor of a Republican motion to recommit on anti-BDS legislation that would allow state and local governments to adopt laws to divest public funds from entities that boycott Israel.

But Brindisi maintained that his record on Israel is “more in line with the long-standing principles” of the Democratic Party. 

“Although there are those in my party that may not feel as strongly as I do about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, to me, supporting Israel should not be a partisan issue,” he stressed. “It is a relationship that has existed for several decades, and we need to maintain that strong, unbreakable bond for the future.”

Brindisi is one of almost two dozen Democrats who didn’t sign onto House letters publicly expressing opposition to potential Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. A House letter sent to Israeli leaders, signed by 191 House Democrats and backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, warned that annexation would undermine the two-state solution. Another letter, signed by 12 progressive members and addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, threatened to condition aid to Israel over annexation. 

Brindisi told JI he did not sign onto the more mainstream letter against annexation because it didn’t strongly oppose conditioning military aid to Israel.  “My concern with the letter is that I believe it’s important that we reiterate and make it very clear that it’s in America’s national security interests to maintain our commitment to security assistance to Israel without conditions,” he said. “That’s a red line for me.” 

Brindisi added that he has “concerns” with the prospect of unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank because he favors direct negotiations between the parties. “What is most important to me is the long-standing permanent relationship between our two countries,” he said. “The security aid that we provide is not symbolic. In my mind, it saves lives, and we need to reiterate that commitment to make sure that it’s clear.”

Pearlman told JI, “I like to hope that part of his love of Jews and Israel might have been slightly influenced by me. I can say to my Jewish friends: You won’t find a better supporter of Israel [than Brindisi].” 

***

Brindisi is confident that he will win a second term in November, but acknowledged that it’s “going to be a tough race” given the challenge posed by the GOP in a presidential year. “But I feel that people in the district, by and large, don’t want to turn back the clock. They want to continue the progress we’ve made.” 

And it’s his accomplishments as a freshman that Brindisi wants voters to judge him on, drawing a clear contrast with the more progressive wing of his party. “There’s a lot of members that prefer to make noise on social media, but don’t accomplish a whole lot when they come to Washington,” Brindisi told JI. “My goal is to deliver results for the people that elected me, and that means sometimes working quietly behind the scenes.” 

In Long Island, Democrats are vying to unseat Rep. Lee Zeldin

Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-NY) victory in his 2018 reelection bid was not unexpected. But the narrow margin of his win over political newcomer Democrat Perry Gershon in New York’s 1st district two years ago came as more of a surprise.

Now Gershon, a real estate lender, is gearing up for a rematch against the three-term Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives, in a district that has trended red in recent years. But before he can take on the incumbent congressman again, Gershon must face off against three candidates in the district’s Democratic primary on Tuesday: chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, Suffolk County legislator Bridget Fleming and business consultant Greg Fisher.

Gershon is confident that, this time around, he has the experience and name recognition necessary to beat Zeldin. “I spent my time in the off year engaged in the community, meeting with people… and taking the retail politicking to a level I was unable to do the first time around because nobody knew me,” Gershon said in an interview with Jewish Insider.

Goroff, who teaches at Stony Brook University, is significantly ahead of Gershon in fundraising, with nearly $2.4 million raised and $760,000 still in the bank. Gershon has raised approximately $1.2 million and has $188,000 remaining, while Fleming raised $700,000 and has $112,000 on hand. Fisher has raised no money, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

The Democratic nominee will likely need a sizable fundraising haul to compete with Zeldin — who has raised nearly $4 million and has more than $2 million still on hand.

Goroff believes her background in science will give her an edge over her competitors and will ultimately be an asset on Capitol Hill. “I will bring unique skills and expertise to Washington, so that I can be a leader on issues that matter, like climate change and healthcare and getting us out of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” she told JI. She also highlighted her accomplishments at Stony Brook, including pushing to expand healthcare coverage and leading diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

“I think that I can hit the ground running in Washington and really lead on important issues,” she added. Goroff, who hopes to leverage her background to serve on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Education and Labor Committee, said she’s intensely focused on climate change.

“I want to be a resource for other members of Congress. I want to make sure that my office is helping members have access to the best information available,” Goroff said. “This is for Republicans and Democrats, that they can get their questions answered and then hold their [colleagues’] feet to the fire to make sure that we’re really taking meaningful action on climate change.”

Fleming is also focused on the environment, touting her record in the county legislature. “On all these issues when Donald Trump and Lee Zeldin have abandoned us, I’ve been a champion and I’ve been known to stand up for our environmental resources,” she said.

Fleming pointed to her past electoral victories and experience as a lawmaker as evidence that she’s the best choice to take on Zeldin in the fall. “I have a great deal of support because of the work that I’ve done for the community over the years,” she said. “But also I know how to run a good race, and it’s going to be a tough race.”

Perry Gershon

Goroff and Gershon both told Jewish Insider that their Jewish faith has been a driving force behind their political aspirations and their decision to challenge Zeldin.

Both candidates criticized the congressman for voting against last year’s House Resolution 183 condemning antisemitism. Zeldin said he voted no on the resolution because it had been watered down, but Goroff posited that Zeldin’s preferences for the bill “didn’t match the reality of what was going on on the ground.” Gershon called Zeldin’s vote against the bill “appalling.”

“The reason that I got in is that I want to make the world a better place,” Goroff said. “It’s very much that Jewish idea of public service and improving the world around you. It means getting involved in [the] community.”

Gershon and Goroff are also largely aligned on their approaches to the U.S.-Israel relationship. They both support a two-state solution, but believe that the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made the peace process more difficult, and said the potential annexation of parts of the West Bank — which could happen as soon as July 1 — would be a further obstacle to peace.

“Too often, the discussion… has been focused on whether the Israelis or the Palestinians have the right to take a certain action, as opposed to… whether it’s actually in their self-interest,” Goroff said. “There seems to be a very short-term focus. And it’s largely about Netanyahu trying to stay in power, as so much of his activity over the last years has been.”

Gershon — who has visited Israel nine times — was mostly in agreement, but noted that the Palestinians lacked a voice in conversations related to peace negotiations. “A two-state solution isn’t in the cards right now because there’s no one negotiating for the Palestinians,” he said. “But I’d like to see the settlements stop, and I think that will help bring a partner to the table.”

Fleming criticized the Trump administration’s “impulsive” foreign policy. “Policy has to be formulated and implemented that will ensure stability in the region and safety for the citizens of Israel,” Fleming weighed in. “In that respect, I think we need to ensure that financial support for Israel is maintained.”

Gershon stated that cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority was unequivocally “the wrong move.” 

“I think the Palestinian Authority is a potential negotiator on the other side, and certainly a whole lot better than Hamas,” he explained. “And the more you do delegitimize the Palestinian Authority and make it harder for them to operate, the more you’re empowering the more radical elements like Hamas.”

Gershon is also a strident critic of the BDS movement, which, in a position paper, he called “little more than a new manifestation of antisemitism.” 

“It is a lie to suggest that BDS seeks peace in the region or is founded on legitimate principles,” he added. “BDS is particularly threatening at the college level, as the movement tries to brainwash our youth to turn against Israel at a young age.”

Recent polling in the race has provided varied results with no clear frontrunner. A poll conducted in late May by Goroff’s campaign found her in a statistical tie with Gershon, with Fleming trailing by double digits. The May poll was a boost for Goroff, who in a poll a month earlier had trailed Gershon by 22 points. In the April poll, Fleming had a five-point lead on Goroff. Fisher took just 1% of the vote each time.

But a separate poll released by Fleming’s campaign painted a drastically different picture — it found Fleming and Goroff in a statistical tie, with Gershon trailing them.

With no clear-cut winner ahead of Tuesday’s primary, the race is anyone’s game. All three candidates have in recent weeks sought to tie Zeldin — who traveled to Tulsa, Okla., for Trump’s first campaign rally in months — to the president in the hopes that a blue wave will boost their odds with primary voters.

“The damage that Trump has done with his xenophobia, and that Zeldin has done enabling the president — Zeldin didn’t even criticize what happened in Charlottesville, and to me that is a shonda for his Judaism,” said Gershon.

“I’m a big believer in racial justice and in the need — as part of my Judaism — to establish equal treatment for brown people and white people under the law of the land.”

Communal leaders, pro-Israel groups seek to mobilize Jewish voters to save Engel

As embattled Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) fights for his political life, constituents and longtime supporters of the 16-term congressman are growing nervous about his chances in the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th district, where Engel will face a challenger who has been raking in endorsements — and donations — ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Engel’s possible ouster by Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Bronx middle school principal backed by Justice Democrats, has provoked angst in some parts of the district, where constituents see Engel as a friend and a staunch supporter of Israel. 

Stu Loeser, a political  consultant and resident of Riverdale, told JI that the primary race is — for the first time in years — a topic of conversation in the community. “People obviously aren’t seeing each other as much these days, but when we talk or run into each other, the primary almost always comes up,” said Loeser, who served as spokesperson for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. 

Over the last two weeks, Bowman has picked up national endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). A poll published Wednesday showed Bowman leading Engel by 10 points. 

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, recently published an open letter to Bowman asking him to clarify his positions on Israel. Weiss told JI on Wednesday that he was “very disappointed” that Bowman hasn’t responded to the issues raised in the letter. 

“Amongst the issues… most important to us is the well-being of the State of Israel, one of America’s greatest allies,” Weiss explained. “Dr. Bowman’s Israel policy is too questionable for me to consider sending him to Congress.” 

Harry Feder, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Riverdale and a longtime friend of the congressman, told JI that community leaders are urging members to take the race seriously and vote. “I think it’s a matter of people coming out to vote and that they realize that this election is being looked at nationally,” said Feder, the former president of the Riverdale Jewish Center. “Engel is one of the strongest — if not the strongest —  member of the House in support of Israel, and to lose him as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee would be a horrible thing for the Jewish community.” 

On Wednesday evening, NORPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports pro-Israel candidates, held a Zoom fundraiser for Engel with 120 Jewish leaders and activists signed on as co-chairs. 

Among them is Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, whose son lives in the district. “We are trying to mobilize people within this district, making sure that our community is aware of [the situation] and comes out to vote,” Genack told JI, pointing to the neighboring 14th congressional district where in 2018 the incumbent, former Rep. Joe Crowley, lost his primary to Ocasio-Cortez, then a relatively unknown challenger. “In a primary, small numbers make a big difference.”

A recent mailer sent out by the Engel campaign and obtained by Jewish Insider highlights Engel’s commitment to combat growing antisemitism and his strong defense of Israel. 

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told JI that voters in the district “don’t understand or don’t appreciate” the effect of the seniority members of Congress like Engel have. “It’s really an extraordinary opportunity that New Yorkers have to be represented by a chairman of a committee like the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,” she said.

JDCA endorsed Engel for re-election and is now assisting his campaign with targeted digital ads, as well as phone and text banking, to reach as many Jewish voters as possible. Similarly, Democratic Majority for Israel is running TV ads, sending mailers and operating phone banks to boost Engel’s chance on Tuesday.

A local operative, who declined to be identified by name, told JI that Engel failed to learn from the Crowley episode, choosing to live most of the time in his Maryland home rather than be present in the district. Engel’s absence was a driving factor in Bowman’s rise, the operative noted, leaving Jewish constituents exasperated and concerned about losing a friend in Washington. 

Feder dismissed that notion, pointing out that he and Engel live in the same building in Riverdale. “He was chairman of a committee,” he explained. “Foreign affairs doesn’t stop because of a virus.” 

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, suggested that Engel’s challenge is part of an “instinctive drive” by the some in the progressive movement to oust pro-Israel lawmakers. “We have to understand there’s a showdown here,” he explained. “Why would any of the progressives not support someone with Eliot Engel’s record? They would agree on almost anything, with the exception of Israel. So why are they targeting him? The only differentiator is Israel.” 

Soifer and Feder expressed confidence that Engel will pull off a victory next week — if his supporters turn out. 

“I think he’ll be re-elected,” Soifer predicted. But if Bowman wins, she said her group will “seek to engage” with him and address the priorities of Jewish voters. “We have not said anything disparaging about Jamaal Bowman. We have noted that there’s a difference of views when it comes to Israel.”

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