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Proposed New York State Senate ‘Orthodox’ District Draws Praise, Criticism

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Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who supports the proposed Orthodox State Senate district in Brooklyn, and is denying reports that his son may run for the seat next fall.The proposed “Orthodox Jewish” New York State Senate district consisting of Boro Park and Midwood is drawing praise from several community leaders, while eliciting criticism from some political experts. Senate District 17 has been described as “Super Jewish” because it unites the sizable Orthodox communities living in those two Brooklyn neighborhoods.

“If all this ends up being the case and this district stands, I think it will be absolutely wonderful,” Assemblyman Dov Hikind stated. “I’ve always felt and have said it publicly, that communities should be left intact. Communities that share philosophical goals and ideals should stay together. I think it’s absolutely great, and I can tell you that people in these communities would be very, very happy to have this happen.” Hikind represents the 48th District of New York, which encompasses Boro Park, Dyker Heights, and parts of Flatbush. “Borough Park and Midwood are the heart of the Orthodox community in New York,” the assemblyman added. “They’re very similar in the things they believe in, the things they care about.”

Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, a representative of Agudath Israel of America who spends a great deal of time lobbying in Albany on behalf of the Orthodox community, was equally enthusiastic about the potential district. “The district reflects the Orthodox community’s interests. The lines reflect where the Orthodox community lives and we believe that this is a very positive move in order to make sure that our voices are heard and that our issues are dealt with effectively,” Lefkowitz said.

But the excitement of leaders like Hikind and Lefkowitz may be short-lived, considering that Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly declared his intentions to veto any district lines that are drawn up by the Legislature instead of through an independent process. Shortly after the new lines were released, the governor’s office termed the redistricting proposals “simply unacceptable” and said the governor would veto them.

Other members of the political scene have expressed their reservations about the new Orthodox district as well, citing their sense that it would be more advantageous to have a plurality of legislators working on behalf of a particular demographic across a number of district neighborhoods. “I don’t like the way that this discussion is being framed,” one political consultant opined. “I don’t necessarily need to have my community represented by an Orthodox Jew, if that’s the intention of the lines.  There’s nothing wrong with Borough Park being a component of a district that is not necessarily entirely Orthodox,” the consultant said.

The governor’s antipathy to the proposed district is at least partially due to the fact that the Republican leadership in the State Senate was responsible for the plan. “The process that created these draft lines was done completely behind closed doors and completely by the legislators who are self interested in the process,” said Daniel Burstein of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, which has filed a lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs who are convinced that the redistricting process threaten the integrity of the state’s elections this year. According to Burstein, any redrawing of district lines should be for the sole purpose of representing the interests of the state’s citizens to the best possible degree. “Drawing lines that are compact and take into account the interests of the communities should be the objective here,” the lawyer asserted.

But Hikind is not swayed by these objections. “The new district lines, from what I’ve seen, are much more compact,” he insists. “They speak much more to people who want fair districts where people have an opportunity to run.”

Interestingly, according to sources monitoring these developments, Hikind may have another reason for pushing for the new “Super Jewish” district. Reports have surfaced claiming that the assemblyman may decide to place his son, Yoni, on the Republican ballot next fall when regular elections are to be held for the area’s State Senate seat. “Dov feels like he has made a comeback over the last couple of years,” said a source. “What better way to complete that comeback than by electing his own son to the New York State Senate.” However, the day after these reports came out, Assemblyman Hikind dismissed them as totally unfounded rumors.

“I wish I could convince Yoni to run for public office,” said Hikind.  “They don’t make them more sincere, more honest and more passionate than Yoni, and I hope that one day I can encourage him to use those abilities as a public official.  But he has only one interest at this point in time – devoting his life to saving Jewish kids.” The senior Hikind was referring to his thirty-one-year old son’s active work with at-risk youth in the Orthodox community, which includes a leadership role in a yeshiva that caters to that group. “I am completely focused on my work at the yeshiva,” Yoni Hikind concurred, backing up his father’s statement, “and all of my time is dedicated to working with these boys from the school.”

Republican State Senator Marty Golden has also come out in favor of the new district, which would run alongside his own. “I was very happy with my seat, obviously,” he said. “A new Jewish seat will be a good seat for the future for the state.” Golden further expounded, “When you take a look at the Hasidic, you take a look at the Sephardic, you took a look at the Russians, you take a look at the community of Brooklyn, it’s a large, tremendous Jewish community that — rightfully so — should have its own representation,” he said. “I believe we’ll hopefully see a Republican in that seat in the near future, and representing them in the majority in the Senate.”
Taking a more nuanced view of the proposed district, Democratic City Councilman Lew Fidler, who is presently running in a special election for the State Senate that would be divided under the new lines, also supported the idea of keeping like-minded communities intact. “Neighborhoods should be brought together by their commonality of interests, the type of people that live there,” Fidler commented. “Orthodox voters shouldn’t be divided up into different districts.”
At the same time, however, Fidler was highly critical of the redistricting process, calling it “one of the reasons people are so cynical about politics.” Pointing to Senator Golden’s district – which uses geographic sleight-of-hand to combine Marine Park with Bay Ridge – Fidler fumed, “It makes no sense unless you’re looking at it in a partisan, political way. People are tired of that and it should stop.”

At least one dissenting view has been expressed within the local Orthodox community, though. A prominent Boro Park insider believes that, while many in the more socially conservative area feel elated with the idea of having an Orthodox representative, more “mainstream” Jews may be unsure about the prospect.

“Before, we had Borough Park split in five Senate districts, but now it’s the entire other side of the coin, where wwe’re going to only have one representative,” the insider noted. “If it’s just one representative, they could be marginalized. We need as many people as possible pushing for yeshiva education against the teachers’ unions.”

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