Agudath Israel was on a high. They had just come off successfully redistricting a Senate seat into a super-Jewish seat in Brooklyn. They believed they could do anything, our sources tell us. That’s when it occurred to them. Why not try and create 3 super-Jewish seats in Brooklyn in the New York City Council? Agudah’s askonim quickly drew up the “dream plan.” There would be one Boro Park seat, one Midwood seat and one 20’s & 30’s seat. That’s what they would push with the NYC Districting Commission.
Agudah’s askonim scheduled a meeting with Councilman David Greenfield, New York’s only frum Councilman, to pitch him the plan. Greenfield, who is probably the most astute political strategist in the frum community today, “begged them not go forward with this plan,” according to a source close to both Greenfield & the Agudah. “David explained that this plan was blatantly unconstitutional and would result in the community staying with the one seat it currently has.” After all, by federal law districts that are majority-minority must stay that way. The Agudah “dream plan” would have decimated the districts of Jumaane Williams & Matthieu Eugene both districts which had to be protected under federal law. In short, “the plan was on its face unconstitutional,” according to our source. After meeting with Greenfield, the askanim agreed with him – they would adopt the Greenfield approach – instead of pushing for three frum seats they would push for two – one in Boro Park and lower Midwood and the other in Midwood & the 20’s & 30’s. Even Chaim Deutsch, the founder of Flatbush Shomrim who was planning on running for term-limited Mike Nelson’s council seat agreed that this was the best plan. One small problem: Shmuel Lefkowitz, of Agudath Israel, was not dissuaded. He insisted that the group go for three seats despite the long odds. Despite Agudah’s agreement with Greenfield, the askanim & Councilman were overruled by Mr. Lefkowitz and therefore presented their “dream plan” to the Districting Commission, another source confirmed.
So while the frum community was making the case for three seats, the Russian community was making the case for one seat of their own. The Russians had a very compelling case. After all, they’re not just a community of interest – a term that was frequently used by the frum community to justify why they wanted to be together, they also all speak the same-language – Russian. That point is critical, because while the “community of interest” standard is one that the city is supposed to look to, the “common-language” one is a federal standard that is even more important in deciding which communities deserve their own district.
After all, there are as many Russians as there are frum Jews in New York City. The frum Jews already had a seat, why shouldn’t the Russians have one? That was the exact point that Gregory Davidzon the politically powerful owner of Russian-language Davidzon radio made at the districting commission’s hearing with over 100 supporters in two. It was a point that the districting commission was sympathetic to. As one source said “there was no way the commission could make the Orthodox Jews happy, so why not try and make the Russians happy.” And that’s exactly what happened.
The districting commission came out with their revised maps on December 6th. There was some good news but mostly bad news. The Russians had clearly won this round. The 48th Council District currently occupied by Councilman Mike Nelson went from being approximately 45% frum and 30% Russian to the exact opposite: the seat was now 45% Russian and only 30% frum. The only good news – Greenfield has pushed that Boro Park retain two council seats. He had won that battle but had lost the war. The districting commission placed a big chunk of Boro Park back into Brad Lander’s 39th Council District guaranteeing the Boro Park would have continued clout for the next decade. While Greenfield was pleased at the progress in Boro Park he was privately fuming that their would not be another frum seat in Midwood according to our source.
Realizing they had lost, Agudah had now decided to support the Greenfield plan which would push for two frum seats – one in Boro Park and lower Midwood and the other in Midwood & the 20’s & 30’s. Chaim Deutsch & Chaskel Bennet led the charge. The created a group called “Save Flatbush” and brought over 50 people to testify at the districting commission. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. “By this time the Russians had lined up deep support for their seat. Even the Mayor was in favor of the newly created Russian seat,” said our source. Not only did the lines not improve they had actually gotten worst according to a statement that Leon Goldenberg made to another newspaper today. The final lines include more Russians in Mike Nelson’s council seat and even Greenfield was complaining that he lost frum voters in Boro Park to a neighboring district where frum Jews would be in the extreme minority.
So who’s to blame? It depends who you ask. Sources close to Chaim Deutsch tell us that he is upset at everyone including his boss Councilman Mike Nelson. After all, if Nelson would have been more involved in the process maybe he could have saved his seat. Of all the seats in Brooklyn it was only Nelson’s whose got cut up in to so many different pieces. Nelson had waited until the final, and least important hearing to testify. It seemed like Nelson wanted to have it both ways – he wanted the Orthodox to believe he was supporting them and the Russians to believe he was with them, said our source. In the end it appears that both sides are upset at him.
Sources close to Agudah are blaming the Mayor and Speaker of the New York City Council who they believe could have made the changes they wanted even at the late date because between the two they control the majority of districting commission. As for Greenfield, sources say he felt the commission should have worked harder to try and accommodate the frum community. As a result he issued a statement blasting the districting commission who he believed prioritized other interests over the frum community’s, “this proposal is unfair and will reduce the voice of the large and growing Orthodox Jewish community and its representation in City Hall,” Greenfield said in a statement. “These lines are harmful to southern Brooklyn’s Jewish community. That’s why I am calling on the Districting Commission to reject them.” Despite Greenfield’s pleas the commission ignored him and voted in favor of the proposal. It now moves on the the New York City Council. Greenfield has vowed to vote the proposal down. Nelson has finally got involved in the process and issues a press release that he supports Greenfield and will also vote down the proposal. However, our sources say that despite their vocal opposition the proposal is likely to pass. And so it goes, “too many chefs in the kitchen ruined the stew,” our source concluded.
Charles Katz is an attorney practicing criminal law in New York, and above all a “god-fearing Jew”.
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.