This was supposed to be a watershed year in politics. After years of frustration with dysfunctional Albany politics, the voters were supposed to “throw the bums out,” as Mayor Ed Koch, leader of New York Uprising, likes to say. However, this isn’t exactly shaping up into a watershed year. Except for the disgraced Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, no New York City legislator has lost a primary and aside for a handful of competitive legislative races, most incumbents are considered “safe.” However that trend is about to be tested this Election Day in the heart of the Jewish community in Flatbush, Brooklyn in a different way.
One of the traditionally “safe” incumbents is a Democratic Assemblyman by the name of Steve Cymbrowitz. Steve represents most of the predominantly Frum Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn. Before taking office, Mr. Cymbrowitz was married to an observant Sephardic Jew – Assemblywoman Lena Cymbrowitz – who by all accounts was an impressive woman. Sadly, she died, rather suddenly, less than two years after being elected to the Assembly.
As befits the corrupt image of Albany politics, her late husband Steve “inherited” her seat through a back-room political deal. In fact, since Steve “inherited” his late wife’s seat 10 years ago, Steve has rarely been challenged by anybody – Republican or Democrat in any election. Well, that’s par for the course for Albany politician. After all, incumbents have more money, name recognition and establishment support than challengers. So that’s not surprising.
What is surprising is how out of touch Steve has become from the district he represents in Albany. For years, non-observant Jewish politicians tried to appear observant out of fear of offending the observant Jewish community. The best example of this is the popular US Senator Chuck Schumer who ends every address to his observant Jewish constituents with the Hebrew salutation of “Am Yisrael Chai.” However, Steve has openly flouted this tradition. For example, for many years Steve would eat at treif (non-Kosher) restaurants in Brooklyn and would report on this experience by “reviewing” those treif restaurant in a local newspaper.
Perhaps as a result of flouting this tradition of respecting the community, Steve has never been the “go-to” guy for the Frum community that he represents. Maybe because of the easy access that the community has to observant Jewish Speaker Sheldon Silver it didn’t make sense to bother the relatively low-level legislator. However, over the years, Steve has grown even more distant from the community he represents.
Most recently, Steve has taken the most distinct step in permanently severing his ties from the community by re-marrying a non-Jewish woman. After all, Steve’s entire claim to this Assembly seat was the fact that he was continuing the legacy of his departed religiously observant wife. While inter-marriage is an accepted fact of life in much of the United States, in Frum Jewish Flatbush it is sacrilegious. In fact, if Steve were really Frum, like most of his Flatbush constituents, his family would likely sit shiva for him and he would be expelled from the community.
Enter Yoseph Hayon. Yoseph is a 33 year old Frum Jewish married father of two young children. Yoseph has been active in Republican and Conservative politics all of his life and has now taken on the uphill challenge of running against Steve on the Republican and Conservative lines.
To his credit, Yoseph doesn’t differentiate himself from Steve based on religious views. Rather he differentiates himself from Steve based on his political views. The political differences could not be more stark: Steve personally supports gay marriage, Yoseph does not. Steve personally supports abortion, Yoseph does not. On the flip side, Yoseph supports school vouchers, Steve does not. Yoseph supports unlimited charter schools, Steve does not. And so on and so forth.
Yet despite his religion, his values and his conservative political positions (all of which are attuned to the Frum constituency) Yoseph faces an uphill battle. After all, beating an incumbent, even one who has lost touch with his constituency, is difficult. Steve has a lot more money, a lot more institutional support (for example, Speaker Sheldon Silver and several major Jewish organizations that rely on the Speaker for funding, are supporting Steve) and a lot more name recognition – even if much of that that name recognition is negative.
It remains to be seen if “Jewish politics” matters anymore. Will the Frum community allow Steve Cymbrowitz to openly defile its traditions? Will the Frum community ignore Steve Cymbrowitz’s transgressions for the handful of government dollars given to its major Jewish organizations? Can Yoseph Hayon – a Frum Jew – beat Steve Cymbrowitz – an intermarried secular Jew – in the heart of the Frum community in Brooklyn? Do religious values matter any more to the Frum Jewish community? This upcoming Election Day, Tuesday, November 2nd, we will find out.
Daniel Miller for YWN
Jewish Politics is a new opinion column by veteran political strategist Daniel Miller. The views and opinions reflected herein are solely of Mr. Miller and are not necessarily those of Yeshiva World News.