At a meeting today convened by Agudath Israel of America for principals and administrators of New York City yeshivos, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the opportunity to reassure the close to 200 in attendance at Agudath Israel’s Brookdale Senior Citizens Center in Brooklyn of his intention to preserve and improve city services to parents of yeshiva students.Among the issues he addressed was the “Priority 7” program, which provides parents in certain circumstances with vouchers for after-school child care. With its often large families and particular financial challenges, the city’s Orthodox Jewish community has been the main beneficiary of the Priority 7 category. Some 2000 child care vouchers, worth approximately $15 million dollars to their recipients, have been distributed yearly to parents in heavily Orthodox parts of New York.
The program was eliminated from the city budget this past summer but after wide community protest – including the delivery, in an effort spearheaded by Agudath Israel, of 30,000 letters from parents to City Hall – was restored for six months. That extension will expire in December. At the meeting, and Mayor Bloomberg said he was “optimistic about continuing [the program] as we go forward.”
Another topic raised by the mayor was school transportation. Currently, because of time and location restrictions in the city school bus program, many qualifying students at Orthodox schools cannot avail themselves of city-funded transportation to and from school. The Mayor promised to establish a committee, under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, to explore all legal options for addressing the problem.
City Council member Simcha Felder, who also participated in the meeting, delivered an impassioned speech in which he stressed the need for the Orthodox community to vote in larger numbers. He recalled, among other examples, the success the community achieved when it mobilized on behalf of the Priority 7 program, and asserted that “this room” can make things happen.
After the mayor’s words, the yeshiva administrators got down to the business at hand – in the words of Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, “defining priorities, mapping out strategies and ensuring that our voices are heard.”
Rabbi Zwiebel, too, stressed the importance of mobilizing parents of yeshiva students to vote – whomever they choose to vote for in any given election – emphasizing the fact that city officials look closely at which neighborhoods and communities vote in substantial numbers. He asked for suggestions from the gathered yeshiva administrators about new ways to impress upon yeshiva parents how important their votes are, and for enlisting students in the effort to persuade voting-age members of their households to go to the polls.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Rabbi Zwiebel remarked: “Today’s meeting was notable in several ways. First, we heard the mayor make some significant commitments with regard to the Priority 7 program and our children’s school transportation needs.
“And second, the overflow turnout of yeshiva representatives created a genuine spark of urgency about the importance of voting, irrespective of which candidate a given voter chooses to support.”