Creating an event that reaps results like that is a tough act to follow. But Agudath Israel of America wanted to deliver even more to our yeshivos after its inaugural event for NY yeshiva executive directors and administrators last year. The Yeshiva Expo – rebranded as the Yeshiva Summit to better reflect its character – moved to an even larger venue to accommodate the increased number of guests and vendors. In addition to the formal sessions on legal, funding, and compliance topics offered at the summit, time was dedicated for yeshiva administrators to consult, gratis, with Homeland Security, attorneys, accountants, Agudah staff, consultants, and the government officials who administer key nonpublic school governmental programs. This way, administrators could ask individual questions in addition to hearing the day’s sessions.
Another innovation of the Yeshiva Summit, which occurred at Terrace on the Park on October 24, was the Legislative Luncheon, at which nearly 20 New York City, New York State, and Federal elected officials participated. The luncheon provided an opportunity for our community to express its appreciation for the millions of dollars in NYC, NYS, and federal security and other funding streams funds that Agudah has advocated for and which help keep our mosdos humming safer. It was also instructive for officials in City Hall, Albany, and Washington to see the dedicated men and women who work in our mosdos, each representing hundreds of taxpaying parents who sacrifice and forgo utilizing the free public school system to receive an education that allows their children to grow to be proud, informed Jews.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, introduced Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul to open the Summit. Lt. Governor Hochul declared two things of importance to both her and Governor Andrew Cuomo: protecting our right to educate our children wherever we choose, and protecting these children when they are in school, noting that anti-Semitic incidents are up 90% in recent years. The $25 million of funding the Governor has dedicated to protect schools, shuls, and community centers against hate crimes is a tangible embodiment of that sentiment. (Note that the Yeshiva Summit occurred days prior to the Pittsburgh tragedy.) The Lt. Governor also introduced Michael Snow, former Assistant Director of the New York Anti-Defamation League, who has been tapped as the Governor’s new Director of Jewish Affairs.
Rabbi Zwiebel then called upon Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of South Shore, and the son of Rabbi Binyomin Kamenetzky zt’l who was “a pioneer of Jewish education in the Five Towns,” to begin the day with a Torah perspective. Rabbi Kamenetzky described the Agudah Yeshiva Summit as a “kinus lesheim Shomayim” and recounted what tomech Torah and Barton’s chocolate founder Stephen Klein told R’ Shneur Kotler ztz”l: “We both have institutions; but mine makes lollipops and yours forges men.”
Attendees then split off to attend instructive sessions following a brief description and instructions for the day by Avrohom Weinstock, Esq., Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Education.
David Pollock, the Director of Public Policy and Jewish Security at JCRC-NY, and Joseph Tadrick the NY Adviser for Homeland Security, delivered a critical morning session on “School Safety and Security: Potential Funding Streams and How To Intelligently Maximize Your Security Dollars.” An informative, interactive session, “Grant Writing: How to Find and Apply for Opportunities,” was led by Mrs. Rivkie Feiner (CEO, Universal Communications Network) and Mr. Edward Leibman (founding partner, Hudson Ferris). And Agudah’s own Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, accompanied by Chaskel Bennett (Agudath Israel, Board of Trustees); James Cultrara (Director of Education, New York State Catholic Conference); and Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal marshaled an empowering session for yeshivos titled, “Governmental Advocacy: How Parents and Yeshivos Can Influence Change.”
“Overview of Governmental Funds 101: Mandated Services, CAP, Titles II-IV, Special Education” was the first of two sessions providing guidance on government funding, presented by Mrs. Leah Steinberg (Director of Agudah’s Project LEARN-Special Education Affairs); Rabbi Nissan Gewirtzman (President, Yeshiva Consulting Services); and Mrs. Sara Seligson (Managing Director, Day Schools and Yeshivot for the Jewish Education Project). Next, the State Education Department’s Ms. Christina Coughlin (Assistant Commissioner for Governance, Policy and Religious and Independent Schools) and Ms. Lori Genito (Associate in Education Improvement Services, State Office of Religious and Independent Schools) presented an “Overview of Accessing Government Funds 201: AIS, MST, SSBA, NPSE, and Multiple BEDS One Year Later.” As part of their wide-ranging presentation, the officials described the Smart Schools Bond Act, and credited the Agudah with articulately flagging a legal and classification question with the Act. Agudah’s advocacy of the rectification of this issue played a leading role in the allocation of $25 million in new technology funds to nonpublic schools and yeshivos across the state.
Dennis Eisenberg (Director, Leadership and Fundraising Academy, Torah Umesorah) presented an enlightening session: “Leadership: Nature or Nurture?” The final two sessions of the day focused on key compliance requirements for mosdos. Eric Stern, Esq. (Partner, Sack & Sack, LLP) presented an overview of new and existing employment laws all mosdos need to know at “The Responsibilities of Employers: Employment Law Pitfalls and Some Rules for the Road; New Harassment Compliance Requirements.” Zachariah Waxler (Managing Partner, Roth & Co) presented on the oft overlooked area of “Maintaining and Enhancing Employee Engagement;” and Judah Kupfer, Esq. (Senior Compliance Officer, Citi) explained the parameters of “Qualified Tuition Reduction Law – What, to Whom, and How: Legal Parameters for Making This Benefit Work for Your Institution.”
Rabbi Dovid Pitterman of Bais Yaakov of 18th Ave. described what he gained: “In addition to receiving clarification on the availability of many beneficial programs, I gleaned two pieces of new information I was totally unaware of. The fact that there is a program we qualify for to help defray the cost of our security guard will save our school thousands of dollars a year. I’m excited about another grant I learned about today that may allow us to enrich our students’ curriculum with a music program that was unavailable through our regular budget.”
Participants also enjoyed a rare occasion to interact and hear directly from governmental officials about their positions on issues impacting the Jewish people and yeshiva community. Congresswoman Grace Meng spoke about her role, as a member of the Congressional House Appropriations Committee, and in partnership with Agudath Israel and others, in securing $70 million in funding for the Iron Dome initiative; the creation of a special envoy against anti-Semitism; including synagogues for eligibility for FEMA funding; and doubling the funding allocated for the Nonprofit Security Grant.
New York State Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, the luncheon keynote, thanked Rabbi Zwiebel for his “invaluable personal counsel,” which has “helped her do a better job serving you.” She expressed that parents have the right to decide how their children are educated, but that all schools must prepare children to be informed and productive members of society. She expressed her appreciation for the unique environment of yeshivos wherein “there is an emphasis on cultivating children’s minds and souls.”
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber (Director of New York Government Relations, Agudath Israel) and Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz (Vice President of Community Affairs, Agudath Israel) introduced the elected officials present. New York State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan noted the presence of Senator Simcha Felder, calling him “a great colleague and educator to me.” Agudah’s advocacy work in Albany is effective, he said, because “your representatives are unrelenting on your behalf – pursuing tax credits for yeshiva parents, 529 savings plans, and security funding. They are dogged, they are persuasive.”
Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, chair of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, spoke about the $18 million in busing aid she helped facilitate for yeshiva and Bais Yaakov students. The money, matched by the city government, is invaluable in giving students bus services to and from yeshivos. Noting that there’s still room for growth, she said, “We will ensure that there’s enough funding to make sure all schools can participate.”
Speaking warmly, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol noted that the Chassidic community truly fought for itself, coming to America after the war and rebuilding Williamsburg, an area Assemblyman Lentol grew up in and now represents. Anti-religious and anti-Semitic sentiments are a growing trend, he noted, and are unacceptable.
Assemblyman David Weprin, a product of the yeshiva school system, spoke of Agudah’s advocacy efforts: “One of the best things you did was have Yeruchim Silber up in Albany every week. He’s really a presence and he really knows how to work both sides.”
City Council member Kalman Yeger closed out the luncheon’s speakers. Proud of the yeshiva education and upbringing he received, he passionately noted that yeshiva parents pay taxes and tuition and are only asking for “a little bit of help,” out of the $168 billion state budget, “which seems entirely fair and reasonable.”
Also present at the luncheon were State Senators Joseph Addabo, Simcha Felder, and Leroy Comrie. Their colleagues Assemblymembers Stacey Pheffer Amato, Rodneyse Bichotte, Andrew Hevesi, Alicia Hyndman, Daniel Rosenthal, and Nily Rozic also attended, as did City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Eric Ulrich.
As Mrs. Feigelstein from Be’er Hagolah put it, “The Agudah is great at bringing to our attention what we need to know, so we know to take what’s out there and go forward with it. After the Summit, if I have a question, I have a relationship with the people who can help my institution.”
“In addition to the obvious benefits of providing much-needed information to yeshivos,” said Mrs. Deborah Zachai, Director of Yeshiva Services at the Agudah, “the Summit also provides a unique opportunity for synergy among participants. Our offices are hearing stories and receiving emails daily of the ways participants have benefited and knowledge sharing gained.”
Said Avrohom Weinstock, “The attendance and energy at the 2018 Yeshiva Summit demonstrated that executive directors are hungry to make their schools better and safer, but yeshivos are often forced to work on a shoe-string budget. That’s what this event was all about: bringing the knowledge, people, and resources to the administrators. It was gratifying to see Satmar, Chaim Berlin, Stolin, Darchei, Shulamith, Torah Vodaath, Bet Yaakov Ohr Sara, Bobov and Bobov-45, HALB, and hundreds of other schools, all sitting together listening to lectures and exchanging information. It was a beautiful display of achdus that I’m proud to have occurred at an Agudas Yisroel event.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel reflected, “There is a tremendous benefit in the participation of high level officials and other governmental leaders. Their exposure to the yeshiva community at this unique event enhances our ability to be effective on their behalf in the long run.”
Perhaps the day-long event was best summed up by Shia Markowitz, CEO of Agudas Yisroel: “What an amazing event! It was innovative and took months and hundreds of hours of preparation. But it really helped the community – now and long term. Everything we thought it would be and more.”