NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLY WOMAN HOPEFUL REBECCA HARARY IN PROFILE
By: Kelly Jemal Massry
Rebecca Harary’s life to date has been incredibly varied and illustrious. It’s hard to believe that one woman could do everything that she has done – served so soundly in so many roles for the sake of her family and our community – and yet, she has. Rebecca is driven by passion in all things, and she is a model of efficiency, productivity, and problem solving. For this, she credits the example set by her working parents, who, as they built a large family while living in Plantation, Florida, leaned on Rebecca a lot. “I feel like I’ve been a mother my whole life,” Rebecca says, recalling what it was like being the oldest of eight siblings. “I took my responsibility as the oldest in the family very seriously.”
Growing up, Rebecca’s father, Bob Salame, owned a string of carpet stores and her mother worked as well. Though at the time she was only a high school graduate, Joyce Salame figured out how to earn for her family when the situation demanded it. “Whenever there was a bottleneck of money, she would figure out what to do,” Rebecca says. Specifically, her mother went to H&R Block and took classes to become a certified income tax specialist. During her first year there, she managed the store. Before long, she was managing all the H&R Block stores on the East Coast of Florida! Eventually, this fearless, determined and resourceful woman would go on to earn two Masters’ Degrees.
Inspired by the success her mother achieved, Rebecca would start The Propel Network (featured on the cover of last month’s issue.) Propel has helped scores of women become certified in a given field and land professional careers – a track Rebecca knows well, having been a talented entrepreneur herself.
Rebecca completed two years of college before pausing her studies to marry her husband, Joseph, who was just beginning law school. Two years into marriage and already the mother of a baby girl, Rebecca started her own company named Basket Case, where she designed exquisite baskets for special occasions. In time, she also began designing storefront windows after graduating from FIT, earning her undergraduate degree. Her big break came when she was awarded the opportunity to head the design team at Macy’s, Herald Square, to design their store windows for a Levi’s Jeans promotion. It was an opportunity that would jumpstart her career in window designing. Over the course of two years, Rebecca went on to do store windows for Barneys, Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Chanel, and other highline department stores.
In 1995, by now the mother of four children, Rebecca graduated Summa Cum Laude from FIT,with a degree in Display and Exhibit Design. Soon after, she delved into the different but related field of event planning. “The first person to give me a job was Steli,” says Rebecca fondly of the well-known beauty salon proprietor. “She asked me to do her daughter’s wedding in the Marriott Financial Center.” Rebecca did not yet have experience, but wisely hired a team of students from her major at F.I.T. to work with her. The wedding was such a success, that Rebecca began getting more requests – enough to launch her own event planning firm on Ave. U in Brooklyn. Named Rebecca Designs and staffed with over 30 employees, the store eventually expanded into a 6,000 square-foot warehouse on McDonald Avenue. From there, Rebecca continued designing window displays and planned private, corporate and nonprofit events. “Event planning taught me that failure is not an option,” Rebecca says. “It taught me to think on my feet, to get the job done, and to get the job done well.” Event planning taught her other things, too – the importance of carefully reviewing all documents before signing a contract, how to pay business-related taxes, how to manage money, and how to find her voice as the head of an operation – all skills that she would take with her to the next stage of her life.
After being an event planner for almost 10 years, Rebecca and her husband were blessed with their sixth child. She briefly considered taking a break and staying at home with her children. It was at that moment, however, that her alma mater FIT called and asked her to teach a course as an Adjunct Professor named Event and Promotional Design. “It was a good transition,” Rebecca says of the opportunity, which lasted two years. “It was therapeutic to teach it after practicing in the field for so long.”
During this time, Rebecca chose to involve herself in her children’s school. She would do so, as she did all things – par excellence. During her tenure as President of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rebecca helped to raise $350,000 for the school. “I incorporated everything I knew in a perfect storm to help the school,” Rebecca says. “In those two short years, I learned that I had acquired skills that I could use to give back to our community.”
So would begin Rebecca’s influential career in nonprofit work. In 2004, she founded Imagine Academy, the first school of its kind for children living with autism. “One in 68 childrenare born somewhere on the spectrum,” says Rebecca. “Autism doesn’t know any better. It cuts across every socio-economic barrier. We were looking for the most severe cases and we took those students in.” The school had modest beginnings. Formed with a board made up of five couples, and David Jemal as President, enrollment was initially only 10 children. Now, 13 years later, The Imagine Academy educates 38 children and has a waiting list of families hoping to enroll. To accommodate the enlarged student body, Rebecca, David Jemal and their Board of Directors worked together with our local elected officials and community supporters to raise enough money to move the school to a much larger building. Because of its unique approach – combining Applied Behavioral Analysis with Floortime play – Imagine Academy is considered a model school for children on the spectrum. Something about the melding of data-driven and relationship-based methods truly resonates with the children and their teachers, allowing them to achieve success in unprecedented and lasting ways.
Children with autism were not the only children Rebecca felt needed attention. As a board member of Gesher Yehuda Yeshiva, the school’s eighth grade students were of concern to her, too. Rebecca realized there would be a gaping hole in these children’s educations unless she did something to fill it. After all, there was nowhere for these students to go once they graduated elementary school: nowhere that took their specialized approach to education into account. “These children needed their own high school,” says Rebecca. “We couldn’t throw them to the wolves!” And so, she founded Yeshiva Prep High School in 2008. Tailored to students with mild learning challenges, intimate and singular in its focus, Yeshiva Prep HS recognizes the value of socialization for young teens. From conception, the high school struck a Memorandum of Understanding with the Yeshivah of Flatbush, which was just down the road on Ave. J. Every non-academic activity would be done in conjunction with Flatbush students. Each Yeshivah Prep High School student proudly and confidently graduates with a Regent’s diploma and goes on to college.
Beginning in 2010, Rebecca’s trajectory shifted yet again. She began working as the Director of Programming for Safra Synagogue in New York City. Working directly with Rabbi Elie Abadie, MD, she created and implemented numerous programs throughout the year for congregants and their families. One year later, the family of Mr. and Mrs. Moise Safra asked Rebecca to become the Founding Executive Director of the Moise Safra Community Center (MSCC) on the Upper East Side. Rebecca devised a fundraising plan and began recruiting donors, eventually raising $25 million dollars toward the project. She worked with contractors and interior designers to develop the look and feel of the building. With the help of the New York City Building Department and city officials, Rebecca succeeded in getting the construction started while building community excitement over having a community center to call our own in NYC.
During her fulfilling three years at MSCC, Rebecca received hundreds of calls from women asking for jobs. “All of these women were looking for work and wanted to help their families, but they didn’t have experience – they didn’t have a marketable skill,” she says. Confident that the community center was off and running, having been built upon a strong foundation, Rebecca left her position there to fill what she felt was an area of even greater need – helping our community’s women earn money. Thus Propel Network was co-founded with President Ezra S. Ashkenazi. The organization is changing the financial future of so many families! It comes as no surprise that, just last month Rebecca graduated with a Master’s Degree in Business and Fundraising Management from Columbia University. She constantly uses her knowledge in so many different capacities for the benefit of our community.
Lest you think that be the end to Rebecca’s ambitions, having lived a full professional life, B’H, bringing to fruition so many one-of-a-kind initiatives, think again! Now, Rebecca is delving into the political arena, seeking a seat in the New York State Assembly’s 73rd District, to represent the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she and so many Sephardic Jewish families are residents. The seed was first planted while Rebecca was looking for a property to house Imagine Academy. She had her heart set on a beautiful condominium that was financially out of reach. Rebecca sought mentorship from her local elected officials, who helped her and the Board find money for the purchase of the building. At that moment, a spark was lit inside a woman always looking out for the underprivileged. “I was very inspired by the power and incredible support elected officials can give to a community,” says Rebecca. “I have always admired any elected official – no matter their political party – who can help us.”
Still, running for office was the furthest thing from her mind when Rebecca got a call from the Republican County Committee in December 2015. They were looking for an Orthodox Jewish woman to run for office on the Upper East Side. Unbeknownst to her then, Rabbi Elie Abadie recommended her for the position. Rebecca was honored, and eventually accepted the invitation, knowing what having this position of influence could do for us as a community. As a problem solver, Rebecca would clearly focus on our community’s interests and needs with a bipartisan spirit, if elected.
The men and women of the New York State Assembly function a bit the way Congress’s men and women do in Washington D.C. In Albany, they script laws and then send them to the New York Governor who signs them into effect. There are a number of initiatives Rebecca wants to work to pass if elected to the Assembly. She’s already informed the Republican State Committee that she’d like to sit on the Ethics Committee. Setting eight-year term limits so that corruption does not blossom in Albany is important to her. Rebecca is a firm believer in transparency in government.
Rebecca is running under the slogan “Reform, Rebuild, Renew.” If elected, she will work to improve the situation for the homeless people of New York City, who she sees as real human beings who have simply been displaced. In that vein, she aims to help victims of rent destabilization by building safer shelters, making use of the $100 million worth of empty lots found across the five boroughs of New York City. She also hopes to institute the level of quality education that favors the students rather than the teachers. Rebecca cares fervently about representing the interests of our community’s children. This means increasing police patrols at night and being an advocate of safety in schools. Of course, she plans to cast an influential vote on tuition tax credits, which will certainly benefit our community as a whole.
“Women in politics are almost reaching a critical mass,” Rebecca says of how the landscape of opportunity is changing. “When you’ve reached 20%, that’s when that subgroup can get things done and we’re almost there! Very quickly, the tide is turning because women come to the table in politics with a different viewpoint, ready to put aside their differences and work with everyone.” Rebecca has made it clear that she does not see party lines. Republican, Democrat, or Independent, she plans to work toward the common good with every official through bipartisanship. The most important thing, she feels, is to make a connection with others. Once that connection is formed, anything can be done!
“I’m going into this with my eyes – and my life – wide open,” Rebecca says. “I will lead with my heart, guided by commonsense and the needs of our families, our community, and our New York.” She has the benefit of her myriad experiences, which she’s always combined to maximum effect in any new endeavor. She has unique sensibilities as a Jew, a mother, a woman, and as someone who has always held family and community dear. When she wins, B’H, she’ll be the second Sephardic Jewish woman ever elected to the U.S. government, and we will have someone directly representing our interests in Albany. She will be our voice.
A recent poll found Rebecca has an overwhelming chance of winning against current seat holder Dan Quart, who she deems an “absentee Assemblyman.” Running as a “Bloomberg” Republican, Rebecca has the full endorsements of the Republican, Independence and Reform parties. Additionally, she has been very appreciative of the support from her community and encourages everyone living on the Upper East Side to check off her name on the general election ballot come November 8th . Though, as Rebecca says, “the outcome is all up to Hashem,” we wish her much success on Election Day.
To learn more about Rebecca’s campaign, or to volunteer, please visit the campaign website at www.TeamHarary.org