Having long established a world-renowned reputation for business, and after rising to the highest levels in many professional fields, including medicine, law, and finance, there remains a formidable frontier that vanguards and trailblazers of the prosperous Syrian-Sephardic (SY) communities of the New York area have yet to conquer: politics. And with hundreds of billions in potential government spending at stake, there is much more than just prestige on the line; case in point, the New York State education budget.

In 2009, New York State’s median expenditure for a public school student was $19,607, while the median contribution per private school student was a paltry $203. Considering that over 98 percent of Sephardic K-12 students attend private, rather than public, schools, a typical community family with three school-aged kids might, perhaps justifiably, feel shortchanged to the tune of about $58,212 – every year! Taken together on a communal level, the potential aggregate sum of this one state allocation dwarfs the revenues of even the largest community businesses. But in spite of the enormity of the resources involved, it is only over the last 10 years that the Sephardic community has taken an organized and serious approach to working towards parity on this issue.

Humble Beginnings – The Sephardic Voter’s League

Maurice Hedaya is practically an army of one. With almost no budget, no regular staff (aside from a few dedicated volunteers) and no political experience or connections, Mr. Hedaya has, almost single handedly, brought the subject of voter registration to the forefront of the community. A tireless crusader who visits just about every community synagogue to carry out his mission, Mr. Hedaya started the Sephardic Voters League (SVL) in 1988. “We started [in order] to help get the Jews out of Syria,” he explains. At first he organized public meetings in the Sephardic Community Center in order “to acquaint the community about the issue” and to meet with candidates for public office. During one of those meetings, through the introduction of Rabbi Yizhak Fingerer, Mr. Hedaya met Joel Schnur, who was then working for AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and Willy Rapfogel, head of Met Council on Jewish Poverty. They told him, “You want this thing to happen, get your people to register to vote and have an impact in elections.” And thus began the work of SVL to register the Sephardic community as voters.

Registering voters from the community in those days, was hard work, Mr. Hedaya recalls. “Each one was a half-hour conversation, discussing jury duty, taxation… We had 130,000 forms from the Agudath Israel.” The community had to be convinced it was in their best interest to register to vote. “I would go to meetings and say, ‘You gotta vote’ and ‘We are paying a billion in taxes a year and we have no representation.’” Slowly, slowly, vote by vote, the community began getting involved.

The SVL also started the Green Card and Immigration program. Once the Jews from Syria were freed and immigrated to the U.S., Mr. Hedaya says, “we realized how many immigrants were not officially U.S. citizens, and got to work encouraging and helping community members through the process of naturalization.” Over the past two decades, the organization helped over 10,000 individuals gain U.S. citizenship.

Mayor Harry Franco

The First SY Mayor

It is likely the municipality with the highest concentration of Syrian-Sephardic Jews in America. So it’s no wonder that Deal, New Jersey was the first city in the country to elect an SY mayor, in the Honorable Harry I. Franco. Though it started as only a summer resort town, Deal and the greater Jersey Shore area is now home to thousands of SY families all year round.

Mayor Franco began his political involvement back in 1969, through the local community board.

“I never thought I’d be mayor,” he recalls, “but I wanted to get involved.” It was in 1995 that he was elected mayor of Deal, and he has held the prestigious office ever since.

Asserting his desire to look out for the interest of everyone in the community, Mayor Franco says, “I try to be fair and open minded.” His accomplishments include cutting the burden on taxpayers while still beautifying the neighborhood by setting up the Deal Endowment Fund “that beautifies Deal… helps us plant flowers, trees and beautify the Borough.” Mayor Franco says that his involvement in politics allowed him to introduce our community to the greater public. “It is important to educate people about our basic traditions. Neighbors should know why we walk to synagogue.” The mayor explains that educating the society around us about our customs helps us earn their understanding.

Another of Mayor Franco’s achievements is the advancement of medical care in the area. He raised millions of dollars to purchase medical equipment for Monmouth Medical Center, an accomplishment which he attributes to the “generosity of members of our community.” The mayor reports that this campaign allowed the hospital to understand our community, which, in turn, led them to agree to set up a kosher food dispensary.

The Community’s First State Official

The next major political milestone was achieved in 1998, when for the first time, a Syrian-Sephardic Jew was voted to a public post in Albany. Lena Azizo Cymbrowitz a.h., who had been a member of the Sephardic Voter’s League,was elected by a large majority to statewide office to represent the 45th District in the Assembly. One of her colleagues at the Sephardic Voter’s League said, “She ran against three male opponents, but she somehow resonated with the voters in the district. She was a voice for those who didn’t have a voice.”

A critical issue which Lena took to heart was that of helping childless couples. At the time of her election, health insurance providers were not paying for fertility treatments. Lena co-sponsored a bill extending health insurance to include the diagnosis and treatment of infertility and to classify infertility as a disease. Despite fierce opposition from religious groups who regarded infertility treatments as “tampering” with Gd’s handiwork, Lena pushed forward, and succeeded.

To get this proposed legislation passed, Lena had to get the support of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. “She sat down with him and explained it to him,” her colleague recalls. Anticipating the Senator’s opposition, Lena was taken aback when Bruno promised support. He related that he had a relative who was having difficulty conceiving, and thus the issue resonated with him, too. “Everything in life comes from Hashem,” said Lena’s colleague. “Subsequent to that, the legislation passed.”

Lena continued to work devotedly on behalf of community interests until her untimely passing in 2000 at age 43.

Sephardic Politics Gets Serious

For decades, individual Sephardic leaders quietly made connections with elected officials at all levels of government, but it wasn’t until the founding of the Sephardic Community Federation (SCF) in 2005 that these efforts became organized and coordinated. Through the SCF, community leaders seek to go beyond individual relationships with candidates and members of government and begin to flex the community’s muscle as a voting bloc. Unlike previous forays into politics, the SCF had formidable substance. The organization had a respectable budget, a focused mission, and an active board of directors who were already well respected by powerbrokers and government officials.

“We work on issues that affect the city, state and country,” points out SCF Co-chair and longtime community advocate, Ronnie Tawil. “We’re part of a broader fabric.” In this respect, the SCF works with other Jewish communities to achieve common goals.

Aggregating the many years of civic work and the numerous contacts with elected officials that the community leaders had collectively amassed, the SCF instantly became a political force that could get things done quickly and efficiently. “We developed long-term relationships with dozens of elected officials,” says Mr. Tawil. “We earned their awareness and trust and we work hard to keep it that way .”

Case in point: the rapid resolution of a community school’s Building Department crisis. Soon after the SCF’s founding, a large community Bet Yaakov (religious girls’ school) was faced with the unsavory prospect of not being allowed to open because they had not yet received the necessary temporary Certificate of Occupancy for their new building. With less than 72 hours before the first day of school, and bureaucratic hurdles that would take weeks if not months to sort through, the situation was dire. Within 24 hours, the SCF had helped secure a permanent Certificate of Occupancy, thereby avoiding the cancellation of classes and the inevitable chaos it would cause for hundreds of students and their families.

A Real Long-Term Tuition Solution

In addition to its function helping community organizations navigate the intricacies of government, the SCF is committed to solving the most pressing issue facing the community: alleviating the financial burden crippling middle and lower income parents committed to providing private education for their children.

In a bold initiative, the SCF partnered with the Catholic and independent school communities in 2006 to form the Teach NYS coalition. One of its first priorities was to lobby for a tax credit to offset the high costs of tuition for working families. The organization successfully launched a massive, multifaceted media and advocacy campaign, including close to one million mailings and a 5000-person protest in Albany. These successful efforts resulted in an annual tax credit totaling $32 million for Jewish families.

The next year, Teach NYS coalition recouped $9 million worth of annual funding for mandated state services to yeshivas state-wide. The following year, in 2008, intensive research by Teach NYS yielded huge returns when the group pressed for previously neglected Title I services funding from the federal government by qualifying eligible students. Participation in these services, which consist of small-group, supplemental reading, math or ESL tutoring for students scoring below acceptable standards for their grade level or class standards, has increased from roughly 1,000 students to 12,500 students over the course of four years. In addition, thanks in no small part to the SCF and Teach NYS, all New York yeshivas now receive $1.3 million annually in professional development (teacher training) from Title I. They also received a onetime Federal stimulus grant of nearly $6.5 million in the form of laptops, educational technology devices and a huge book grant (ARRA).

In 2009, an advocacy campaign spearheaded by SCF successfully prevented then Governor David Paterson from eliminating some $15 million in Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) funding for yeshivas. CAP mandates all schools to take attendance and requires reimbursing non-public schools for this time. The aggressive campaign to save CAP consisted of coordinated mass telephoning and visits with legislators. The efforts succeeded in restoring 67 percent of funding –some $10.7 million– for yeshivas statewide.

In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg tried to cut $100 million of Special Education funding, from which approximately 1000 yeshiva families were receiving reimbursement for the cost of educating their child in a special education setting. Under the organized direction of Teach NYS and the SCF, parents, teachers and community leaders traveled to Albany and secured commitments from over 50 State Senators and Members of the State Assembly to stand up against this effort. As a result, the proposed cuts were struck down.

Most recently, the coalition worked hard to secure an exemption for non-public schools from the MTA tax, which was created to raise money for the transit system. Finally, after two years of lobbying, the exemption was granted, saving New York’s private schools about $8 million.

Beyond lobbying and constituent services, the SCF also reaches out to eligible voters during elections through mass mailings and phone calls, encouraging residents to vote and even driving people to the polls. In the last five years, through SCF outreach, about 10,000 members of the community became registered voters.

Making the Sephardic Vote Count

Far from being an afterthought, advocacy in the area of voter support is among the highest priorities for the SCF, as it paves the way for increased influence throughout all sectors of government. “We are a block of voters,” explains Mr. Tawil. “We are a segment of the population that has similar interests. We will vote a certain way and we will influence elections for city council, assembly seats – even Congress. The districts are not that large and our votes make a difference.”

These sentiments were backed up recently with the election of Bob Turner to New York’s 9th congressional district last September in a special election, in which the Sephardic community is largely credited with influencing the surprising outcome in favor of the Republican candidate.

As long as our sector remains sizable, Mr. Tawil explains, officials will look to serve us whenever possible, by giving out grants and fielding our concerns. The team at SCF takes full advantage of the community’s political power, lobbying to attain funds for social service organizations like Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) and Sephardic Community Center (SCC), as well as special education programs such as Imagine Academy and Reach for the Stars. They also see to it that our yeshivot are not shortchanged, ensuring that community schools receive mandated funding for security, medical staff, computers, textbooks, and other entitlements.

Getting Involved

The impressive success of the SCF notwithstanding, there still remains a huge disparity between the amount of state funding allocated to public school students and our children in private schools, so there is still much work which needs to be done. To be sure, the SCF is still a very young organization, and based on past performance, we can expect great things from them. But our community also needs more young people to become engaged in politics.

“If you are not involved,” Mr. Hedaya points out, “you get nothing. Some of our young people would make fine candidates. That’s one of the reasons so many of us spend time on this work.”

Breaking into politics is easier than many think. Knowing the right people certainly doesn’t hurt, but you don’t necessarily need connections to get involved, just an honest desire to help out the greater community. Ronnie Tawil explains that the SCF was started by a diverse group of people who had varied relationships with different elected officials. They weren’t all especially well-connected, but they got together to pool their resources to form a stronger voice. Now, their interaction with elected officials is more consistent and frequent, and is yielding crucial results.

Mr. Tawil offers some practical advice to those seeking political involvement, pointing out that it is a long-term commitment. “You have to earn your stripes,” he says. “and one of the ways to do that is by working as a volunteer to various organizations so that government officials will become familiar with you.” He recommends starting out bybecoming a member of your community board, as he did many years ago. Board members deal with local issues, like registering voters, sifting through zoning laws and submitting variance requests. Any political involvement – from handing out flyers to backing a candidate for public office – is good practice. What’s most important is to get involved in the issues that matter to you, and use your passion and talents to make a difference.

“Hashem gives each of us abilities,” Mr. Tawil reflects. “The question is, what do we do with them? Are we selfish, or do we try to give of ourselves to others? If you think back to our founders, while they were busy raising their families, they also took care of their community. We are just living their legacy, trying to grow spiritually and professionally. When you give, you grow.”