In mid-August, recently-elected Councilman Kalman Yeger was driving near Ocean Parkway when he noticed a tree leaning precariously close to a house. Upon closer examination, he saw that the earth around the tree was unsettled: The tree needed to be uprooted and replanted to avoid damaging the property. Unfortunately, the home’s owners were away vacationing in Deal. Regardless, the 44th district city councilman whose domain includes all or parts of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Gravesend, Kensington, and Midwood sent a quick email to that effect to the Parks Department, and the problem was quickly resolved. This was a satisfying conclusion to a potentially costly concern.
A graduate of Touro College and New York Law School, Yeger, a lifelong Midwood resident and Gerrer Chassid served as Senior Advisor and Counsel to numerous public officials including former New York City Councilman David Greenfield, whose constituency he presently serves. Councilman Greenfield vacated his seat in 2017 to assume the leadership of the Met Council of Jewish Poverty. Now eight months into his four-year mandate, the youthful and personable legislator (among their many other responsibilities, the 51 Council Members create and pass legislation and work jointly with the mayor on establishing and passing New York City’s yearly budget) candidly discusses many of the issues currently of concern to his constituents, as well as how he’s handling the daily challenges of serving a religious constituency from within the confines of a progressive City Council.
The following is an excerpted version of the exclusive interview we held with Councilman Kalman Yeger.
At the age of 19, you served as an aide to Councilman Lloyd Henry, a first-term legislator who was also an Episcopalian minister. You later served for 18 years on the Community Board, as an aide to a Borough President, and as an advisor and counsel to numerous public officials including Senator Simcha Felder. Given your religious upbringing and background, from where did this interest in politics come?
My desire to become involved in politics began when I was a teenager during the 1991 Crown Heights Pogrom. [On Aug. 19th, the death of a seven-year-old Guyanese immigrant killed in a car accident ignited a three-day anti-Semitic backlash by black residents living in Crown Heights against Chabad Chassidim, which resulted in the stabbing death of 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum, a Lubavitcher Chassid from Australia.] I felt that if more frum people were involved in politics, ourcommunity would have access to government that would protect us from harm. My father Eli Yeger, an attorney, had worked for the Agudas Yisroel of America under Rabbi Moshe Sherer in the 1970s and considered him a mentor. He encouraged me to speak with Rabbi Sherer, which I did throughout my career until Rabbi Sherer was niftar20 years ago. His wisdom and deep understanding of politics and government were legendary. Rabbi Sherer viewed all his political decisions through the guiding lens of Gedolei HaTorahand concerned himself not only with public policy but with helping individuals better their lives. He famously said, “It’s not just what you do for Klal Yisroel, but also for Reb Yisroel.” That was his way of reminding us about caring for the individual, as much as for the broader community. I’ve always taken this advice to heart. For me, helping one yachidwith his personal issue is as fulfilling as being able to get a major public policy done such as the school safety law. I’ve been fortunate to have hadthe opportunity to be involved in government and politics beginning from that young age.
Many of your constituents are up-at-arms about the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) decision to bring Select Bus Services (SBS) into the Kings Highway area of Brooklyn along the B82 bus route; a service the DOT says provides faster and more reliable bus services to commuters and better connecting neighborhoods to subway stations. Residents argue that these large buses replace much-needed parking spaces with bus lanes running along the curb, which adversely affects businesses and is dangerous to pedestrians. Is this a done deal?
Unfortunately, I don’t see the DOT changing its plans at this late stage. The original plan has been revised numerous times, due to pressure from my predecessor, former Councilman David Greenfield, as well as Senators Simcha Felder and Marty Golden, Assembly Members Steven Cymbrowitz and Helene Weinstein, Councilman Mark Treyger and myself. We all grew up in our neighborhoods. We know our communities. We suggested alternate solutions to DOT and MTA [NYC Transit Authority] because we believe that some aspects of the plan, like banning left-turns and eliminating parking spots in front of businesses would negatively impact businesses and pedestrian safety, particularly given that parked cars act as barriers between the streets and sidewalks.
We had some mild victories; the DOT significantly reduced bus-only lanes and increased available parking around some parts of Kings Highway, for example. However, DOT does what it wants to do, regardless of how awful its plan is for the community. Unfortunately, effected stores will have to adjust their business models asregards pickups and deliveries, as will shoppers.
I’m particularly concerned about the pre-Shabbat traffic chaos that is sure to increase. In the end, our community is a small village – we rely on our local businesses, and we need traffic planning to accommodate our needs. While it’s nice that DOT wants to improve bus service to help people traveling through our neighborhood, I’m just as concerned with the needs of the people who live here.
In September, a universal lunch program was initiated to ensure that “students are less likely to go hungry,” according to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Recently, New York City officials expanded the program to include students with special dietary requirements. They announced the launch of a million-dollar pilot project to provide free kosher and halal lunches to students in public and
non-public schools. Will any yeshivot be included in this project?
I wish. However, everything I’ve seen tells me this is just a headline grabber. The city is allocating one milliondollars to accommodate two public and two private schools. That’s it. Four schools in total. There are nearly 2,000 public schools and many more non-public schools in New York City. The cost of providing kosher and halal lunches to every school building would be astronomical. Even if the city can get this program off the ground, then what? Is there a plan to increase this beyond four schools? I’m hopefully optimistic, but only time will tell.
On April 1, 2016, a school safety law took effect, which provided yeshivot with 300 students with one security guard and larger schools with an additional guard for every 500 students. Is there any chance that access to security guards be expanded to include religious schools with around 200 or 250 students, as opposed to the 300 student cut-off now in place?
School safety is one of my priorities. Councilman David Greenfield sponsored the current school safety law for non-public schools, a project we worked closely on for a very long time. I wrote a bill earlier this year to lower the minimum requirement to 150 children. At the same time, another Council Member submitted a bill which would lower the threshold number to include schools with a single child enrolled. Clearly, that bill has no way of passing Council and, indeed, remains stuck in committee. It served the purpose, though, of blocking my proposed bill from being considered. So that’s where we stand now.
That said, yeshivot benefit significantly from all kinds of federal, state and municipal programs, for whichwe are grateful. Still, more can and should be done to help our yeshiva parents lower the cost of their children’s education.
Many say you are a reasonable voice of balance and stability within a far-left progressive council. Similarly, you often object to legislation even when heavily outnumbered. What is your strategy behind this?
I’m not alone in Council, though sometimes I am the single “no” vote. There are a good number of “common sense progressives” who recognize that one can be progressive in one’sworldview, but that common sense solutions to life’s nitty-gritty issues unite colleagues from across the political spectrum. Like me, many of them work hard to solve their constituents’ problems. Ultimately, it’s about building alliances and relationships. Still, I’m not going to compromise my vote of conscience on behalf of my constituents just because there is pressure for unanimity on issues on which I disagree. For instance, I was the only “no” vote on a proposal to increase the Council’s budget by 17million dollars, a 28% increase (from $64 million to $81 million per year). Frankly, I thought that increase was obscene. It is a purely bureaucratic budget that doesn’t bring a single service to anyone I represent. I also voted against a proposal to increase the amount of interest charged to New Yorkers who miss a tax payment. So I voted against the tax-levy portion of the City’s budget this year. I’m more fiscally conservative than others, but I think my colleagues appreciate the respectful manner in which I engage in debate about these issues. Even when we disagree, it’s crucial that the debate be respectful, and that I conduct myself in a manner designed to produce a Kiddush Hashem; and never, chas v’shalom, the opposite.
You’ve known Mayor Bill de Blasio for years and are said to have a successful working relationship with him. How has this relationship benefited your constituents?
Mayor de Blasio and I first met over 20 years ago. For eight years, Mayor de Blasio represented Borough Park in Council, and he fully understands our issues. During the nearly five years he’s been mayor, I’ve often seen him act decisively to protect our communities. I don’t busy myself with what’s on the so-called progressive agenda of the day because it’s just not relevant to us.I care more that the mayor’s side of City Hall gives an ear to our concerns, which it does. Mayor de Blasio is strong on policing and keeping our streets and yeshivot safe. That’s what mattersto me. [Throughout his political career, Kalman Yeger worked closely with the police. In his last campaign, he received the endorsement of every police union.] Mayor de Blasio helped Councilman Greenfield deliver school security to yeshivot, despite pressure not to do so. That matters to me too.
The recently released Department of Education (DOE) report on yeshivot is a perfect example of how the mayor has not disappointed me. Yeshiva opponents wanted DOE to agree that yeshiva education is at an unacceptably low standard. [In 2015, 52 former students and teachers sent a letter to the DOE accusing certain yeshivot of violating the law by failing to provide a “substantially equivalent” education to their students to that provided to public schools. This complaint resulted in a DOE investigation.] The report did not do so, and the yeshiva opponents were disappointed. The report even acknowledged that 25% of the yeshivot the opponents were challenging did not even exist! Moreover, others were doing an adequate job. My barometer of whether yeshivos are doing their job is “What do the parents think?” I’m not interested in the lies spread by enemies of our community.
How important is it for religious Jews to vote, as well as register as Democrats?
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to vote. We’ve seen that in recent elections. If you don’t vote, you don’t count, and you end up with the kind of government that’s reflective of your choice not to participate. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson said it best: “The government you elect is the government you deserve.” If we want a better government, we need to vote.
It’s just as important that our community registers in the Democratic Party. The most significant election results get decided in the Democratic primary, and not participating in the primary is unilateral disarmament. We’ve seen the challenge to Senator Simcha Felder by the far-left, which could have only been successful if our community did not participate in the Democratic primary. [Being a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party does not preclude one from voting Republican in Federal elections.]
You often express frustration when dealing with endless bureaucratic obstacles that are preventing you from getting things done. Despite these frustrations, what do you love about your job?
Without a doubt, it’s interacting with my constituents. Most people only call their elected officials when they have a problem. But not in our community. Here, people share with me not only their problems but their ideas; theyoffer suggestions, keep me informed about personal simchos, and tell me when a new business is opening. I often speak about our community being like a little village; in so many ways, we are a village. Many of us know each other, we shop locally, and we educate our children here. No question, this district does have that little village feel. Moreover, the opportunity to help a neighbor solve a problem is a most satisfying personal accomplishment. I view public service as a sacred trust – and I’m grateful every day that our neighbors trust me to be their voice at City Hall.