Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wedding vows: Ed Day attends New Square nuptials 

When an elected official attends the wedding of a community leader's granddaughter, it's not necessarily an attention-grabber.

But when Rockland County Executive Ed Day was spotted at Tuesday's wedding as a guest of New Square Grand Rabbi David Twersky, Twitter photos of Day clad in a dark suit and black yarmulke began popping up on smartphones across the county.

One photo captures Day locked in conversation with Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, whose political power relies heavily upon ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews for support but who is vilified by those who paint him as too beholden to that community.

Day's appearance as a wedding guest, which came roughly a year after his election campaign touched off anger among ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, points to signs of healing the rift between the community and the Republican county executive.

Day said that since taking office Jan. 1, he's made it a priority to visit each of Rockland's communities "to promote dialogue, create trust and build bridges to a brighter future."

And it's been no different when it comes to New Square or the nearby Hasidic village of Kaser, he said. He's toured both areas and met with representatives of each community, both at his office and in the villages themselves.

Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council and a founding editor of JP Updates, a site for political news, sees Day as being on the right track.

"Mr. Day's visits to and conversations with the Jewish community are very well received in this side of town," Gestetner said. "As the leader of a county divided by important issues, it's indeed the role of the executive to show that everyone be treated equally irrespective where one stands on the issues. Mr. Day is doing an increasingly fine job in this regard."

Nonetheless, some say more effort is needed to truly build a strong bridge, including Ryan Karben, a former assemblyman who frequently discusses politics on his blog, Karben Copy.

"Ed can dance at the rebbe's wedding, but can't dance around the deep philosophical differences between him and many in the Orthodox leadership on housing, religious freedom and education," Karben said.

"It remains to be seen whether Ed and that community want to find common ground," Karben said. "If they both seek compromise, I think we can calm very heated election rhetoric and try to make sure there is room for everyone in Rockland."

Cliff Weathers, former communications director for David Fried, Day's rival in the county executive's race and a senior editor for AlterNet, a progressive news website, said the outreach made sense.

"I don't think that anyone could have reasonably expected Ed Day to personify the divisiveness that we saw in his campaign," Weathers said. "I don't see this as surprising that he would eventually reach out to the Hasidic community. I always expected it."

Day built a coalition of people angered by the political establishment and the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish voting bloc out of Ramapo, which for years has swayed the outcome of many elections. He spoke out on issues most politicians avoid — overdevelopment, the East Ramapo school district's woes and illegally converted housing.

That drew the bloc vote out for Fried in what some observers said were record numbers, but also might have helped Day carry huge swaths of Rockland outside heavily religious areas and the river villages.

The balance tipped in Day's favor with help from a new third party, Preserve Rockland, which represented a joining of Preserve Ramapo and the Clarkstown Preservation Society, grassroots groups focused on issues such as high taxes, overdevelopment, quality of life and what they see as the unequal treatment of some at the expense of others.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic community see the ballot line simply as an offshoot of Preserve Ramapo, a group they label as anti-Semitic.

In his blog on JP Updates, Gestetner wrote a year ago of Day's imposing challenge in the days ahead: "Balancing between the concerns of the Preserve Rockland Bloc and the needs of the Hasidic Bloc despite the fact that they are at the opposite ends on many key issues."

Day said he viewed his visits to communities across Rockland, including New Square and Kaser, as beneficial.

"Is this doing something positive toward unifying our county? I think so," Day said. "My going to any community or to any area does not interfere with my sworn pledge to govern in a manner that is equal to all and doesn't favor anyone."


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