Rabbi Manny Behar, a mentor to many elected officials, candidates, and community leaders, is returning to his roots and reuniting with his family at the end of this month. “We’ve talked about it for many years. Our home will be close to my father and Evelyn’s brother,” he said. “Everybody has his or her own circumstances for returning.”
A lifelong resident of Forest Hills, he has been a fixture on the political and communal scene for nearly as long. “When I was four, there was a neighbor active in the Democratic Club. He gave me balloons to give to other children and I thought that elections were about balloons.” He became more involved in campaigning in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was running for a full term as president and Robert F. Kennedy settled in New York to win the state’s Senate seat.
For a Yeshiva University student interested in politics, the emergence of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson as a national figure represented a convergence of interests. “He was a supporter of Israel and a hero of American Jewry,” Behar said. In the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union were pursuing a policy of detente, improving trade and agreeing to cap the number of nuclear warheads.
At the same time, activists argued that democratic nations had a responsibility to address human rights, namely the right of Soviet Jews to practice their religion, teach Hebrew, and emigrate. “It was a very heady time in 1973, the idea that we could do anything and have faith in Hashem. I was his coordinator at YU,” he said.
In a crowded field of political consultants, the breakthrough is when one supports an underdog who wins a crowded race. For Behar, the winning horse was Rep. Ed Koch, who first ran for mayor in 1977 in a four-way primary involving incumbent Abe Beame, lawyer Mario Cuomo, and leftist Rep. Bella Abzug. “I did not think that he had much of a chance, but he was an important congressman and I hit the jackpot.” Eventually, Behar would work at City Hall, but after Koch’s election he served as the Jewish community liaison to Queens Borough President Donald Manes. “He served as the chair of Scoop Jackson’s campaign in New York, and Steve Orlow was also on this team,” Behar said, referring to the former Councilman from Kew Gardens Hills who has a law practice on Main Street.
The most memorable role for Behar during the Manes administration was the prevention of autopsies on the Jewish dead without the approval of family members. “Medical examiners used to insist on it over family objections. There were often fights as a result,” he said. Behar arranged a meeting at Borough Hall with Manes, the borough’s medical examiner, Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn, Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of the local chevrah kadisha, and community leader Shimi Pelman. “I became the point person for rabbanim and funeral directors. I received calls at least once a week.”
Following this meeting, the number of autopsies dramatically dropped to nearly none in a given year.
Behar never took credit for the work, attributing it to the elected officials who passed bills and enacted policies that enabled the Jewish community to flourish. “When Hatzalah needed a permit, Manes was key in supporting their request. With the Kew Gardens Hills mikvah, when the Department of Buildings did not give them a permit, citing traffic concerns, Manes got the city to repave the street.”
On the cultural scene, Manes and Behar were instrumental in honoring the role of the Queens Museum building as the venue where the UN voted in 1947 to create the State of Israel, and Jewish festivals that became the forerunner for the Cunningham Park concert sponsored by Borough Hall and the Queens Jewish Community Council.
“He is one-of-a-kind, the go-to guy who has done it for so long and effectively,” Orlow said, “with a high level of respect because he’s dealt effectively with people.”
Manes committed suicide in 1986 amid allegations of corruption. The City Council recommended his deputy Claire Shulman to succeed him, and Behar remained on staff, taking calls on autopsy requests, keeping the eruv up during construction projects, coordinating services for senior centers, and kosher meals for the needy. During Shulman’s tenure, the borough experienced an influx of Bukharian Jews, and Behar advocated for their inclusion in local Jewish organizations.
“Some leaders were paternalistic, and I fought against that. Bukharian Jews brought new businesses, synagogues, and schools to Queens. They brought new life to the Jewish community.” He supported Ohr Natan’s Rabbi Nahum Kaziev when he was appointed to Community Board 6 as its first Bukharian member, assisted political candidates in their outreach to Bukharian voters, and helped Chazaq connect to elected officials and city agencies.
“He has a good intuition about government and worked with people who he thought would be good for the Jewish community and Queens,” said Queens Jewish Community Council Vice President Judy Rosen. Behar managed Rosen’s campaign for a school board seat in 1999.
Former Councilman Rory Lancman spoke of Behar as the link between the community and government. “No matter how much drama was swirling around, Manny is the voice of calm and reason. He works in a sensible and mature way.” For more than a decade, Behar served as an advisor and staffer for Lancman in his roles as Assemblyman and Councilman, and in his runs for other local offices.
For the Behars, aliyah has been their long-term goal, and their connection to Israel came from his parents. “My father was born in Istanbul and living in Israel when he met my mother, they married in New York. Circumstances intervened and they returned to Israel in 2010.”
Although Behar was not a pulpit rabbi, he sometimes delivered the drashah at Machane Chodosh when Rabbi Manfred Gans zt”l was away. That is how I met him nearly two decades ago, catching the political bug while growing in my personal observance. Mikhail Gadayev also attends this shul and learns with Behar at his home. “It was slow and steady, we went over every commentary, covering only five to six blatt of Gemara,” he said.
Behar’s bookshelves are a mix of Jewish content, national politics, and city history. In recent years, he’s worked as a bus tour guide in Manhattan. “His knowledge of history is phenomenal. On July Fourth, he’d speak of American Jewish history. It was amazing,” said Rabbi Yossi Mendelson, the rabbi of Machane Chodosh. On Shabbos, he explained Pirkei Avos, concerning our interaction with the government. Manny’s insights into those mishnayos showed his deep understanding of how politics works and his commitment to Torah and the Jewish community.”
On his commute, he carries his Gemara. “A bus driver noted that with me, he gets higher tips from the customers. He asked me for my secret.” Rather than terminating at 42nd Street, Behar asked the driver to finish the route in the middle of Times Square. “People who face the lights are in a better mood.” Noticing the Gemara under his sleeve, the driver said that the source of Behar’s wisdom came from the book.
“The plan right now is for a quiet life of learning,” said Behar. “ I don’t want to be involved in Israeli politics.” At the same time, he is not closing the door on public affairs, if called upon to serve.
Manny will write a special op-ed later this month on his life and work in Queens.
By Sergey Kadinsky