The opportunity for an on-site lesson in state government was canceled last year at the onset of the pandemic. This week, Teach Coalition, a grassroots coalition of Jewish schools organized by the Orthodox Union, had a virtual lobbying day with community leaders, state lawmakers, and nearly 300 students from more than a dozen schools participating in a Zoom meeting to call for funding day schools.

“It’s a story of a community that values its faith and its education,” said OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer, “to be strong and capable participants in the American enterprise.”

Since 2013, the Teach Coalition has lobbied for nearly a billion dollars in funding for Jewish schools across five states with the largest populations of Orthodox Jews. “When the pandemic started, we took everything that we learned and put it to work to help our schools and families receive the services and funds necessary to meet the challenges of the pandemic,” said Teach Coalition Executive Director Maury Litwack.

New York has some 400,000 nonpublic school students, with 125,000 of them attending yeshivos. During the pandemic, the Teach Coalition worked with state lawmakers to provide for kosher food packages at schools, educational services, reopening safely, and security enhancements. “Showing up is powerful. Imagine that you don’t just speak, you speak with a passion,” Litwack told the participating students. 

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, whose district covers the Five Towns, spoke of his efforts to provide kosher meals during the pandemic, and hope in revisiting schools. “We’ve been inside your schools too many times to count. We’ve seen your great work!”

State Senator Andrew Gounardes has the sizable Magen David Yeshivah in his Southern Brooklyn district. He spoke on the importance of students connecting with their elected representatives. “Your advocacy makes a big difference. I went to a nonpublic school, a Greek parochial school attached to my church. We didn’t have lobbying days and you do. Find your elected officials and let us know what is important to you.”

Sydney Altfeld, the Grassroots Engagement Director at Teach NYS, served as the moderator of this virtual event. She coached the students on effective lobbying. “Introduce yourselves and your schools. Explain your goals and why you are there to meet with them. They are in the midst of budget season and extremely busy working on your behalf.”

UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein spoke of his organization’s efforts to advocate and fund Jewish schools. “Philanthropy continues to do its part,” he said. “We raised $4.1 million in emergency COVID funding for safe reopening. We at UJA fully understand the depths of this crisis.”

The meeting’s closing speaker was Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who has been in politics for 26 years, starting as a town lawmaker near Buffalo. She then briefly served in Congress before being appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo as his running mate in 2014, focusing on economic development and federal funding for the state. With the governor facing an impeachment investigation, Hochul has been receiving more attention in recent weeks as his potential successor. She spoke to students about her own interest in politics at a young age, in particular to have more women involved in STEM careers, a term referring to science, technology, engineering, and math.

“This is about you. Some of you may be looking for your own path to leadership. As a 16-year-old high school student, I went on my first trip to Albany to see how our state government works,” she said. “There are people like myself who cherish the chance to embrace you.”

Hochul spoke of how that visit led to an internship in Albany, and pride in having her first business card with the state seal at age 18.

“What the Teach Coalition is doing is the value of continuing investments. That’s $30 million in STEM funding during the pandemic. You could be part of solving the next healthcare crisis by taking STEM classes.”

 By Sergey Kadinsky