Network Ambassadors Program Leads Campus Visits for Legislators to Foster Awareness of Nonpublic School Education
Riverdale, N.Y. – Salanter Akiba Riverdale (SAR) and lay leaders representing Teach NYS, an education advocacy group and division of the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, recently hosted New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera at his very first visit to the school.
Senator Rivera was accompanied by SAR Board Member and parent Abe Eisenstat, SAR Academy Head of School Rabbi Binyamin Krauss and Teach NYS Regional Director Davida Fried. As part of its advocacy efforts, Teach NYS coordinates visits by local legislators to Jewish schools so they can learn, in person, about the unique needs of both the students enrolled there and their families.
Senator Rivera represents the Bronx’s 33rd Senate Assembly District, which comprises Kingsbridge Heights, East Tremont, Crotona Park, Fordham, Mount Hope, Belmont, Van Nest, Claremont, and Morris Park.
Prior to taking office in November 2010, Senator Rivera passed three laws banning smoking around schools, after-school programs, and libraries, as the ranking member of the New York State Senate’s Health Committee, which he has since chaired as of 2018. Senator Rivera is a champion of public health, and has been a staunch advocate for Latino communities in New York and the United States, as well as people affected by crime and the correctional system.
At the conclusion of the visit, Fried and Senator Rivera sat down for a Q&A about the legislator’s impression of SAR and his short-term legislative priorities. Following is a transcript of their conversation, edited for brevity; listen to the full interview here
Davida Fried: When were you first elected to the Senate?
Senator Rivera: I was first elected to the New York State Senate in 2010. I won a primary in September and I won the general in November of that year.
Fried: Why did you run for office?
Senator Rivera: I had been working in public service before I ran for office in 2010, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be in public service; I thought that my job was going to be more in the background — helping people get elected, helping them with policy, campaigns, etc.
But the guy who was here before me, who I should mention, served six years in federal prison for stealing public money after I defeated him, needed to be defeated. He was someone who represented over 300,000 working-class people, whom he didn’t particularly care for. What he was doing was deeply disrespectful. Even though I originally looked for somebody else to run against him, when that didn’t pan out I realized that I could do it, and that I had to do it.
Fried: What is your relationship with the Jewish community in your district?
Senator Rivera: The district I used to represent had very few Jewish folks in it. Now the situation is quite different. Living in New York for as long as I have — I’m originally from Puerto Rico, but I moved to New York in ’98 and to the Bronx in 2000 — there’s so much Jewish influence in New York culture. From the food to the language, there’s just so much there. So many of my colleagues and so many of my friends whom I have become closest with, both in academia — I worked as an adjunct faculty member at CUNY — and also in politics, in my legislative life, are Jewish. In a personal capacity I’ve always had great relationships with Jewish individuals. Now what I’m doing, since I have so many more Jewish folks in my district that have institutions like this educational institution, religious institutions, nonprofits, community service organizations, etc., I’m learning much more about this community. For me, the bottom line is that they are the folks I work for so I am here to serve them regardless of who they are. I’m looking forward to getting to know them more and more.
Fried: Was today your first visit to a Jewish school and, if so, what is your initial reaction?
Senator Rivera: This is my first visit and my initial reaction is that this is an incredibly unique building, the design of which I do not believe I’ve ever seen. I have driven by it a bunch of times, but I did not know how it would be organized inside. I’m a big fan of architecture, so the fact that you have this enormous space which is designed with such clear lines of sight in basically every direction, it’s a brilliant, magnificent design. It’s a gorgeous space. And if the space is any indication, there’s obviously a commitment to excellence and to the kids that go here.
Fried: What are your takeaways from today’s visit?
Senator Rivera: I’m hoping it isn’t the last one! I’m very much looking forward to getting to know your institution better, and getting to know the students and faculty and the folks who serve these kids.
Fried: Why is a strong and affordable nonpublic school education important for New York?
Senator Rivera: I’m a big believer in public institutions since the overwhelming majority of children will use that system. So a lot of my focus will be on how to make that system as strong as possible. That being said, based on some of the experiences that I’ve had in my own life, there should be a space for folks who have educational needs but also have needs on top of that, that cannot be met by a public school system.
In the case of an institution like this, it’s an institute that certainly believes in secular education but there is a religious component that is important to the parents of the kids that are here. That’s an experience that can only be had in an institution of this kind. So providing support for institutions that do that is important as well, particularly for a community like the Jewish community, which is so essential. It is a vibrant, important community that has historically been maligned, and it is necessary to have institutions which not only uphold the character of the Jewish community, but push it forward and make sure that it can exist for future generations.