The First Hasidic Candidate for City Council is a Rebel in His Own Sect

Meet Isaac Abraham, Orthodox insurgent

Village Voice/July 2, 2008

For those of us on the outside looking in at Brooklyn's mysterious and ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities, there has always been Isaac Abraham to explain things. As he would say: "Thank God!"

For 25 years, when it comes to Hasidic affairs, Abraham's phone number-much to the dismay of some fellow Hasidim-has been the first one dialed by reporters. When the Grand Rabbi of Williamsburg's reclusive Satmar sect died a couple of years back, Abraham-a devout follower- explained how the community was taking the news: "Shock," he said. "Disbelief." The beloved rebbe was 91 years old, suffering from advanced cancer plus other complaints too numerous to mention. Reporters dutifully typed Abraham's words as he spoke. Look, it was a quote. No one else would even talk.

Last summer, there was, in Brooklyn's Hasidic communities, the chicken-swinging controversy. Actually, the controversy came from outside, when animal-rights activists suddenly objected to the centuries-old practice of swinging live chickens overhead before croaking their little necks in order to make them into dinner. Tens of thousands of chickens die this way annually. The ritual, known as kapparot, has something to do with transferring your own bad deeds to the poor, soon-to-be-plucked chicken. "Hideous torture!" cried PETA. No one else in the Orthodox community cared to comment on this interesting practice. But Abraham was glad to do so, and he gave no ground: "It's a ceremony that has to be done. It's not going to be stopped." He added: "It doesn't hurt them." How he knew this was unclear, but it is the first rule in the spokesman business to always speak in a loud, authoritative voice, thus greatly reducing the risk of being challenged.

Now, with three decades of such newspaper clippings in his scrapbook, plus years of firsthand experience in the volunteer ambulance and security patrols that service the Hasidic neighborhoods, Isaac Abraham, 57, is ready to claim his reward: He has announced that he will stand as candidate for the Democratic nomination to the 33rd District of the City Council in next year's elections.

The district sprawls along the Brooklyn waterfront from Greenpoint and Williamsburg to Brooklyn Heights, and on into the brownstone belt and a snatch of Park Slope. This will be a crowded race and has already drawn a half-dozen eager candidates, many of them stellar citizen-activists. Among them: Jo Anne Simon, lawyer and Democratic reformer from Boerum Hill; Evan Thies, the suave ex–chief of staff to outgoing councilman David Yassky; Ken Diamondstone, an affordable-housing developer who lost a state senate race by a whisker two years ago; and Kenneth Baer, an environmental activist.

Also in the running is Stephen Levin, a young top aide to Brooklyn Democratic party leader Vito Lopez, who represents nearby Bushwick in the state assembly and who would love to add the council district to his direct sphere of influence. Lopez's enthusiasm about this race is so contagious that Levin is already the second of the party boss's aides to consider running for the seat.

Of these would-be politicians, however, only Abraham would instantly make history as the very first Hasidic representative to the council. For years, leaders of Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox communities have been content to bestow blessings and endorsements on chosen outsiders, who then pose for photos that run in full-page ads which the candidates purchase in the Yiddish-language newspapers.

Enough, said Abraham. "For 35 years, this community has been turned into how many photos you can have on the wall from which politician. The perception is supposed to be that you see a picture of a guy with the governor and you think, 'Oh, he has the keys to the governor's house.' It is time we had one of our own."

One of our own? "Residents of the community," he said. "Somebody we know."

Abraham said this as he sat last week in his small office in the back of Kramer's Hardware Store on Coney Island Avenue, where he has worked for 27 years. He sat there swathed in smoke from the cigarettes he pulled from a pack of traditional Marlboro reds. This was the only spot of color in the room. Abraham has a gray beard, and he wore a rumpled white shirt, a black felt cap, and black trousers with suspenders. He was carrying enough communications equipment to staff a small police precinct: two cell phones, a beeper, and a hand-held scanner for emergency broadcasts.

Although he once jumped in his van to race to fires and accidents, he now only monitors events. "Totally retired from all that, thank God," he said. Running for office was not entirely his idea, he explained. "There was talk about this 10 years ago. I said no. Still, they ask me, and I say to myself, 'Listen, I married off all my four children.' I said, 'O.K., you guys want me to do this? All right. But I'm not going to schlep you. You have to push me.' "

He will win, he predicted, with the votes from Williamsburg's Hasidic community. "Ten thousand votes there; maybe 15,000 if we get everyone to the polls," he said. "They will vote for me because nobody else has my record: 35 years I gave to every volunteer organization."

What could be a problem, he admits, is the endorsement of Rabbi David Niederman, the influential community official who operates the United Jewish Organizations, the powerful social-service and housing group that funnels millions of dollars in government funding into the Hasidic community. Niederman declined to discuss his feelings, but a source aware of his thinking acknowledged that, while Abraham is of the same religious sect, the candidate has as much chance of winning Niederman's endorsement as does Ralph Nader. Frustrated at Abraham's constant ability to be quoted in the media, Niederman and other Satmar leaders once retained a prominent city publicist to call every city desk and say that Abraham didn't speak for the community. It didn't work: Reporters kept calling Abraham, whose quotes were always better than those from most paid flacks.

In contrast, the Niederman wing of the Hasidic community prefers to keep its political business private. For instance, earlier this month the rabbi issued an invitation to what he called "a very selected group of people" to join him at a fundraiser for Congressman Ed Towns to "discuss very serious issues facing our community." The invitation said the event would be held at the Bedford Avenue home of Joseph Menczer, an influential businessman who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for politicians while helping nursing-home owners and other entrepreneurs win millions in state funding.

Abraham said he isn't concerned about getting the nod from Niederman and his friends. "I don't need them. They have endorsed losers for years. I will get the young people. Since I announced, the response from the young is absolutely tremendous-just tremendous. Let me read you one e-mail," he said, fiddling with his computer. "Slowest computer in the world. Here, he's 24 years old: 'Anything you want. Contact me, I will be there all the time. It is God's will.' " Abraham looked up, the smoke curling from his beard. "So you see?" he said.

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