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March 18, 2009 / Brooklyn news / Politics / Election Coverage

Jew gotta be kidding! Abraham can’t go to church basement forum

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Get this: an Orthodox Jew and five other Council candidates are invited to a Methodist church for a meeting.

So what’s the punch line? That depends on whom you ask.

Isaac Abraham, an activist in North Brooklyn’s Satmar community who is vying to succeed Councilman David Yassky (D–Williamsbu­rg), will not attend the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats’ endorsement forum on April 23 because it will take place in the basement — not the sanctuary — of the Park Slope United Methodist Church.

“I asked my rabbi and [he said] it was better that I not go,” said the devout Democrat, who is one of six candidates for the 33rd Council District, which includes Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope.

“Maybe I’ll be attacked for my position and maybe I’ll get some criticism, but that comes with the territory,” said the hardware store owner and tenants’ rights activist.

Abraham was right about one thing: the criticism is already coming.

CBID President Lucy Koteen, who organized the event, said that Abraham’s failure to attend would raise serious questions about his ability to hold office in a secular, multi-cultural city.

“How can someone who has so many restrictions on his life represent us?” she asked. “When you are on City Council, you have to go to funerals — if someone gets shot, are you not going to go because it’s a Catholic church?”

Koteen said that the group chose the basement of the Eighth Street church not because of its religious affiliation, but because it is the group’s regular meeting place. Plus, she added, it is conveniently located.

“It isn’t a religious space to my eyes, but of course I’m not looking from that perspective,” she said, adding that she is looking for another site. “I’m sure this isn’t the first place where Isaac is going to run into these problems.”

The other five candidates are expected to attend the smoke-free endorsement forum, which is used during the day by a neighborhood pre-school. That secular use, however, did not deter Abraham from practicing his faith his way.

“The meeting is in the same building as the church, so it’s better off that I don’t start bending rules,” said Abraham, who in the past has stood outside of churches during funerals so as not to violate Jewish law. “The most appropriate thing for me to do is not attend.”

Abraham’s rabbi could not be reached for comment, but other rabbis told The Brooklyn Paper that many Orthodox worshippers follow a Jewish law that bars them from entering churches — even for secular events.

Because their candidate cannot attend the forum, some Abraham supporters say that CBID should hold off on endorsements altogether.

“How could they give an endorsement without listening to him?” said Isac Weinberger.

And the man who once held the seat being sought by Abraham’s candidacy should be judged on his politics — not his faith.

“The Constitution provides that there should be no religious test for elected office,” said former Councilman Ken Fisher, now a lobbyist.

Fisher suggested that with good staffing, hard work, and a policy of meeting constituents outside of religious establishments, Abraham’s religious convictions need not interfere with his Council responsibilities.

“That is the least of Isaac’s problems,” he added. “The bigger political obstacle is articulating his views in a way that appeals to anyone outside of a narrow part of the district. … It’s what’s under the yarmulke that counts, and not the yarmulke itself.”

Money might be another hurdle for Abraham.

The Hassidic candidate was the best-funded Council hopeful in January, but his war chest is now the second smallest in the race.

According to campaign papers filed on March 16, Abraham has raised $24,127 and spent $15,377 — leaving him with only $8,750 left in his coffers.

Only Ken Baer, a former head of the New York State chapter of the Sierra Club lags behind Abraham, with $7,820 in his war chest.

Leading the fight for funding is Steve Levin, chief of staff for Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who has $61,041 cash on hand.

Former Yassky staffer Evan Thies — who was snubbed by Yassky this week when his one-time boss told Crain’s that he would not endorse any candidate in the race — has $34,074 in campaign funds remaining.

Behind Thies are Ken Diamondstone, who has $28,279 on hand; and Democratic District Leader Jo Anne Simon, who started her campaign with a December mailing blitz and has $26,371 of cash on hand.

Updated 6:46 pm, May 13, 2009: Story was altered to add more context about CBID's reason for holding the forum in a church basement.
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Reader Feedback

Dav from Brooklyn says:
Proud of him. he stiks to his principal, even at the cost of his seat!
March 18, 2009, 6:51 pm
Bob from Park slope says:
What about Lieberman as President or VP
Silver - Speaker of NYS assembly
Hikind - Assemblyman
Felder - Councilman
Why not Abraham?
So what is CBID President Lucy Koteen talking about restrictions on someone's personal life?
March 18, 2009, 6:53 pm
johnMcL from bay ridge says:
Bob from Park slope says: "What about Lieberman as President or VP
Silver - Speaker of NYS assembly"? etc.

Because Abraham practices his religion differently. He's a member of the Satmar Hasidim, and the above folks aren't.

There are similar differences in practice among Christian denominations: Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and similarly very-conservative groups tend to have stricter 'behavioral' rules than do Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or mainline Protestants (Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists/United Church of Christ).

I'm a liberal churchgoing Protestant, and I support his stance ... because he's following his conscience, he has every right to do so, and it gives we-the-(Christian)-majority a necessary heads-up: we should stop assuming that "my religion/church/way" is the norm, and that everyone else's conscience must bend to it.
March 18, 2009, 7:39 pm
mike from Greenpoint says:
How silly. guy's going to lose anyway.
March 18, 2009, 8:49 pm
Eric McClure from Park Slope says:
Bob from Park Slope,

I think it's pretty clear that Ms. Koteen means that if Mr. Abraham is unable to enter certain buildings because of his religious beliefs, it could limit his ability to do certain things, and she gives an example.
March 18, 2009, 9:28 pm
sid from Boerum Hill says:
What is the problem. his Rabbi said it was better that he didn't go NOT that it was prohibited. The only prohibition I know of has to do with going under a certain arch in room(Constatine's?). You know there was a lot of people who said that the pope would run JFK and he proved his independence. He just lost any chance I would vote for him no matter how small. You know they hold events at the Brooklyn Heights Temple too. Hey wasn't Christ Jewish? but not satmar
March 18, 2009, 10:09 pm
sid from Boerum Hill says:
that is Rome not "Room" I don't have an Arch in my room
March 18, 2009, 10:09 pm
johnMcL from bay ridge says:
It could limit his ability to do certain things. But objectively:
Attendance at funerals et al is "done," but it's not in the official CC job description. So "must attend certain church services" would be an extralegal and discriminatory add-on -- whether applied to a Hasid, a major-serious atheist, or anyone whose sect forbade them from attending others' rites.

And if we say, "Well, lots of 'regular' secular meetings and events are held in church basements" - maybe they shouldn't be, if that inhibits certain groups (and not just Hasids) from participating at all.

Granted, the story says he's unlikely to win, at least now; and voters might question how he'd juggle both his beliefs and CC expectations. But that's for voters to decide, and I still think that the April forum should accommodate him ... despite the fact that I have a big, nonpsychic hunch that he & I don't share the same politics.
March 18, 2009, 10:57 pm
Erik from Flatbush says:
I bet his Jewish congregation will take all the cash money they can get from Christian Zionists who want to support Israel, though.
March 18, 2009, 11:47 pm
Sid from Boerum Hill says:
I forget whether its the Satmars or the Lubavitchers that don't believe in Israel(they believe the Messiah has to come first) so don't believe that every Jew supports Israel because they don't.
March 19, 2009, 12:17 am
Kelly from So Brooklyn says:
I give him points for being sincere. It would be much easier if he gave in.
Devout hasidim will *not* go into a church building, so he might have softened or simplified the rabbis message when paraphrasing.
Also, who ever said that *any* religion made sense, to everybody or at all? We just cut slack for the biggest ones, 'til their quirks stop looking quirky.
March 19, 2009, 3:06 am
Isaac Abraham from Williamsburg says:
http://www.vosizneias.com/29092/2009/03/18/williamsburg-ny-isaac-abraham-responds-to-those-who-criticize-him-for-refusing-to-attend-meeting-in-church-building/
March 19, 2009, 4:19 am
sam from downtown says:
Why don't Hassidim go into church basements? What in Jewish law forbids that? Nothing I'm aware of.
March 19, 2009, 9:37 am
Kelly from So Brooklyn says:
Tnx to Isaac Abraham for posting that link. Good points and response (and ps, I'm far from jewish).
To sam: my understanding is that what matters is the *purpose* of the whole space, not just whether you can't "see" the worship area. It's also not limited to churches and their basements, but includes mormon, buddhist, hindu, wicca, and whatever other places: not "kosher" to be there, or to give example that implies (to other jews/hasidim) that it's okay to be there -- the whole slippery-slope thing.
March 19, 2009, 1:19 pm
Sam from Bay Ridge says:
This guy is running for public office, not a religious leadership position, although he doesnt seem to see this, as his background is an insular ethnic enclave.

He is letting his personal beliefs conflict with his public duty. What if a restaurant wanted to open in his district that served pork or was open on Saturdays?

Would he advocate against them because they are in opposition to his religious beliefs?

He has the right to his beliefs, and we have the right to elect someone else.
March 19, 2009, 1:34 pm
Bill from Park Slope says:
Sam, he would have no problem with a gentile restaurant selling pork to gentiles on the saturdays. Jews don't believe that everyone has to be like them, just that Jews should be Jews.
March 19, 2009, 2:18 pm
Bill from Park Slope says:
Erik- your ignorance is showing. The Satmar's do not support Zionism.
March 19, 2009, 2:19 pm
sid from Boerum Hill says:
I read the article posted by Mr. Abraham in the comments and hos comments are frankly absurd. Church's in many cases are public places which open their doors to various community groups. In fact even synagogues do this. I have attended numerous community meetings at Churches and Synagogues. In many cases they are they only public spaces that will allow you to do this with a minimal or no charge. St Francis college is a religious institution. I can't tell you how many secular meetings I have attended there. The concept of kosher non kosher meeting places is also patently absurd. The subway and the buses are non kosher as is Brooklyn Boro hall. since the almighty is everywhere he is in the basement of a church just as much. There isn't devil worship or idolatry taking place there. In fact we pray to the same G-d. Some synagogues need extra space and in fact one of them uses the sanctuary of a church for the jewish High Holiday services. The fact that someone won't go to a service where a body is should not be used as an excuse for not attending a meeting when no such body was present. Bodies are everywhere sometime. This whole thing is just an excuse and so far the explanation and the article he posted makes me more angry at him for hypocrisy and narrow mindedness than anything else. The Church's in our neighborhoods serve important public issues. To refuse to attend a secular event there on the excuse that it is in a Church highlights what separate us and should cause great concern. I have been inside many Mosques...and I am still Jewish.
March 19, 2009, 3:09 pm
Alex from Slope says:
Agree with Bill. This guy isn't saying that others should be like him - he's just following his personal beliefs and is being unnecessarily excluded. [I'm sure he wouldn't get this flak if he were disabled, and couldn't atttend because the basement was handicap-inaccessible!]

'Way back -- though it's since changed -- Catholics were forbidden to attend non-Catholic weddings and funerals, even of close relatives, and were discouraged from entering a Protestant church building for any reason. Jehovah's Witnesses and some other groups still follow that line -- no other-faith services or even building visits.

So it's not an unheard-of limitation, and I don't get why a civic or political meeting has to be in ANY religious space, basement or attic. It's bound to create an inadvertent religious test that excludes some people or makes them less likely to participate.
March 19, 2009, 3:19 pm
Alex from Slope says:
Sid, what matters is what THIS guy believes. It doesn't MATTER what you or I or anybody else believes or does, or what happens in religions he doesn't follow or in synagogues that he doesn't belong to!

Your argument is like having a supersuperliberal Christian argue vs. a supersuperconservative Catholic. They're both 'Christian' - but that's about it.

If everyone agreed on this stuff, we wouldn't HAVE tons of religions, much less all of the splits and subsets and arguing within EACH religion.
March 19, 2009, 3:39 pm
Bill from Park Slope says:
Sid- Isaac wants to live his life a certain way. You live yours differently. You don't have to vote for him, but what are you so excited about?
March 19, 2009, 5:39 pm
Erik from Flatbush says:
Wait, he doesn't support Israel?

And he expects to get elected in America?
March 20, 2009, 12:24 am
Michael from Bay Ridge says:
Though I don't really understand why they meet in a Church basement, if it really is just some type of community meeting room there is no reason why he should feel that it will limit his personal religious beliefs.
March 20, 2009, 6:35 am
Betsy from Bay Ridge says:
"if it really is just some type of community meeting room there is no reason why he should feel that it will limit his personal religious beliefs."

It's clearly not about use or what it's called, but about location. Religion is personal, so it's for _him_ to decide if it conflicts w/his beliefs.

Example: Some very religious Christians won't work or do social things at all on Good Friday. Some will, and just attend a church service. But if someone says, "I can't do such-and-such on Good Friday," I'm not gonna say "That's silly! Other people do," because religion isn't by public consensus, or even "reasonable" -- it's _personal_.
March 20, 2009, 7:26 am
brian from cobble hill says:
Why would I vote for someone who can't go into a church basement for a community meeting? The guy must be a whack-job.
March 20, 2009, 4:19 pm
chaz from cobble hill says:
brian - who says that you have to vote for him? i don't agree w/his beliefs, but i'm not the only voter in town, and he has a right to be heard. i'd resent it if some of 'my' candidates, over the years, were dismissed just because they were a 'minority' voice or weren't status-quo.
March 20, 2009, 10:49 pm

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