When Simcha Eichenstein announced his run for office a little over a year ago, he told me that he would be sweating the details of his new job and would immerse himself in the legislative process. As he concludes the end of his first session as an assemblyman, the tedious work has paid off.
Earlier this year, he helped summer camps save millions of dollars by adding just two words to a security bill as it was being written. When I was in Albany several months ago, it was clear that Simcha, 35, was greatly respected by his colleagues. “He one of the hardest working legislators in Albany,” one lawmaker told me.
Yated spoke to Eichenstein from the Assembly floor, just moments after he was one of the few “no” votes among Democrats on a measure to remove the ability parents have to cite religion in denying their children a vaccination. While virtually all Orthodox Jews vaccinate, the diminishment of a religious freedom still rankled.
Simcha’s remarks on the floor before he voted against the vaccination legislation were widely praised by Orthodox groups for its encapsulating the arguments in simple language:
“Let me begin by setting the record straight: I am pro-vaccinations, my kids are all vaccinated, my kids attend schools that are fully in compliance, as are all schools in my district.
“Furthermore, I, for one, do not believe there is any religious restriction as it relates to vaccination, nor have I met a serious religious leader in my community who has raised halacha, or Jewish law, restrictions regarding vaccination. In fact, the entire rabbinic leadership has been working hand-in-hand with our local municipalities in urging the community to vaccinate and we have achieved great results. The New York City health commissioner announced this week that the number of new cases of measles, each week, is going down.
“However, my fellow colleagues, let me read to you the first amendment of the United States Constitution. ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ We are here debating something that is beyond the scope of a legislature. Because in America, we have a guarantee of religious freedom that surpasses any other nation on this planet. It is dangerous for a legislative body to pick and choose when New Yorkers have their first amendment rights and when they don’t. Because in the United States of America, we do not legislate religious beliefs.
“Therefore, Mr. Speaker, despite my pro-vaccination stance, and despite my beliefs that there are no religious restrictions, it is my constitutional duty to vote in the negative.”
It seemed like both you and Simcha Felder were conflicted on how to vote on this. You are both pro-vaccinations, yet you had to vote against it because of concerns how this will be taken on the day after.
Let’s be honest — it’s a tough one, because the reality is that nobody takes the current measles outbreak more seriously than our community — the rabbinical leadership, the community leadership, the lay leadership, the yeshiva community. First of all, the Torah instructs us to save one’s life.
Look, I started off speaking on the floor by saying that I was pro-vaccinations, my kids are all vaccinated. This is not about vaccination. This is about a dangerous slippery slope. Here you had a bill that was on the floor that was solely focused on whether one’s religious beliefs should apply or not. This wasn’t a larger bill focused on vaccination, or a piece of it focused on the medical exemption.
I reject the premise that the religious exemption has anything to do with the outbreak. Some people have been trying to spin this, or to make the case, that the religious exemption has something to do with the current outbreak. That is just not true. The mayor of the city of New York said just two weeks ago that the religious exemption is not the reality that we are facing on the ground. It’s just not. And to make it sound like the religious exemption is the issue is incorrect.
Now, we were dealt with a situation — and this may be for the first time; I’m not a historian but it’s the first one that I remember — that we have a bill on the floor solely focused on whether one’s religious beliefs apply or not. And that’s a dangerous slippery slope and a dangerous precedent.
So whether I happen to agree with that belief — in my case I happen to believe that there is no religious belief justifying the anti-vaxxers, or at least I’m not hearing one — it’s dangerous for us to start legislating whether one’s religious beliefs apply or not. Here’s the bottom line — once we go down the path of passing such bills, it is not going to end there.
The question is not necessarily what you believe, but how it will be perceived by people down the line. What if someone says in 10 years, “Listen, there was once a measles outbreak and the legislature eliminated the religious exemption. How about we eliminate the religious exemption for bris milah or yeshiva learning?”
That’s exactly what I mean when I say that it’s a dangerous slippery slope and it won’t end here.
By the way, the health code is full of religious exemptions on many different things.
I saw part of the debate. A lot of lawmakers, even Democrats, were making the same argument: religion should be the third rail that shouldn’t be touched, no matter the reason.
Absolutely. Let me just say, a lot of true liberals — not selective liberals, whose positions are all over the place — stuck to the principle and had First Amendment concerns and church and state concerns. You can’t pick and choose when you have church and state concerns.
Was this law crafted in a specific way so that people won’t be able to use it years from now to further erode religious rights in other areas?
This was crafted to solely address the religious exemption part. For example, there is a medical exemption that is being abused way more than the religious exemption. In California, after they passed this same bill, in certain cities they’ve seen their medical exemptions jump 20 percent. Twenty percent!
You had a long day today, and you’re going to have an equally long day tomorrow, when you’re going to vote on the rent overhaul laws. How are you going to vote?
I kind of gave away how I’m going to vote already. I voted “no” in the committee. I believe I was the only Democrat to do so.
How have Democrats lurched so far to the left? According to what people are saying, this bill is socialism on steroids. What are they thinking? Do they not understand the way municipal finances work?
I will say this: look at the silver lining. During the debate before the vote on the religious exemption bill, we had maybe 20 Democrats get up on the record and basically say, “I’m concerned with what you’re saying about religious beliefs.” Minorities, women, liberals — we had them all, from all walks of life.
So how do you square this with the vote on rent stabilization? People in the real estate industry tell me they’re predicting a return to the 1970s.
Yes. This is going to be crazy. I said in committee that the reason why I voted “no” was because it will be bad for the tenants. I said that I’m not voting “no” because of landlords, I’m voting because of tenants. The reality is that all these tenants who were up here in Albany these last three weeks — on Tuesday, there were over 80 tenant activists rallying here — they are all going to be back here in two years from now, should this go through. They will be saying that they’re living in terrible conditions and the landlords are not doing anything for them. That’s the reality.
How does this make sense? A lot of the provisions that were put into place in the 1990s specifically to give landlords an incentive to improve the tenants’ living conditions are now being stripped out. How do they explain that?
The reality is, you need to incentivize, it’s true. By the way, even with the incentives, the landlords are still choosing not to do it. Imagine what will happen without the incentives. Let me ask you a question. Would you take $2 million and invest it in your property, if you could just raise the rent by $80 or $100 a month and you’ll make your money back over 20 years? It’s not worth it for them.
My thinking was that the state wants to squeeze the landlords so much that they’ll be forced to leave it vacant, and then the city will take it over and add it to their public housing projects.
Oh, what’s going to happen then? NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority) is the worst landlord in the city.
But their feeling is that at least the government runs it. That’s what the progressives want, no?
They’re not happy with the NYCHA conditions.
You’re finishing your first session as an assemblyman this week.
Right. Assuming we end on time, Wednesday is the last day of the year.
Before you were elected, Joe Lieberman said you would be the first chassidishe state lawmaker elected in America. How was it being a chassidishe Yid in Albany?
I said this from the day I announced, and I really believe this: the most important responsibility that I carry — before anything else, before any speech that I give, before any vote that I take, before any discussion that I have — to make a kiddush Hashem and to conduct myself in a way that people will look at me and say, this is a kiddush Hashem.
Wearing the chassidishe garb up here is an enormous responsibility. Fair or not, right or wrong, people are going to look at you and try to draw conclusions. And if, chas v’shalom, you don’t make a kiddush Hashem, that is something that reflects negatively on the entire community. That is something that I take very, very seriously, and I remind myself every single day of the responsibility that I have to make a kiddush Hashem.
You were able to include summer camps in the security bill, allowing them to get reimbursed for security costs. Is there anything else you accomplished this session?
Boruch Hashem, that was one big one. It was something I worked on for a few months. But this is my first budget, I’m just three months in. It still must pass the Senate and get signed by the executive. The RFPs [request for proposal, or the official bidding process by the state] should be out in about a month, give or take.
So that’s really exciting that I was able to do that. I get the feeling that I was able to accomplish something, something that’s real, something that camps will be able to benefit from and serves a real purpose.
I’m now working on two bills, one for senior centers, requiring them to report their unmet needs. It passed the Assembly. I hope the Senate is still going to pass it. Regardless, there is a willingness on the Senate side to pass it. So if there’s still enough time to pass it this year or it means that they’ll have to come back next year — a lot of this work is, even if you don’t carry it over the finish line one year, just bring it to a close, so that in January you start where you left off.
The other bill is regarding the Youth Corps program [see separate article].
What got you to push for this bill on seniors?
I believe that we’re not doing our seniors right. A lot of senior services that should be provided are not being provided. I am a member of the aging committee, and this is something that I care deeply about.
It was actually during the budget process, and we were asking senior centers for more information and we just couldn’t get it. We need to be able to highlight the unmet needs, the services that are not being provided, the seniors who are being turned away from services, to be able to advocate more for them.
How do you explain our community to your colleagues in Albany?
I don’t know that it’s a one-size-fits-all, that everyone needs the same conversation. But I will say this: We are obviously a unique community, but we are also a beautiful community. We are full of chesed. Boruch Hashem, there is so much to share. There is so much to be proud of.
On every single issue that my colleagues care about, we have an organization that cares for that. One legislator cares about kidney donations; we have an organization that deals with that, that has a list of donors. You care about the aging community; we have people in hospitals who help patients, services the families. Whatever it may be, we have something that deals with that issue.
A lot of members don’t understand exactly what our community is all about. They’ve never been to our community. They’ve never been to our school system. We have to engage them.