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Yeshiva ed gadfly looking to Albany

Naftuli Moster: Eying a political bid in Rockland. MICHAEL DATIKASH
Naftuli Moster: Eying a political bid in Rockland. MICHAEL DATIKASH

Naftuli Moster, a well-known advocate for better secular education in chasidic schools, announced he’s considering taking on three-term Rockland County State Sen. David Carlucci in the Democratic primary this September.

The 31-year-old, who heads the advocacy group Young Advocates For Fair Education (YAFFED), decided to dip his toe into politics after failing to make headway through advocacy.

“It was basically that realization that I could probably accomplish a lot more if I had a seat at the table. At every step of the way I realized that there’s this major discrepancy between YAFFED, and places like Agudath Israel and UJO [the chasidic Williamsburg-based United Jewish Organizations]. They have such political clout … we’ve got none of that,” he said.

The soft-spoken Borough Park native is running in the 38th District, which covers the southern part of Rockland County, including the largely chasidic municipalities of Monsey, New Square and Kaser, as well as Ossining, Crotonville and Briarcliff Manor in Westchester.

Moster announced his potential run on Facebook last Wednesday evening. He said if he gets a positive response from at least 500 people in the next two weeks he will officially jump into the race. As of Thursday afternoon his post had 297 likes, 88 loves and 149 comments, overwhelmingly positive. Still, likes are cheap and proof of more solid support is  solidly seen by how many people sign up for his email list and offer to volunteer. As of midday on Thursday, 35 people had signed up, about half of whom also offered to volunteer, Moster said.

Carlucci, who has run unopposed in the past three primaries and handily won those general elections with more than two-thirds of the vote, has been running on a progressive platform but is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which collaborates with Republicans, allowing them to remain in control of the Senate despite a one-seat Democratic majority.

It’s that affiliation that Moster thinks will give him a “decent chance,” despite Carlucci’s far superior name recognition and the $410,000 Carlucci already has in his campaign coffers.

“There’s the anti-IDC wave that’s currently sweeping up here and in Rockland, in the 38th District, there are more specific issues that people are concerned about,” Moster said, “and that is over development, education, especially the [chasidic-controlled] East Ramapo school board. In general there’s a sense of corruption even among Democrats.”

While Moster recognizes the David-versus-Goliath nature of his candidacy, he says that the ability to stretch scarce resources he demonstrated as executive director of YAFFED will take him a long way.

“I’ve done a good job bringing an issue to the surface, an issue that was buried, using very little resources,” he said, noting. “I can manage to do a lot with a little, kind of like the Chanukah miracle I guess.”

He says he believes the anti-IDC wave has fueled a desire to replace Carlucci.

“There’s kind of like a thirst for an alternative and a lot of people, when they’ve heard my name and looked up what I’ve done, they’re like: ‘Wow, he’s really gutsy and he’s really capable and he’d be a great replacement for Carlucci.”

Moster, who has a master’s in social work from Hunter College, lives with his wife, who teaches college English, and their 8-month-old son in Clarkstown. Moster grew up in a large chasidic family in Borough Park. After struggling in college after attending a yeshiva that offered little secular instruction, he launched a campaign to get boys yeshivas to add more English and math instruction, and to teach such subjects as science, American history, and civics, which aren’t taught at all in many chasidic yeshivas for boys. (His focus is on boys’ yeshivas because girls aren’t taught Talmud and they spend more time on secular subjects.) 

Moster founded YAFFED in 2011, and after a campaign within the chasidic community and repeated meetings with education officials failed to produce change, he began working with a pro-bono law firm to sue city and state officials to get them to enforce the state law requiring private schools to offer a “substantially equivalent education” to that of public schools.

The campaign has made Moster a persona non grata among many chasidic officials, although YAFFED has a wide base of support from former chasids and a small but devoted contingent of supporters from within the chasidic community. In covering YAFFED, NJJN has spoken to a number of chasidic parents who would like a better secular education for their children but say that if they make their views public, they will be shunned. Moster said that he believes that at least a small contingent of chasidic voters in his district will support him in the voting booth, if not publicly.

Carlucci did not return phone calls requesting comment.

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