Saturday, June 03, 2023

Recently, Moshe Kindelehrer and I welcomed, as a guest on our new podcast, White Plains City Council President Justin Brasch. An active longtime member of the Young Israel of White Plains, Brasch is a yeshiva high school parent who cares very much about the future of the Jewish people here, nationwide and in Israel. It was a very special interview to which I encourage you to listen (https://tinyurl.com/5cj5add3), where we learned a great deal about the important work Brasch does in Westchester, which truly helps improve the larger community while also showing others that Jews stand proudly alongside every other community with shared goals.

It was useful for us to learn about Mr. Brasch’s career and perspective as a public servant. It was inspiring to learn about how he tries to live up to his grandfather’s goal of always being a light unto the nations (ohr le’goyim). He has taken that message and turned it into a key component of his life’s work.

Brasch explained that he has been working in Democratic politics in New York since the age of 17, when he interned for then-Congressman Ted Weiss (D-NY), and essentially he has never stopped. He’s been involved with the Democratic Party as a Democratic District Leader for the past 20 years. In that capacity, he’s worked with the political leadership of White Plains and Westchester on all issues of concern to the broader community. While he is a practicing lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant law, Brasch worked on the Westchester County Legislature’s Citizen Budget Advisory community when his children were small. He also has served as a member of the White Plains Planning Board, the White Plains School Board Budget Advisory Committee, and the White Plains Multimodal Transportation Center’s task force.

One thing that keeps Brasch up at night is the rising antisemitism he sees, both around the community and online, and he feels very strongly that there has to be a larger number of visible Jewish community members who are active in every community, so that individuals can relate to each other as human beings rather than as unknown and untrustworthy faceless entities. “They need to see us, feel us and know us,” he explained.

“We’ve never had antisemitism—or acceptance of antisemitism—on the level that exists now, but there’s an answer to that. Everyone needs to be more involved. It is my sense that not enough people know who we are, and that we care about them, that we care about the broader world,” he said.

“Everyone needs to get up and pick and choose the way they want to get involved in the larger community. When I was first elected to the council, there were a couple of people from other communities that were saying some pretty bad things about us on social media, and I took them on. When we show what we stand for, which is to be sincere and honest and good, people will need to reevaluate their positions.”

As an example of having built so many strong relationships within Westchester, Brasch provided a poignant recent example of having been called upon to provide counsel within the county. Westchester Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins called him in January when a small plane crashed near Westchester County Airport, killing two men from Cleveland. Jenkins told Brasch that the families were arriving as searchers were still trying to recover the bodies, and the families were observant Jews. He needed to know what was needed to make sure they were taken care of. Brasch and his community rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg, helped by going to meet the families, by which time Jennings had already organized kosher food and places to sleep for the families.

“It is important that our county executives know who to call when something like this happens,” Brasch explained.

Brasch added that as part of his job he has gotten to understand the very real need for affordable housing, and developed a passion for its advocacy; today he shares that passion with a number of other county advocates and elected officials. Being a visible member within many communities working together toward creating affordable housing has united him with others and built (no pun intended) many bridges for him with other community members and local politicians.

He shared two examples: First, he has gotten to know Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), and they have worked together not just on local affordable housing projects but also on issues related to Israel. As a result of good and positive interactions, Brasch brought Torres into the community last summer and interviewed him on behalf of the five local shuls in White Plains. Today the second-term Torres is truly considered a friend of Israel in Congress.

Second, Brasch recently attended a dance party for teens at White Plains’ Slater Center, a neighborhood center owned by the city of White Plains, right next to public housing. He explained that Katrina Jackson, a friend of his from the youth bureau board and the police reform committee, organized a dance party bringing the kids of the community together with the local cops, to reduce fear and create a fun evening and positive interaction.

“My wife and I went. And we were pretty much the only caucasian people there and my wife was in there doing the line dancing. But people see us, they know us, and it changes things,” he said.

After our podcast, Brasch told me on the phone that he feels very strongly about urging his fellow community members to get involved in public service, and a really strong reason for that is to sustain communities and reduce negativity in many ways, and that this is a way to fight antisemitism. “Join the library board; volunteer or tutor a child at the Y, whatever! Serve the larger community! Work to make your community a better place,” he said.

“When people know us, the stereotypes fade, we work together for our communities and we become friends. That is how to make the world a better place. Eventually they will enrich our lives, neighborhoods and better communities,” he said.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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