Assemblyman Dov Hikind Speaking in the NY State Legislature (Image Credit: PR Photo)
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn, 48th District), an Orthodox Jew, decided months ago not to run for re-election — even though he would have easily been re-elected.
He publicly declared that the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left, has endorsed known anti-Semitic and anti-Israel individuals within its ranks, and has been lacking in “sanity and honesty.” He stated that he would only support Republican candidates for public office.
Several months ago, I sat down with Dov and his wife, Shani, to discuss his feelings about the party, about leaving the party, about his pro-Jewish activism throughout his entire career, about the book he is working on to tell the whole story. While the party — the Democratic Party — is over for Hikind, he has left us on the edge of our seats to see what he will be doing as of January 1, 2019. This is a shock to hear you’re retiring, because you’ve been with us for such a long time. I’m not “retiring,” I’m just going on to other things. But let me tell you, for the whole time I’ve been in office, from day one 36 years ago, the most important thing to me was always being there for people, helping people. You can’t always solve every problem — that’s impossible. But people need to know that you’re there, that you’re going to go the extra mile for them.
I always tell my people: Just because some agency says no, it doesn’t mean it’s no. Because if you believe the people you’re trying to help, that their cause is just, if you believe in what they’re fighting for, then you have to fight for them. So, no doesn’t mean no to me. It means you just have to do more work and fight harder, figure out the angle. You don’t give up. That’s what we’ve done for 36 years and that’s our reputation. I told my staff that till the end of the year — till the last day that I am in office — we would be there for people. We are one of the busiest offices anywhere, in terms of people coming to us. We try to concentrate on those in my district, but people come from other places and it’s hard to say no. I’m very lucky to have amazing, extraordinary, dedicated people working for me. The greatest compliment that I get — and not just from Jews — is: You really love Jews! I say to them: Yes, it’s true. But I also say: It doesn’t matter who you are — whether you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — if you come for help, we’re going to help you, because you deserve help. To me, that’s a no-brainer: Why was I elected? I have to think about it? What should I do? What’s the right thing to do? What makes me do the things I do?
I’m not following the Democrat Party line. I do what I think is right. I’m loyal to the American people. I’m loyal to my constituents. I’m loyal to the Jewish people. I’m not loyal to a label. That’s my story. That’s the definition of a mensch — to do right and be fearless, even if it’s politically “incorrect.” Is that why you went into politics? Was that your dream? No, it wasn’t my dream at all. Growing up, I went to Vishnitz and Belz Hasidic yeshivas. Later on, from the 7th grade, I went to Torah Vodaas. Throughout junior high, high school, and even post high school, the yeshiva guys would go to college at night. I have a BA from Queens College, an MA from Brooklyn College, and I studied toward my PhD at the City University Graduate Center, all in political science — not your normal thing for an Orthodox Jew. I loved studying political systems, but what do you do with a degree in political science? What did your parents have to say about you going into politics? My parents were survivors of the Holocaust and always very supportive. My mother went to Auschwitz in 1944. Her mother and her sisters were on the same line. When you came to Auschwitz, you were on a line — one went to the right and one went to the left; one went straight to the gas chambers and one went to working in forced labor. On that line together for the last time, in 1944, one of my mother’s sisters actually said, in Yiddish: “M’ken nisht lozen Mommy alein (We can’t let Mommy go alone).” That sister went with her mother, my grandmother, straight to the gas chambers. My father was in a forced labor camp. So my parents went through Hell on earth: the Holocaust. Growing up and becoming more and more aware of that made me resolve: I’m gonna fight for my people! When I was really a young kid, 18-19 years old, I began to listen to Rabbi [Meir] Kahane talk about Soviet Jewry. I went to yeshiva and nobody there ever talked about Soviet Jewry. So I got involved with the Jewish Defense League (JDL), fighting for my people by day and night, getting arrested, chaining myself to the Soviet Mission. I must’ve gotten arrested four or five times, just for Soviet Jewry. I even went to Canada with a group of young people. We went to Toronto to stay with a Jewish community for Shabbat. I was only 19 years old. Then we went to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, with one purpose — to get arrested at the Soviet Mission there. The idea was to highlight the plight of Soviet Jewry. My philosophy — the philosophy of Judaism — was: If someone is your brother or sister and they are in trouble (in this case, in the Soviet Union), what would you NOT do for them? What would you not do for your brothers and sisters? To me, the Jewish people are my brothers and sisters.
I think the Trump administration has been unbelievably great in many areas. I have a problem with the Democrat Party. It has moved so far to the left, it’s falling off the cliff into the ocean. You have someone who ran against [Joe] Crowley and was just elected to Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a socialist who supports BDS and says Israel was committing a massacre on the Gaza border. Sounds just like Linda Sarsour, another extremist in the Democrat Party. Yes, she’s a Democrat too. As you know, when she was going to give the Commencement Address at City College, I was the first one to jump in and yell about that. We got a lot of attention — we educated a lot of people about her views. I take credit and others deserve credit, too, over that. But I really went after her — nothing personal — because I looked at her record. She supports terrorists! She supports people who have murdered other people! She applauds the throwing of rocks — which kill people, injure people! We went through her record and presented it publicly and you know what? I remember meeting with [NY] Mayor de Blasio at Gracie Mansion because when Linda Sarsour was going to give the Commencement speech at City University, de Blasio’s wife was gonna be on stage to receive an award. I went to him with a file and I showed him all this stuff — most of which he was not familiar with — basically to say: Let me just tell you who the real Linda Sarsour is. So I think it’s had an effect on a lot of people. I mean, Linda Sarsour’s relationship with [Louis] Farrakhan… In spite of that, sadly, you have Jewish politicians who empower her more than anyone else. You have Brad Lander, who I consider a friend, and this guy [Mark] Levine, the Councilman from Manhattan – when they participate at functions with her, they support her. They criticize ME. You know, after the whole Linda Sarsour thing, there were like 80-90 Jews who came out to criticize me. You know, all these women “rabbis” and liberal progressive politicians. I don’t get it. I talk to them and I say to them: Don’t you have a problem with someone who supports terrorism? They don’t answer the question. They’re willing to look away! That’s a horrible thing. Some of the people have done that with Farrakhan. You know Farrakhan, he’s an anti-Semite, he says the most vile things. But you know, they tell me, he HELPS people, he helps Black people — whatever. What about Al Sharpton? Look, Sharpton was made “kosher” over the years. But I remember Sharpton and the anti-Semitic things he said about the Jewish diamond merchants during the riots in Crown Heights and the role that Sharpton played in those riots. I remember when he arrived in Israel after the Crown Heights riots. I remember him saying, at the airport, that he was in HELL. It’s all on the record; you can go and find it. So, Al Sharpton isn’t even worth my breath discussing him. Such hypocrisy! Some people can get away with being racists — it’s okay. Is this the old mentality of the Jews of Europe? The “sha, sha, let’s not make them mad by speaking out?” Let me tell you one great story: When Yoni, my son, was running for the City Council, someone came over to him and said: I’m not voting for you! He said: Okay, you don’t have to vote for me — but why? The reason was: Because your father is always standing up publicly against anti-Semites — and we live in golus (exile). As Jews, we’re not supposed to rock the boat. We’re not supposed to be too visible. Can you believe that? It’s the same old ghetto mentality, then. For some people. Look, I believe that’s changed a lot. I’ve always had tremendous support in my community and everywhere else, wherever Jews live.
You know, Shani and I went to Israel last trip and we came to Kennedy Airport to check our baggage with Delta, first trip on Delta. The guy who checked our bags recognized me. Then, later on, there was a Black agent from Homeland Security who recognized me. He looked at my ID and right away he said: Oh, I know who you are.
And you know what is the most common refrain I hear from non-Jews, about me? “You’re the guy who’s always fighting!” Non-Jews — that’s their picture, their image of me. You know what? I’m proud of that — you bet! Well, there are places where that’s seen as politically incorrect — to say it like it is. Well, to be a Democrat in Albany and to support Republicans, which I’ve done all my life, going back to Al D’Amato. Al D’Amato won with less than one percent of the vote. And my community was responsible for that difference! And I was involved in that race day and night. And then, the following year, it was [Rudy] Giuliani. And the following year, it was [George] Pataki. I endorsed all those people! You think Democrats were happy about that? I wasn’t going to ask about this, but were you threatened by Democrats for doing that? There was a story, I don’t know if it appeared in the newspaper. When I supported Pataki against Mario Cuomo, I remember that I was told in no unclear terms: You better pray that Pataki wins! Because we will cut your you-know-what off. That was then. What about now? You said — publicly — you didn’t vote for Hillary! Right. Well look, I’m very open about this. Do I make enemies? Yes. Do they try to undermine me and hurt me? Yes. But I’m not gonna change. But what about your wife and family? If people are going to come after you, then it’s not just you — it’s them, too. Beth, Beth, you can’t be afraid! If you’re afraid, you’ll never do anything. I don’t know if you know this, but through the years, whenever there’s trouble in Israel, like with Hezbollah years ago, I went to Israel. I went to the North. While people were leaving Tiberias because missiles were falling, we went in that direction to give chizuk, to give strength. During the war with Hamas, I went to the South. I checked into a hotel in Be’er Sheva. They gave us instructions on how to dodge missiles and where to run. So, every time there’s a situation and difficulty, I get up and go. For me, it’s always like, Beth, when you’re in trouble, I get up and go. When people were getting stabbed in the streets of Jerusalem two years ago — every day, someone was being stabbed? So I said to myself: What can I do? You know what I did? I got up with five people and we walked the streets of Jerusalem day and night. Shades of the past — walking with Kahane through the streets of New York where Jews were attacked? Yeah, so that’s what we did. So are you thinking to move to Israel? The answer is: I’ve thought about moving to Israel all my life, as many Jews have. I’m not moving to Israel at this particular point. I’m not going to say what I’m going to be doing [after leaving office at the end of the year]. Everybody wants to know that. But all I can say is it will become obvious in January.
But I’ve spent my entire life, 36 years in the Legislature, fighting, not only helping people, but being out there when I needed to be out and not being afraid to speak out. Confronting people about Antisemitism; I was not afraid. Ten years before I even got elected, I was involved in fighting for our people. So what am I going to do now? Of course I will continue to do the same thing: stand up and fight.
All of this will be in the book I’m working on now. One of the chapters in my book contains hundreds of cases of sexual abuse. Yes, you were the first one brave enough to speak out about that. I was the first, and the only one. I’m not happy about that, being the first and only one, back in 2007-2008. It was because of someone who came to me, a young man who was a Shabbos guest at our table. One day, he said to me: I want to talk to you after the Sabbath. He came over after the Sabbath and shocked the daylights out of me. He told me how he had been abused as a child, for years, in camp, school, yeshiva. And that changed my life, because when someone comes to me with a problem, I NEVER run away. I don’t care how unpopular it is. Do you think the people in my community were thrilled about sexual abuse? They didn’t even like the fact that I used the word “sexual.” Well, they’re worried it’s Jewish dirty laundry, “a shonda for the goyim (a shame in front of non-Jews),” right? Yeah. Yeah! So what did you do? We went on the radio. Other people went on the radio. They talked in detail. We started opening up people’s heads. I began to learn so much. I didn’t know anything about sexual abuse. I didn’t know that it destroys people’s lives, that something can happen to you when you’re six or seven and 20 years later, it’s affecting your life. I can show you stuff from mothers telling me how their sons were abused and don’t want to have babies with their wives. They don’t want to bring a child into the world! Or they can’t. They’re having difficulty. They don’t want to bring up a child, which is crazy — you get married, you want to have children. I’m proud of that chapter, which continues: Stand up, don’t be afraid, rock the boat, whatever the repercussions. Well, if not you, then who? I’ll never forget this. An elected official in our community came up to me and said: I admire what you’re doing. But your political career is over. He didn’t think I’d have a chance to run again, that people would continue to support me. It’s not so much the people, it’s the leaders. But what, that was almost ten years ago and here I am. If anyone asked me what I’m proudest of, I would say that. So maybe you can explain to me, why is Avrohom Mondrowitz still marching around in Nachlaot, Jerusalem? That’s a great question… I remember him. He was charismatic. He was well-spoken. He managed to destroy the lives of a hell of a lot of people. Yes, that’s right — 300 boys in Brooklyn, alone. 296 Hasidic Jewish boys and four Italian boys. He got away. What can I tell you? Listen, there’s no question there was politics going on when [Charles] Hynes was the D.A. (District Attorney). No question about it. But Mondrowitz is like the “poster boy” for this stuff. Yes. They called him the Osama Bin Laden of pedophiles. I remember they spoke about things that he did, oh my G-d. And the second one was [Joel] Kolko. But back then, those were like exceptions, you never really heard anything else. There was Mondrowitz and Kolko. When I started talking about sexual abuse, the floodgates opened. I read that you were threatened for going public with that. That’s besides the point. There were so many cases! 120 right here. They’re not all Jewish. All of mine were Jewish cases. A lot of the abuse was in families, right here, in the Jewish community. That’s why I’m hoping it will do some good with this book I’m writing. I’m not doing it out of anger. I’m not going after people. But I’m going to be very honest about things. Well, in the case of these victims, what exactly did you do? It was a combination of things. See, a lot of the cases were 20 years old. A lot of people came forward. I used to wonder: Why are they coming forward now? They came forward just to get it off their chests. You know, I had people who were married, who’d been abused, and they never told their wives or husbands when they got married! We worked with the victims all the time. We tried to get them to go to the D.A. when it wasn’t past the statute of limitations. But you know, in our community, a lot of people were angry, they wanted something done, but they were not willing to deal with it. I don’t have to tell you: If you want to deal with it, it means you have to go to the D.A. It means ultimately, that the person who did it is going to be arrested. It means it’s going to be made public, you can’t keep it private. Is it against halacha, Jewish law, to report another Jew for doing such things? No, of course not. There are some rabbis who’d tell you that you shouldn’t do that. There’s no question there’s an attempt to shove it under the rug. You don’t want to embarrass the school. You don’t want to embarrass the family. It might interfere with marriages and with shidduchim. But I always told families of victims: When someone is a pedophile who is molesting one child, that person is molesting 100 children. That’s a fact.
So if you’re going to Israel, would you confront Avrohom Mondrowitz? There’s nothing to confront. They couldn’t bring him back here, for whatever the reasons were. Because of Hynes, D.A. Charles Hynes, who didn’t do his job. Okay, Hynes. But Mondrowitz is free in Israel. The authorities in Israel don’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute him for crimes committed 25 years ago. They also don’t have a sex offender registry, like we have here, in America. Look, it got a lot of attention in Israel at that particular time, when all of this was going on. But that’s part of the problem, especially within our community, because there’s no protocol. What if you’re a mother or father and your child comes home and tells you something like that? Who do you go to, to deal with it in an honest way — and really deal with it? Sometimes a rebbe or teacher will be thrown out of school because of an alleged abuse or inappropriate behavior? What happens to that rebbe? He goes to another school, another yeshiva, in another country, another city, another state. It’s terrible! Yes, just like bad doctors. I think The New York Times called it “passing the garbage.” Funny you’re quoting The New York Times. But that’s what it is: passing the garbage. Because a rebbe who’s done something like that gets thrown out of one school and just ends up in another school — that’s how the community solves the problem? All they’re doing is protecting your kids and making other kids vulnerable. Oh my G-d, people do not realize what this can do to a person. You know, someone breaks into your house and you feel violated. But you get over it in time; it’s not going to affect your life. But when someone touches you inappropriately, as a child, especially when it’s someone who is a respected person… You know, Mondrowitz had a radio show in those days. He was a very popular guy. No one knew he was also a very sick guy. Mondrowitz got a lot of attention in those days, when Hynes was D.A. But they really messed that one up, trying to extradite him. If you could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a piece of advice, what would it be? Do exactly what you’re doing. He’s very effective. He’s the most incredibly effective spokesman that Israel ever had. Do you know Netanyahu? Of course! We’ve been together with him, Shani and I, years ago here in New York with small groups. The bottom line is, he was prime minister years ago and he’s been prime minister now for over ten years. All the polls say he’d get re-elected again. I can’t even think of who would be a substitute for him, I can’t even imagine it. He’s done incredible stuff, with relationships all over the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America. He’s done an amazing job. Well, he could use somebody like you next to him. [Laughing] I’d be happy to do that! Your background is Torah — where did you learn what’s right and what’s wrong if not there? We try our best to do the right thing. The Torah is not just your relationship with G-d. It’s your relationship with people — how you treat people and how you behave with people. That’s what G-d wants more than anything else. Sometimes our concentration is too much on: Oh, you violated this and you violated that. G-d wants you to be a good person. G-d wants you to treat every single person the right way and it’s not always easy. We have so many conflicts, so many issues, so many difficulties, so much division — even within our community. That’s not a healthy thing; that’s not a good thing. On being a Jew, in Hebrew we say: between you and G-d; but there’s a second part to that — between one person and another person. In other words, your relationships with other people — that’s what G-d really cares about. Everything is important, but that’s the part that makes G-d proud, when we treat each other the right way. We are way too judgmental throughout our community, everybody is judging everybody else. Leave that to G-d. G-d doesn’t need anybody to defend Him. Right? From your mouth, straight up. Shani spent 25 years with Ateret Cohanim. What they do in the Old City and outside the Old City! Everybody talks about the unity of Jerusalem. Often, it’s just a lot of talk. Shani makes it happen. I’m the luckiest guy in the world that G-d gave me the opportunity, all my life, to do what I do. And I have a wife who’s devoted. Okay — how did this happen? [Laughing] Did you meet while marching for Kahane? Like, you were both holding signs and you were at a demonstration? SHANI: I’ve never been to a demonstration in my life! DOV: I met Shani after she graduated Stern College for Women and before she went off to Boston, to acting school. Shani wanted to be an actress? Yeah, yeah. So she saw, in The Jewish Press, there was a job opening at a Jewish organization for the summer. Shani called, got interviewed, and guess what the organization was? The JDL!
Oh my G-d! Purely by accident! Shani had never been to a demonstration, had never been involved — and G-d brought her to this location. Now I’ll tell you another kicker that’s gonna blow your mind! In 1973, I went to Russia to protest in Moscow. Kosygin, the leader of Russia had come to America, to New York — to meet with Nixon. So I decided, Let me go to Russia and protest there, at Lenin’s Tomb. I was crazy. What did your parents say about this? My parents didn’t know a lot of what I was doing. They were terrified. My mother always used to say, when I did things: Let someone else do it. Because she was concerned. But she understood. So when I met Shani, after coming back from Russia in 1973, I was engaged to a different woman. Oh my G-d! I’ll make it short: At one point, during that period of time, Shani overheard me planning my engagement party. She came over to me and said: If we had met a few weeks ago, you would not be engaged, you would not have gotten engaged. So it was really love at first sight! So that was 45 years ago, almost. That’s a record! [Laughs] It’s an amazing story. But I wouldn’t advise people to do that on a regular basis! Rabbi Kahane performed the wedding ceremony? No, no. Reb Kahane was in Israel. We were married December 21, 1975. But when Shani met me, she was not involved. She hadn’t read much history. One of the things Shani did right away was, she started reading all these books that JDL required for you to be part of JDL. She began to read and read and it opened up her head to the stuff with the Holocaust.
Shani became active right away. I was involved in doing stuff at that time. It created a whole new world for Shani. She didn’t come from that world. So Shani was a nice yeshiva girl? SHANI: I wasn’t a yeshiva girl. I went to public school. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My father was the Orthodox rabbi from 1949 till he passed away in 2002. I went to Stern in 1969, graduated in 1973, and that was the summer I met Dov. Did your husband surprise you when he said: I’m retiring? SHANI: No, not at all, because I’d been nudging him. Okay, so enough is enough? SHANI: No, enough of doing good things just for our community. He needs to have his time to expand his reach to more Jews throughout the world, and specifically in Israel. He always used his position as the Assemblyman of the 48th Assembly District, he was always there for Jews in Israel. Dov’s only focus in life is helping people, Jews and non-Jews. Because of his strong affinity for Israel, because of his strong love for the land and the people, Israel motivated him. Israel’s tzuris, Israel’s problems, Israel’s people motivated him to be there as much as he possibly could, in their times of difficulty. So now, not being tied down to being in Albany and as of January 2019, not being tied down to his office either, is going to give him ample opportunity and enough time to devote to nose-diving into whatever he can do to help Israel. Do you ever feel that this life is a weight upon your shoulders? For one thing, you have no time to yourselves, no downtime. SHANI: Our downtime is with the grandchildren, our daughter and son-in-law, on Sunday. Downtime? Are there any words of advice that you would give to someone who is married to a political activist? Would you call Dov a political activist? SHANI: 100 percent! I was one of the first people to urge him to do this, to run for office in 1977, when he ran for the City Council; then in 1978, when he ran for the State Senate. I always felt that Dov should use his energy, his excellent speaking, his charisma, his love for people — I always felt he it should be channeled into a way to make a living for his family and to be there for people — and get paid for it, you know. But Dov has just gone beyond the call of duty. There’s nobody like him! Dov was a phenomenon in the halls of the Assembly. There will never be another Dov Hikind! What motivated Dov was not the politics. What motivated Dov was being a voice for the underdog, for the abused — although at that point, when we ran, the word “abuse” really didn’t exist in our vocabulary. When he ran in 1977 or when he ran in 1982 — abuse? What abuse? Everything had been swept under the carpet. You know, Dov’s whole raison d’etre was to make things better — for poor, for rich — because rich have problems, also — for Jew, for non-Jew — it didn’t matter who it was. Anybody had an entry into his office. What was your biggest challenge? Were you ever worried that terrorists would come into his office? SHANI: I never worried about that so much. We went through that period where we had the FBI walking with us, watching us. So yeah, there was a time period when Dov was being followed because the FBI and the New York City Police had gotten word that Dov’s name was on a terrorist list, along with Senator D’Amato and the UN… You remember the list that they found when they caught Kahane’s killer? SHANI: Yes, when they were mixing the witch’s brew in Queens, that’s when the whole thing ended. That was El Sayyid Nosair. Right. And supposedly, he had a list and Kahane was the first terror victim on it, in New York or maybe in all of America. SHANI: Well, I don’t know about that list. But, I just know that at one of my Ateret Cohanim dinners, in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dov was surrounded by men and I didn’t know who they were. Every year, my dinner is a huge production — it takes a very big toll, it’s a lot of work. Dov informed me that night, after the event, that he was going to be followed for his security because his name was discovered on a list of people who were targeted to be hurt, if not worse. Chas v’chalila. So for two months, they followed us everywhere — shopping, to the movies, if we went to visit his parents on Shabbos — everywhere that Dov went he had a detail following him, to make sure everything was okay. When we went up to the country during the summer, there was a car behind us, and on the New York State Thruway, the State Troopers took over. It was an ordeal and a little nerve-wracking, but baruch Hashem, nothing happened, thank G-d. Is there anything that you want people to know? SHANI: Yes, that we’ve been in this together, as a team, to try to be a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) for our people — and to show non-Jews how religious Jews think, why they do what they do. We wanted to show that we’re normal, patriotic, America-loving, respectful citizens, that we love this country and would do anything to keep this country strong. I want to add that just like I’ve been a partner for Dov — Dov has been there for me. He’s my partner with Ateret Cohanim. Because if I had a husband who was disappointed every night of the week except Friday night that there wasn’t a fresh cooked meal on the table by 6:00 or 6:30, you wouldn’t be here today seeing both of us together. Because my work was very important to me. Yes, well, you’re doing something that nobody else is doing. How’d you get to that? How did you convince the young people to move to these hostile neighborhoods? SHANI: I don’t convince them, there’s a waiting list in Israel of families who want the privilege of living close to the Kotel. These families really strongly believe that in order to keep Yerushalayim a united capital of Eretz Yisrael, the Jews have every right to live everywhere in our city, in our homeland.
These are all Haredi Leumi — they all serve in the Army, everybody’s frum, frum, frum, but they have a strong belief that Hashem wants His people throughout Yerushalayim, in every neighborhood. We have families so committed to this, it’s just absolutely incredible. Amen. Beautiful.
[NOTE: Hikind’s mother, Frieda Hikind, 95, passed away June 17, 2013, baruch dayan haEmet — may her memory be for a blessing. You can hear Dov’s mother recount her experience and losses during the Holocaust here in an astonishing hour-long recorded interview from the Dov Hikind Radio Show, February 6, 2010.]
Beth Sarafraz is a freelance published writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.