Who would have thought that Proposal One on next week’s New York State election ballot would become such an important issue in the Orthodox Jewish community? The proposal asks voters in New York State to endorse the legalization of gambling casinos throughout the state.
So what does that have to do with us and why are rabbis, educators, and rabbinical groups organizing at this late date—a few days before the election—to rally the community to vote against the proposal?
There is an apparent divide—as there often is—in the community on this issue. If it is approved, plans will accelerate to build full-fledged casinos—Las Vegas- and Atlantic City-style—in various locations around the state. Of specific concern is how passage of this proposal will affect both the city, which may eventually get a casino, and the Catskills, which are slated for as many as three such gambling and entertainment emporiums.
Those advocating for the legislation are enthusiastic about the job opportunities it will present for local residents upstate, particularly in long-economically depressed towns like Monticello and Liberty, amongst others. Governor Cuomo has stated in the past that he believes that casino gambling can generate as many as 10,000 new jobs. Additionally, passage of the law and the construction of these hotels has been projected to generate over $100 million annually once they are fully functional, to be earmarked for education and the building and maintenance of infrastructure throughout New York state.
This week, however, an impressive group of leading rabbis and roshei yeshiva issued a proclamation directing their followers to vote “No” on the proposal and reject the legislation that would advance the cause of gambling in New York. In the statement, the rabbis declared: “It is well known that gambling casinos pose a great danger to both the spiritual and material well-being of our people.” And the statement continues: “Anyone who cares about himself and his family should stay away from them.”
The declaration adds, “Experts point out that gambling often leads to broken homes, financial devastation, and moral depravity. Tragically, these effects have already made their presence felt even in the Orthodox Jewish community.”
And—this time around, anyway—this segment of the Jewish community seems to be on the same page as the New York Times editorial board. Last Friday the newspaper also urged readers to reject the legislation. The Times wrote, “Gambling is a regressive tax that takes its highest toll on those who can least afford it. Casinos often bring higher crime rates and deteriorations of the community nearby . . . you should not accept the way the amendment is being advertised on the ballot, as a jobs-growth initiative for upstate New York. It’s liable to fail to deliver on that promise.”
The directors and owners of Jewish summer camps in the Catskills could not agree more. A member of that group, who preferred not to go on the record, says that they are fearful of the kind of people gambling casinos will attract during camp season. Those running the camps for high-school-age young ladies say they are most fearful and if the legislation becomes law they will have to rethink the matter of giving counselors days off, during which they visit some of the towns closest to the proposed casinos.
Real-estate developers and those who own property upstate are the most enthusiastic and excited about the prospects of legalized gambling. Real estate in the Catskills has been depressed for years, and hotels that used to be a hub of Jewish activity up there closed long ago. One hotel—Kutsher’s—that is partially functional and has been hosting Orthodox Jewish guests for the last few years has terminated the programs they had been running for the community, anticipating the preparations they are hoping to be making for gambling following Election Day.
In addition to Kutsher’s, other possible casino sites include the site of the Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, the Concord in Monticello, and Grossinger’s in Liberty. Other areas in the upstate region are also vying for casinos, but the plans on the drawing board call for only four at this time if the proposal passes. The proposal does not preclude having additional casinos, including in New York City, which the corresponding law would allow to be authorized after seven years.
As the governor’s office became aware this week of the evolving opposition to Proposal One in the organized Orthodox Jewish community, reports began to surface that, through his community liaisons and surrogates, he was bringing heavy pressure on Jewish community leaders not to call on their voting bloc to vote against the bill.
These groups, primarily in the Chassidic enclaves of Boro Park and Williamsburg, denied that this kind of pressure is being applied. The feeling in government is that these communities are to a large extent dependent on many tiers of government funding and based on that reality they should not stand in the way of legislation that can lead to generating of tens and hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the next few years.
But that hasn’t really stopped anyone, as one of the leading Orthodox Jewish communal organizations—Agudath Israel of America—issued a letter this week that called on schools to send home letters to parents urging that they vote no on Proposal One. The letter, signed by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, says in part that “a broad array of rabbinic leaders from across the spectrum of Torah Jewry have urged our entire community to vote no on Proposal One to prevent the spiritual and material destruction that gambling casinos often bring in their wake.” Rabbi Dovid Nojowitz, national director of Torah Umesorah, issued a similar letter urging yeshivas to inform parents about the rabbinical directive to oppose the legislation.
The kol korei issued by the rabbis was signed by, amongst others, Rabbi Moshe Wolfson of Torah Vodaas; Rav Shraga Hager, Kosover Rebbe; Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, rosh yeshiva, Philadelphia; Rav Yakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe; and Rav Aharon Schechter of Chaim Berlin. v