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NYC mayor to 33,800 Jewish and Muslim students: Free lunch, but not for you

Mayor de Blasio will feed all school kids. Well, except for 33,800 students who eat halal and kosher
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

When it comes to kosher and halal food, it seems our kids are not as deserving as convicts.

The New York City mayor’s plan to offer free lunch to all school students is gracious on the surface. It ensures that all deserving students receive a school lunch, and that the students receiving these meals do so without any indignity or embarrassment, because no one will know their socioeconomic status.

But this proposal carries within it an ugly undertone of discrimination. At first, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his program, he pledged to provide a meal for every single student in any school across the city, trumpeting on social media that nonpublic schools, charter schools, and public schools would have equal access to the program.

Their public statement was quickly debunked by behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The program is open to all, but there is not kosher food, no halal food, and no method to provide either.

The mayor publicly states that the program provides for all but, in a response to advocates from the Orthodox Union, said there is no kosher or halal option, effectively excluding about 30,000 yeshiva students and 3,800 Muslim students from the program.

Our community has been vocal. We’ve held rallies, ran an ad campaign, and held a press conference on the steps of city hall featuring yeshiva day school and Muslim students. Prominent rabbis and imams representing tens of thousands of students and congregants from all five boroughs sent a joint letter to the Mayor. And that’s just the beginning.

Elected officials from communities across the city representing both major political parties called on the mayor to open the universal free lunch to kosher and halal students. The leading candidates for NYC Council speaker all expressed public and private support for our students’ dietary needs. Public Advocate Letitia James reminded the mayor that success in school requires a “healthy nutritious lunch,” and led our calls to make universal free lunch, actually universal.

There are a variety of ways to provide halal and kosher meals, but the mayor has denied all of them. The city could put out a request for proposals for a kosher or halal certified vendor to service these schools. This would be similar to how the city provides certified meals to kosher or halal observant prisoners in city jails.

Alternatively, the city could work with schools to create a central kitchen facility to produce these meals or even simply reimburse the same dollar per student that they spend in other schools. The answer from City Hall is a clear and consistent no. What has been the mayor’s only concession? “They should eat vegetarian.”

While we appreciate the mayor’s attempt to innovate kosher and halal rules and restrictions, if he wants to add imam or rabbi to his resume, he should first avail himself of our city’s fine academies and seminaries and earn his ordination like the rest of us. There he would learn that the vegetarian options provided by caterers are not always kosher or halal. So please don’t tell our children what their kosher or halal options are.

The symbolism of this decision is painful for two communities that have struggled for equal rights. The mayor of New York City, a city that has always been a multicultural beacon, is turning his back on the needs of two religious communities. On this issue, Mayor de Blasio, who is considering a presidential run, fails the test of leadership. Instead of showing the statesmanship that is required, Mayor de Blasio is buckling under the pressure of powerful lobbies, and turning to Muslim and Jewish children and saying: “Let them eat vegetables.”

In the end, the mayor’s proposal is this: All kids get free lunches, unless you happen to want a halal or kosher lunch. Sadly, in 2017, in New York City, Muslim and Jewish school students don’t have the same prerogatives as prisoners.

It is shocking that a mayor who has made the battle against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia the hallmark of his administration would ignore the needs of Muslim and Jewish students. This proposal, which comes at a time of turmoil in the United States, ignores the values upon which this country was founded. It is the wrong proposal at the wrong time.

That is why I am asking the mayor to do the right thing and provide meals for Muslim and Jewish students. They are our neighbors and friends, and they are just as deserving and just as hungry. Why can’t they have lunch too?

About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.
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