Former governor Hugh Carey, who died Sunday at 92, is well remembered in the Jewish community for his strong support of Israel and Soviet Jewry and as a soldier who helped liberate the concentration camp at Nordhausen, Germany.
According to the New York Times’ obituary, Carey, a former Brooklyn congressman whose district included Borough Park, once "created a furor by saying that one of New York’s seats in the United States Senate had been and should remain "a Jewish seat." "
Two top Jewish aides to Carey recalled this week how the governor met with the two Israeli prime ministers whose tenture coincided with his, Yizchak Rabin (in his first turn at the helm) and Menachem Begin, in New York and Jerusalem.
Menachem Shayovitch, who was a community laisson to the governor recalled how the governor once asked him why the New York Times kept omitting the letter c in the spelling of Begin’s first name.
“Begun and Carey really hit it off,” said Judah Gribetz, who served as counsel in the governor’s first administration from 1975-1979. “Begin was extremely gracious to Carey and vice versa.”
The governor’s mid-term visit to Israel immediately preceded the historic visit by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in NOvember, 1977, said Gribetz, who is today special master of Holocaust Victim Assets litigation. Immediately following their visit to the Knesset, Gribetz recalled, Begin went to address the Knesset about his invitation to the former adversary. When the New York delegation returned to the King David hotel, they were besieged by media inquiries about what the prime minister said about the pivotal turn of events, and what the governor may have advised the prime minister.
When the governor visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, he pointed out the spot on the map where he, as a young colonel and his fellow troops entered Nordhausen, the site where the Nazis used slave labor to build V-1 and V-2 rockets.
During his Israel visit, Carey also spoke at Bar-Ilan University near tel Aviv and visited the Golan Heights. After touring the former positions of Syrian soldiers there, Carey said Israel should never again relinquish the Heights, Shayovitch said.
Some time earlier, Shayovitch recalls, as a congressman, Carey was walking the streets of Borough Park when he encountered a survivor of Norhausen who remembered meeting the young soldier there almost three decades earlier.
The former aides noted that Carey, who was known for getting the state out of tough fiscal times, was helpful to Yeshiva University during a its own economic crisis.
In a 1986 interview with the Los Angelese Times, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then YU’s president, said he had reached the verge of filing for bankruptcy at the time. "I just couldn’t do it,” Lamm told the paper. “ We woke up Hugh Carey, and he persuaded the banks to talk with us."
In both his congressional and executive career, Shayovitch said, Carey, a devout Catholic, was ahead of his time in advocating for public aid for non-public school, a battle still being fought today but with some recent victories.
“Up to that time, no one supported the idea,” said Shayovitch, who worked as a public school guidance counselor at the same time he was an aide to Congressman Carey. “He had given testimony in Congress in favor of aid to public schools and wason the education committee.”
Now widely considered one of Israel’s legendary leaders, Begin was at first met with some skepticism and concern among American Jews who considered him a right-winger and former Irgun terrorist. But on one occasion, it fell to the Catholic politician from Brooklyn to defend Begin.
“He was speaking at an Israel Bonds dinner at the Essex House,” said Shayovitch. “He said that Begin was elected in a democratic process, and Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” An official so elected must be given the same respect as a leader in New York, the governor argued.
In an emailed commentary, former mayor Ed Koch, whose first term overlapped with Carey’s second, called him “New York’s greatest governor of the modern era."
“We were colleagues in government at a particularly important time in the history of the state and city,” wrote Koch, who was elected after defeating both incumbent Abe Beame and Carey’s choice, Mario Cuomo, in the 1977 Democratic primary. “For me, the best memory is our personal relationship: we were genuine friends.”
On a personal note, Carey was the first elected official I ever met in person, at a breakfast of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Civil Service, in the late 70s, where the governor graciously signed an autograph for a starstruck grade school kid attending with his father.