A Back-to-School Shmooz with Democratic State Central Committee Member Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer

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Featured article in Where, What, When. Original article found here.


Following in the footsteps of his community activist parents, Barry and Florence Schleifer (former Baltimoreans who made aliya three years ago), Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer serves our district on the Democratic State Central Committee. He is also vice-president of the Cheswolde Community Association, as well as the Northwest Baltimore liaison to the State Attorney’s office, and on the board of a handful of organizations: his shul, Suburban Orthodox; Hebrew Free Loan Society; the Meyerberg Senior Center; and the Red Cross Young Professionals. In this exclusive WWW “shmooz,” which took place just minutes before Yitzy and his wife Lauren hosted the barbecue for National Night Out (an American and Canadian effort to increase awareness about police programs and other anti-crime efforts), Yitzy shared behind-the-scene insights that show how you and I can help our community benefit from untapped government resources and programs.

WWW: The highly successful free summer lunch program for the children in our community has just concluded. What did you have to do to make that program happen?

YS: After I received a flyer about it from a City agency, I disseminated it through the Community Association to the community and received a phone call from a resident asking if there was going to be kosher food. I had no idea, so I called that City agency and was told that they have never been asked for kosher food, so never had a kosher food option. The program is 40 years old.

WWW: It is hard to believe that our community has never asked about this until now.

YS: Most of the time, the source of information about City initiatives comes from the Mayor through Council members via Facebook and email lists; we never got any of those notices. When I asked what it would take to have a kosher option, and was told it was impossible for this year, I asked what we would have to do to make it happen. I said, “Everything’s possible; tell me how the process works.” I was told that you have to apply by a certain time to have your own site; the deadline had passed, and the nearest location was far from our community. It was up to Martin’s Caterers, who they contract with, to provide kosher food.

I called them and they said, “No one has ever asked us. Call our kosher caterer,” which I did. Their kosher caterer was charging about double of what it needed to be, because they have a set cost of what the City was paying per child. Martin’s said kosher was too expensive and unless we come up with the difference, there is nothing much they can do to help us out. I asked if I could find someone who would sell kosher meals at the non-kosher price; Martin’s graciously agreed. Tov Pizza was able to, but only agreed to be the vendor if Sarah Wetstein, the coordinator of the school year lunch program, who knows the program rules well, was willing to do it. She jumped on board.

WWW: What is so phenomenal about it?

YS: This program is not income based, so you can have people from different backgrounds, circles, sides of town – everyone can eat side by side. That is what makes the program work. Everyone comes and enjoys, everyone gets the exact same meal, and it doesn’t make a difference who you are or where you came from; you can sit there, and it brings people together.

WWW: Where was the free lunch program held?

YS: Originally at Bnos Yisroel, because they are also a location during the school year, but, because we went way over the capacity, with lines going out the door, we started looking for a new location. On our busiest day we fed over 800 children! When I called Rabbi Taub about using his shul, he said, “This is what my father had built the shul for – to open it up to the community for such programs.” And without hesitation, he said, “It’s all yours!”

WWW: Isn’t there a Free Lunch Act so our kids can get free lunches during the school year?

YS: There is an income-based lunch program that requires a whole application process; if you qualify, you get either free or reduced lunches. During the year, Tov Pizza offers to sell lunch to those kids who do not qualify for this program. Since they go off the list of the names, those who can take advantage of this program are not identifiable. For the summer lunch program, there is no registration, no paperwork. You don’t even need to RSVP.

WWW: What about other government programs that our community might be able to take advantage of, such as free busing?

YS: Anything is possible. If you look at other states and cities and jurisdictions throughout the country, various groups have worked on those types of programs. Obviously, it wasn’t as difficult to get a summer lunch program as it would be to get busing for private schools, but there are a lot of these programs in the works; there are groups pushing for them. We all come together on multiple occasions to meetings with different elected officials, to bring the community together to affect these changes that we are looking for and desperately need in this growing community.

WWW: Do you think free bus transportation is going to happen sooner rather than later for our community?

YS: At any session, anything can happen. When groups lobby for one thing or another, there is no telling what is going to happen. We can’t predict what is going to happen tomorrow, but what we do know is that if you have a stronger voice, you have a greater chance of accomplishing these things than if you don’t have a voice.

WWW: There was a Mayor’s Back-to-School Rally, on Shabbos, August 8, where free back-to-school supplies were distributed. Can we cash in on this program, retroactively?

YS: I know of about four back-to-school drives, all held on Shabbos. The Mayor is notdeliberately having a program to exclude the Jews; that is not happening. It is simply an oversight; the Mayor is thrilled that I was able to bring the Summer Lunch Program to the Jewish community, which she had thought was already happening. Having someone who is involved on a day-to-day basis who knows about all the initiatives going on and who can try to tailor them to accommodate the full community, that is something that we desperately need. And it would alleviate the financial burdens that our community and many other communities in Baltimore face.

WWW: Are you asking people for their help to lobby for such programs?

YS: The number one thing that plays into how effective we can be is our political influence, because all these programs come from either the city, state, or federal level. In order to be able to have that voice at the table, where they say, “This is an important group to make sure that we can accommodate. We have four back-to-school drives, let’s make one of them on a Sunday,’ there has to be someone at the table fighting, day in and day out. This was proven in the past, for example, with our extra trash collection before Yom Tov or Pesach, after the City, in 2009, cut the trash collection from twice to once a week. This is also true regarding the guidelines set for how much you could put in the garbage. In our community, where many families have many kids, it’s a problem to whih no one had provided a solution, until a private company, Northwest Refuse, decided we could do our own trash collection.

WWW: Could the average person in our community do anything to help ensure that our community receives the same government program benefits?

YS: Yes. I’m just an average guy who sees a tremendous number of needs in different parts of the district, and I’m just trying to tackle each situation, one by one, as are many other phenomenal community leaders. This is not a one-person job. There are some people who embrace other people’s participation and other people who prefer to go at it alone; I embrace everybody’s participation, because the more people you have, the more you can accomplish and the more minds and ideas you have that could help these programs come to fruition. We have many great organizations, so we’re set up for success right now, with our tremendous community foundation, one of the strongest in the State. Yet, despite that, we are tremendously lacking the political influence that could help spur action and take things to the next level. It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation; we see that the organizations – such as such as the phenomenal Bikur Cholim and Ahavas Yisrael – that are embracing new, young leadership are having many creative new initiatives and programs.