Albany Beat — May column

Bills To Watch

As the legislative session enters its final weeks, there are five bills of concern to the Jewish community but only one has any real chance of passage.

* The New York State Living Donor Support Act has a good chance of passage this year and is supported by advocates from the Jewish community.

New York faces a severe shortage of organs for transplant; the state ranks 49th among states in organ donor registration. In 2015, more than 800 patients on transplant waiting lists either died while waiting or became too sick to receive a transplant.

This bill would increase living donation by removing financial barriers and educating the public about living donation. It would provide reimbursement for living donors who are residents of New York and who make a living donation in which the ultimate recipient is also a New York resident.

Eligible reimbursement would include financial costs incurred by living donors as a result of living donation, including lost wages, sick and vacation days, childcare or medical expenses.

The bill has been endorsed by a broad coalition of stakeholders including Waitlist Zero, the Greater New York Hospital Association, the Northeast Kidney Foundation, and Mt. Sinai Hospital.

* With a new legislative sponsor and two competing bills, the Child Victims Act has emerged as a sleeper. The bill would allow victims of child abuse additional time than they currently have to make a claim against an individual and a religious institution.

The problem for leaders of religious institutions is that their learning establishments could be bankrupted. One source told me, “We are very concerned with the look back portion, which gives a victim a six-month window to go back as far as they like without statute of limitations to file civil suits. This could bankrupt a school that may have changed administration over the years, had nothing to do with the alleged acts and faces major liability. On the other hand we don’t want to be seen to be insensitive to victims of abuse.” Basically this measure would be more appealing to yeshiva advocates and could be supported if the liability aspect were removed.

* The Medical Aid in Dying Act, also commonly known as the assisted suicide bill, would allow people with terminal illness to choose to end their life by taking powerful medications that are approved by two physicians. Supporters of the measure advocate there are several safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the law.

Opponents, including the observant Jewish community, maintain an end of life diagnosis may not end a person’s life. One advocate opposing this measure told me he was given six months to live – several years ago. Had he had the option for physician-assisted suicide with the mediation sitting in a bottle next to his bed, he might have needlessly ended his life. The bill is sponsored by rank and file Democrats but leaders in both houses say the measure is not going anywhere this year.

* Assemblyman David Weprin (D – Hollis, Queens), who represents a significant Muslim and observant Jewish constituency, wants halal and kosher food options available in New York City public schools. He’s going it alone this year as his one-time Senate sponsor, Tony Avella, also a Queens Democrat, has dropped his support for the measure. No other senator picked up sponsorship of the bill. The advocates in Albany who keep a close eye on legislation concerning the Jewish community are supporting this measure.

Weprin says of the measure, “In certain cases, even though public schools already provide healthy and nutritious food options, students have to go without out eating and throw away lunches that do not meet their religious food restrictions. Offering students these types of food options, including halal, kosher, and vegetarian food options during lunch not only accommodates their dietary restriction but also enhances students’ awareness and respect for diversity in cultures, religions, and ethnicities.”

Opponents maintain that since the school lunch program is partially funded by the federal government, serving kosher or halal foods based on religious grounds violates the separation of church and state.

The measure is being held in the Assembly education committee and is not expected to go anywhere this year.

* The contentious issue of whether the New York City mayor should continue to have control over the New York City school system is heating up. Jewish community advocates support mayoral control because if there is a complaint or something goes awry there is one person to complain to instead of a wide-ranging board that stretches across all five boroughs. The measure is being held in the education committees in both houses but without majority support in the state Senate.

From Albania to Albany

Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj (D – Bronx), a son of Albanian parents, hosted the prince and princess of Albania on May 9 at the Capitol.

Crown Prince Leka II of Albania, head of the House of Zogu, and Princess Elia Zaharia told the story of the bravery of the Albanian people who saved many Jewish lives from the Nazis by harboring Jews during World War II. Albania, it should be noted, is a country with a Muslim-majority population.

The prince and princess of Albania with Bronx assemblyman Mark Gjonaj.
The prince and princess of Albania with Bronx assemblyman Mark Gjonaj.

Historical sources show that while approximately 600 Jews were killed in Albania, Kosovo, and other Albanian-controlled territories during the war, several hundred refugees hid and survived with the assistance of the local Albanian population. It is estimated there were 1,800 Jews in Albania at the end of the Second World War, eleven times the number of Jews who were living in the country in 1939.

The Jewish community in Kosovo never fully recovered from the war as many emigrated to Israel during the Communist period. About 300 Jews remained in Albania until the early 1990s. The official Albanian census of April 1989 recorded 73 Jews living in the country.

Virtually the entire Jewish community of Albania relocated to Israel after the fall of Communism. During the first six months of 1991, 350 Albanian Jews were airlifted from Albania to Israel in what was codenamed Operation Flying Carpet. Most of Albania’s 60 remaining Jews left in 1997, after the country became engulfed in a brief civil war.

As of 2011, 69 Albanians have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for their role in helping Jews in Albania survive the Holocaust.

The only public space in Albania dedicated to the Holocaust is a small display at the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Consisting of photographs, texts, maps and wartime documents, the museum was opened on November 29, 2004.

“The United States has no greater ally in the Balkans than Albania,” said Gjonaj from the Assembly floor when introducing the prince and princess.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the Jewish community of Albany to show our gratitude to the Albanian people for their extraordinary bravery in the Shoah,” wrote Rabbi Roy Feldman, spiritual leader of Albany-based Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob, in an e-mail to his congregants.

“Thanks to local heroism and refusal to comply with the Nazis, there were more Jews in Albania after World War II than before it,” said Rabbi Israel Rubin, rosh yeshiva of Maimonides Hebrew Day School in Albany. “This is attributed to besa a high code of honor and ethics.”

Albany Beat