Cuomo straddled liberalism, sensitivity to the Orthodox

Mario Cuomo, the three-term New York governor who died Jan. 1, was the rare politician who appealed to the Jewish tent’s opposite poles.

A strident liberal with a nuanced understanding of the sense of vulnerability among the deeply religious in a secular society, Cuomo died of heart failure just hours after his son Andrew was sworn in for his second term as governor. He was 82.

Lopsided Jewish support helped propel Cuomo into the governor’s office three times, in 1982, 1986 and 1990. The state’s large Jewish community joined other liberal constituencies in celebrating the man who emerged in the 1980s as the most prominent vanguard against President Ronald Reagan.

Cuomo, addressing a gathering of Holocaust survivors in 1985, faulted Reagan for ignoring Germany’s past when the president agreed to mark the 40th anniversary of D-Day at a cemetery containing the graves of SS officers.

“The truth is, even those who are free of anti-Semitism …  are tempted to forget, to declare this ugly chapter of human history closed, done with, over,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo credited his sensitivity to the needs of the Orthodox to his childhood in Queens, where he served as a “Shabbos goy” for a synagogue up the street from the grocery owned by his Sicilian immigrant parents.

Cuomo created an office of assistant to the governor for Jewish affairs and broke with his party’s liberal wing on a number of church-state issues.

He helped Kiryas Joel, an ultra-Orthodox enclave in upstate New York, maintain a separate school district despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. He established the state’s Kosher Food Advisory Council and backed a bill that allowed an ultra-Orthodox ambulance service, Hatzolah, to expand its service.

Cuomo was an unstinting Israel supporter, visiting the country in 1992.“Until you come here, you know the words but don’t understand the music,” he said.

While governor, he banned New York state from doing business with anyone who complied with the Arab boycott and expanded business relations with Israel.

“Mario Cuomo understood both the needs of the Jewish community on a practical level but also on an emotional one,” said Ezra Friedlander, an Orthodox lobbyist. “[He]was a man of faith who understood the accommodations government has to provide to communities of faith to flourish, including the Jewish community.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief