MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Community leaders and elected officials looked into their crystal balls last week and spelled out what they hope to see in the coming year.
The event, Vision 2019, was part of Temple Beth Shalom’s 20th annual Millennium Breakfast, held Sunday, Jan. 27, at the synagogue.
Many of the speakers looked back on 2018 as a difficult and trying year, citing the rise in hate crimes, and the opioid and vaping epidemics that plague the region and the nation. But they said 2019 can be better if people practice kindness and work together as a community.
“Last year, I felt very optimistic about what 2018 would hold and I have to say it was not a great year for our country or the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Sarah Freidson of Temple Beth Shalom. “We saw an increase in anti-Semitism. We had the attack at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the first mass shooting at a synagogue in the United States. That hit me really hard. We have seen the vitriol in our country increasing and, as a spiritual leader, it can be disheartening. Our people have been through a lot, but we have survived much, much worse.”
Freidson said that while bigotry seems to have grown more acceptable, people of all political persuasions are speaking out against it.
“So, here we are on the cusp of another year. We are seeing hatred, intolerance, bigotry coming back and becoming more socially acceptable...and that makes us nervous,” she said. “It’s not the society we believe in and we are seeing an enormous backlash against that. We are seeing folks on the left and on the right speaking out against intolerance. We are seeing that swell-voices that are countering anti-Semitism.
“My vision for 2019 is that that continues, and we can look at these alarming trends and say we are motivated to strengthen relationships and our coalitions and continue to open our doors,” she said. “The best antidote to anti-Semitism is relationships. Part of my vision is continuing that work and take it even more seriously. We need to be more proactive in representing ourselves as a Jewish people.”
State Sen. Peter Harckham agreed with Friedman in that civil discourse has deteriorated and that the onus is on all of us to change it.
“Tone and invective: It starts with all of us,” he said. “We need to lower the temperature and take a civil tone in public discourse. That is what we are trying to do.
“What we have been doing since Election Day is meeting with as many elected officials and school districts and other stakeholders as we can,” he continued. “It’s a needs assessment. It doesn’t matter what political party we are in, we were all elected to serve the same folks. There are a bunch of things we can work on collaboratively.”
Putnam County District Attorney Robert Tendy said that his vision for 2019 is to be nicer to people but acknowledges that “sometimes “that can be difficult.”
“I’ve never seen such fighting on both sides,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be like this. Everyone in government has to realize that. Their egos are too big. We have to be more accommodating to each other.”
Putnam County Sheriff Robert Langley said that stemming the tide of the vitriol, as well as combating other social issues, starts at home and parents need to be proactive.
“It’s not just the schools. Education starts in the home with the problems we have in society-the vaping, the drugs,” he said. “It’s not just the school’s responsibility. It’s our responsibility as a community, as mentors, as parents to educate our young, ourselves. We can be our worst enemies. We can be ignorant. We need to open our eyes to what is going on. We have drifted apart. We need to come back together and have each other’s backs.”
There is cause for optimism, Langley added.
“We have rebuilt trust with the community, with law enforcement,” he said. “You have brought crime down; 136 crimes less from 2017 to 2018 [in the period of January through October]. What I look forward to is that number going down even further. When we stand together, the evil that plagues our community we will push back.”
Deacon John Scarfi of St. John the Apostle Church in Mahopac said social media is partly to blame for the social ills and we’ve “created a society of anonymity.
“ I can say anything to anybody and had no clue of the impact I had on them,” the deacon said. “But we are really not different. We all want the same thing but sometimes it gets messed up by what ‘out there’ is telling us. We can’t fix this in 2019 or 2020, we would be fools if we thought we could, but there are some things we can do
“First thing we need to do is really care about each other,” he continued. “If we don’t do that, nothing else will get fixed.”
Scarfi, a psychologist as well as a deacon, said he dreams of a world in which his profession and even law enforcement, is no longer needed.
“I would love for the district attorney, for the sheriff, for the government to be gone,” he said. “What I am trying to say is if we are a healthy people and really care about each other, we don’t need those things. As a psychologist, I have often wanted to put myself out of business … except business grew. Isn’t that terrible? But that’s where we’re at.”
Mahopac School Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo said he and his staff have created a five-year roadmap that he believes will bring some consistency and uniformity to the district’s curricula and programs.
“One of the things we have to do is say here is our vision-here is what we want to do and why, so the public will understand,” he said. “We want to get our students ready for college and a career, but also ready to become responsible citizens. That has to start early on, from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade.
DiCarlo said the district not only has to do a better job early getting its students to read and write and do math, but also be prepared socially and emotionally.
“If we can do that when they are younger, they will be ready in middle school for high school, he said. “By the time they get to high school, if we are still trying to play catch-up, we are in a really bad spot. We want to be more proactive than reactive.
“Academically, the goal is getting all third graders to be at grade level upon leaving third grade with a solid reading and writing program,” he added. “For many years in Mahopac [schools] everyone has been in their own fiefdom. They did what they did at Fulmar; they did what they did at Austin; they did what they did at Lakeview. By the time they got to sixth grade, teachers knew who came from where. That’s not acceptable. Everyone should have the same experiences no matter what grade level they are leaving. So, what you will see next year in kindergarten and first grade is the Readers and Writers Workshop Program. If we do it effectively, we stem the tide of kids going to special education or needing additional help. That’s the work we want to do; that’s the vision.”
Elected officials on the panel also shared their goals and legislative agendas for 2019. Harckham said he’ll be working to persuade the governor to adjust the proposed budget to include much-needed funding for local municipalities.
“We lost AIM (Aid to Municipalities) funding,” the senator said. “It was not always a huge number, but it was something that municipalities could build their budgets on. They’ve already set their budgets for the year and now they are looking at zero when it comes to [AIM], so we have to get that back in the budget. Things like the severe-weather paving program have been cut. There are things for the northern suburbs that we need to get back in the budget.”
Infrastructure repair needs to be a priority, Harckham added.
“We have tremendous infrastructure challenges,” he said. “When you get north of Mount Kisco, many of the homes that I represent do not have sewers or municipal water. It makes economic development very challenging.”
State Assemblyman Kevin Byrne also said infrastructure must be made a priority.
“We have to take care of the basics. It’s something every level of government is concerned about,” he said. “A recent report ranked New York State’s infrastructure as the seventh worst in the nation. There is a lot of room for improvement. “
Byrne also listed tax reduction, job creation, ethics reform and public health and safety as part his vision for 2019.
“The opioid epidemic continues to be pervasive and it needs to be a top priority and [we must] make sure dollars go where they need to go,” the assemblyman said.
Byrne also agreed with Harckham on restoring AIM monies to the budget.
“Cutting the AIM funding would be awful,” he said. “Every town in my district was zeroed out. Some say the funding is insignificant but it’s not. It’s one thing to downsize, but our towns need a consistent revenue stream so they can plan for the future.”
Tendy said his plans for 2019 include bringing in an additional assistant district attorney and the creation of the first narcotics unit in the history of his office.
“It will interface with the drug treatment court-alternatives to incarceration,” he said.
The DA’s office will also introduce an immigration-affairs unit and an immigration hotline.
“We are aware that immigrants, whether they are here legally or illegally, are always victimized by criminals,” he noted. “They don’t tell us because they are afraid their status will be revealed. We let them know that as a crime victim, we don’t care what their status is. It will be kept confidential. We want to get the message out.
Like Langley, Putnam Judge James Reitz said the solutions to 2018’s problems start at home.
“We are being challenged. It’s how we deal with the challenges,” he said. “The key is the home-early intervention and getting the foot soldiers involved.
“It’s not our government that is going to solve our problems,” he continued. “Speak up. . . . We need our moms and dads, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles to work together. Are you up for the challenge? Do you have the mettle; do you have what it takes? My vision is simple-bring everyone together.”