Michael Diederich opened his second attempt at becoming Rockland district attorney by targeting the lack of secular education in Hasidic Jewish schools as a potential misdemeanor crime.
Stony Point attorney Michael Diederich running for Rockland district attorney in 2019
Stony Point attorney Michael Diederich running for Rockland district attorney in 2019 (Photo: Submitted)
Diederich, 64, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and JAG prosecutor, joins four other Democrats seeking the party's line in the June primary. He is divorced with three children, having lived since age 4 in Stony Point, where his family owned a swim club.
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While discussing traditional issues such as violent crime, justice and corruption, Diederich set himself apart by arguing the lack of secular education in Hasidic schools is potentially child endangerment and a role for the county's top prosecutor.
"I am the only candidate addressing the most important criminal justice issue facing Rockland County — the criminally deficient non-education of Hasidic children in this county, and panoply of problems that result," Diederich said.
Diederich said he "will wield the sword of the prosecutor to protect Hasidic women and children against a Hasidic leadership that seeks authoritarian control over its members.
"I will protect individuals, and fight organizational abusers," he said, citing how some dissenters are ostracized and denied schooling. "The Hasidic leadership is an abusive organization when it comes to keeping its members inadequately educated and isolated from the larger American society. "
His views were slammed by an advocacy group for Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.
Yossi Gestetner, a founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, known as OJPAC, said he found Diederich's analysis of the community "shocking that an attorney for DA of Rockland unleashing a two-page tirade against Hasidim, saying at the outset that the most significant problem facing the county is the insularity and exponential growth of the Hasidic community."
Gestetner called Diederich's generalizing of a community potential grounds for disciplinary action.
"DAs prosecute crime; not communities," he said. "As such, this candidate’s approach would be illegal. Finally, his attack on the quality of education among Hasidim is misleading."
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Secular education in private schools has become a contentious issue.
Since at least 1947, the state has required that academic instruction in private schools be "substantially equivalent" to what public schools teach. Section 3204 of state Education Law has also required that public school districts be responsible for making sure that private schools within their boundaries teach what they're supposed to teach.
The law, by and large, has been ignored until recently when the state education commissioner clarified new guidelines and plans to enforce them.
Educators and officials within the Orthodox Jewish community have expressed concern that excessive state involvement with yeshiva instruction would intrude on their religious freedom.
A group on the other side of the issue, Young Advocates for Fair Education or YAFFED, led by Naftuli Moster of Rockland, has lobbied the state to enforce secular education standards.
The issue involves politics, as the Hasidic community's advocates have political clout with state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In Rockland,thousands of Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish voters — while not always totally aligned — are a potent force in the county, as well as Ramapo, and can tip a primary election to one candidate
Diederich said he's not violating ethical standards for attorneys but looking to uphold the law. He said the lack of secular education results in students burdening taxpayers by being unprepared to earn a living and potentially living off government social services programs.
'Much good and admirable'
Diederich, who has served in war zones in Afghanistan as a JAG officer, said he is not targeting individuals but a system that undermines people.
He also said he is suing the Roman Catholic Church, accusing the church and its leadership of abusing its religious authority. He said he's also represented a Hasidic woman in Rockland Family Court.
"There is much that is good and admirable in the Hasidic community," he said. "I will protect Hasidics and their families, and prosecute anti-Semitism and hate crimes. I seek only to fight what is destructive to Hasidic children and American society. A grossly insufficient secular education irreparably injures the child and threatens our democracy."
Diederich lost a district attorney race in 2003 against Republican incumbent Michael Bongiorno. He's since ran for state attorney general and criticized former DA Tom Zugibe while filing civil rights lawsuits, including against the state on the secular education issue.
Army Lt. Col. Michael Diederich Jr., a Stony Point attorney, was stationed at Kandahar Air Field, the largest NATO base in the world, as a judge advocate general officer. He is seen here in summer 2012.
Army Lt. Col. Michael Diederich Jr., a Stony Point attorney, was stationed at Kandahar Air Field, the largest NATO base in the world, as a judge advocate general officer. He is seen here in summer 2012. (Photo: SUBMITTED)
The four other Democrats running for district attorney are former prosecutor Patricia Gunning, former Judge Victor Alfieri, Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski and former Judge Thomas Walsh, who just resigned to run.
They are looking to win the June 25 primary to represent the Democrats in November to succeed Zugibe, who won election to the state Supreme Court in November.
A forum featuring the district attorney candidates is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 1 at the Louis Kurtz Center, 9 N. Main St. in Spring Valley.
Rockland Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristen Zebrowski-Stavisky distanced her party from Diederich's remarks.
"Michael Diederich has not been a Democratic Committee member for many years," she stated. "In fact, he last ran for NYS Attorney General on the Reform line, a more fitting home for divisive rhetoric. He does not speak for the Stony Point Democratic Party or the Rockland Democratic Party."
GOP Chairman Lawrence Garvey could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.