Life Lessons From a Jewish Public Servant

Assistant Vice President for Government Affairs Phil Goldfeder Shares Political Experience with Honors Students

For those curious about how to balance Judaism with a life of public service, Phil Goldfeder, assistant vice president for government affairs at Yeshiva University, gave a funny and inspiring rendition of his life’s journey titled “From Albany to Oklahoma” to students in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program as part of their lunchtime lecture series on April 26.

Goldfeder was born and grew up in Queens. “I went to yeshiva through 12th grade, wore a black hat and spent two years in Israel,” he said. “As you can see, I grew up on the more conservative side and the path I thought I had to follow was to go to college and then on to law school.”

Phil Goldfeder, assistant vice president for academic affairs, shares his political experience with students in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program.
Phil Goldfeder, assistant vice president for academic affairs, shares his political experience with students in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program.

He attended Brooklyn College, where he immersed himself in extracurricular activities, including a run for student council which he lost by 247 votes.

The loss, though, only whetted his appetite for politics, which led him to an internship with New York State Senator Charles Schumer. Working with the senator’s staff was an exciting experience, and part of that excitement involved his growing self-knowledge and self-confidence. “Even though I took the internship to get myself outside what had been an insular world, I also made a conscious decision to wear my yarmulke because it kept me straight and told people who and what I was,” he said.

After the internship was over and in the interim between being accepted for law school and attending classes, Goldfeder decided to work with a local city council member in New York City. Through that work, he gained an understanding of “government in its purest sense.” As he took phone calls about potholes, parks, schools and trash pick-up, “I learned that the basic fundamental principle of government is to serve the people you represent and bridge the gap between the people and government services.”

In 2005, after working with the city council for two years, he was asked to run Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election campaign in Queens, a borough of 2.3 million people. After Bloomberg’s successful election, he stayed on to run the community affairs office in Queens. “My message was that you didn’t have to fight City Hall; instead, City Hall would come to you.”

This resolve was severely tested when Sean Bell was killed by New York Police Department officers in November 2006. “I essentially lived in the district for the next three months, bunking down at a precinct police station, going to rallies, protests and community meetings to find out what people needed and wanted and doing my best, on the mayor’s behalf, to deliver what could be delivered.”

A testament to Goldfeder’s effectiveness was a Quinnipiac poll in 2007 that showed the public’s assessment of Bloomberg’s handling of the incident improved in all categories and among all demographic groups.

After two years with the Bloomberg administration, Goldfeder went back to work with Schumer on intergovernmental affairs, responsible for the taking the pulse of New York City for the senator. Then in 2011, Goldfeder decided to run for the New York State legislature as the representative for the 23rd District in the State Assembly, his old stomping grounds of Queens and Rockaway.

Barely before he had time to get settled in his new position, Hurricane Sandy hit, and he suddenly found himself in another disaster situation, but one, as he said, “that had no playbook to follow.” He went back to doing what he know how to do best: speaking to people to find out what they need and then doing his best to get them those resources. Over the next four years, by dint of hard work and luck, he became an expert in natural disasters, wrangling the multiple agencies, organizations, companies and others who had a say in rebuilding and renewing the area.

In 2013, when an EF-5 tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, he traveled there to offer the state what he had learned dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. He immediately worked with the state legislature to help them manage the situation, and over the next several days, he did everything from offering advice about how to navigate the system to working with families to find lost mementos in the rubble of their homes.

“Being who we are, doing what we do, even if we’re doing it on top of a pile of trash, can have the biggest impact on lives,” he told the students. “It’s not about the grand moment. It’s about going through your daily life knowing that people are watching you and you never know where that impact is going to be.”

His new position at YU is, in part, what he called a “refresher.” He noted that everyone needs to take moments to reassess and recalibrate their journeys because it is easy to lose one’s essence and soul. “Being here now, at YU, telling these stories, interacting with students, and giving you this idea that we can do different things and sometimes walk outside the path but always being true to who we are, is my new mission, my new goal and my new challenge,” said Goldfeder.