A day after being heckled for his Israel views, Ritchie Torres gets a hero’s welcome at Bronx Jewish school

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(New York Jewish Week) – The day before winter break starts is often an exciting one at school, with pizza parties, movies in class and other laid-back activities. But at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox K-8 day school in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, the air was abuzz for a different reason: Their congressman, Ritchie Torres, was stopping by for a visit to reaffirm his support for Israel.

Torres, a Democrat who is an outspoken ally of Israel in Congress and online, was a guest of honor at SAR’s morning assembly, where the entire school community comes together to say Tehillim — psalms said for healing and protection — and sing prayers for Israel and the Jewish people, in a daily ritual that began the Monday morning after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

For the students at SAR Academy, Torres is something of a celebrity, having visited the school a handful of times in the past few years and even traveling to Israel with the school’s principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, last year on a Jewish Community Relations Council trip. The congressman, who was previously a member of the New York City Council, was greeted with uproarious applause — some students held posters reading “The Bronx Loves Ritchie Torres,” while others stopped him for a selfie or tried to give him homemade crafts. 

“I know, as a congressman, I’m not supposed to have favorites — but SAR is one of my favorites because it is a special and magical place,” Torres, 35, told the group of nearly 1,000 students and faculty. “It’s moments like these that we’re reminded that what matters most, and most in life is family, and friendship and faith.”

SAR Academy students lined up to take selfies and shake hands with the congressman, Dec. 22, 2023. (Julia Gergely)

It was a stark contrast from the reception Torres got Thursday night at a different Jewish venue, the 92NY Jewish cultural center on the Upper East Side. There, while discussing his recently passed bill to assign a special envoy for the Abraham Accords, the peace deals between Israel and Arab countries, he was interrupted by anti-Israel protesters who shouted, among other things, “Ritchie Torres, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” 

At SAR, however, it was all smiles for the Bronx native, who first traveled to Israel in 2015 with UJA-Federation New York and the JCRC when he was first elected to city council, and who has been a prominent supporter since. 

“When I’m in my district in a place like SAR, I’m warmly received,” Torres told the New York Jewish Week. “Obviously, among anti-Israel activists, I’m considered controversial. But in life, you have to fight for what you believe in.”

He said no amount of criticism could deter him from his support for Israel, which sets him apart from other young members of Congress, particularly representatives of color.

“I believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and I believe in the U.S.-Israel relationship and I’m never going to waver from that belief,” Torres added.

Ahead of Torres’ remarks, Krauss thanked the congressman for his continued support of Israel and SAR. “We never want our kids’ association with Israel to be negative or sad; we also know it’s important to tell them the truth, so there’s been a lot of sadness lately,” he said. “But what you chose to do today, on Erev Shabbat, right before we’re all going out for a well-deserved holiday break, is to share good and hopeful news. That’s what our children are hearing, and I promise you that that’s something they will never, ever forget.”

(L-R) Congressman Ritchie Torres, Rabbi Binyamen Krauss and Israeli Consul General Aviv Ezra take questions from a group SAR Academy students , Dec. 22, 2023. (Julia Gergely)

After Torres and Israeli Consul General Aviv Ezra greeted the student body with brief remarks, they held a small press conference of sorts with members of SAR’s student council, a group of about 10 students representing each grade at the school.

“This is really exciting for me,” eighth-grader Hannah Goldstein, the student council president, told the New York Jewish Week. “There’s a lot going on in Israel and there’s a lot of arguments about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s really special to have someone come that’s representing America and representing the Bronx and say, ‘This is what I’m standing up for.’” 

Torres told the students he saw them as being part of shaping a more peaceful future for Israel. 

“The future of the Middle East is neither pro-Israel nor pro-Arab — the future of the Middle East is both pro-Israel and pro-Arab,” Torres said in his remarks. “We are here at SAR because the students represent the future leaders of our society. These students are going to fight to create a world where all the children of Abraham — Jews, Christians and Muslims — can coexist in peace and prosperity. Yours is the generation that’s going to realize the Abrahamic dream and build on the foundation of the Abraham Accords.”

The students didn’t shy away from asking tough questions. One middle-schooler asked Torres what more he and the U.S. government could and will do to support Israel, while an elementary-aged boy wondered if Torres would consider supporting a country who has attacked Israel in the past if they were to need aid one day. 

To the first question, Torres answered that Congress was working on a security assistance bill for the replenishment of aid to the Iron Dome. And to the second question, Torres urged the student to draw distinctions between people and their governments, especially when thinking about supporting Palestinians in a path towards peace while holding Hamas accountable.

It was Torres himself who suggested a meeting with the day school students. “SAR is an iconic institution,” he told the New York Jewish Week about why he thought it was important to visit the school. “These students are going to be the future leaders who are going to be fighting for the world that is envisioned by the Abraham Accords, they’re going to be living in the world that we’re describing here today.” 

Torres then turned to the students and said: “All of you are fighting for the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and the right of Israel to defend itself against an existential threat. It’s an honor to be a righteous ally in that cause.”

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