Power Couple Also Powers Down

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Rapfogels make time for each other once a week, no matter what

By Josh Rogers

Teen marriages can get a bum rap sometimes.

Judy and William Rapfogel got married at age 18 and have spent their whole adult lives together. They went to different colleges in the city, ran a newspaper together and eventually settled into demanding jobs. She is the longtime chief of staff to an Albany powerhouse, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and he, the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. They"ve had jobs that have taken them out of their beloved Lower East Side neighborhood and they spend most of their time working, but one thing has kept them together for 38 years.

In separate telephone interviews, both said their Judaism is a key to staying together. Observing the Sabbath every week means their jobs don"t completely consume their lives.

Ora and Michael Rapfogel, left, with his parents, William and Judy Rapfogel.

Ora and Michael Rapfogel, left, with his parents, William and Judy Rapfogel.

“It"s a 25-hour block of quality family time, said William Rapfogel. “We don"t watch any TV, we don"t use the computer, no telephones. It"s like you have a weekly family retreat. It"s extraordinary.

The pair met at the Educational Alliance, where Willie, as Judy calls him, was running a low-priced cafe for teens who were just a few years younger than them.

She started volunteering at the settlement house, and it wasn"t long after that they began dating. They got married a few months later.

The next year the Rapfogels started running their own newspaper, Jewish People.

“We were young and more idealistic about the journalism than we were interested in the business end, William said. “You can"t pay the bills that way.

After a few years, he left for city government, joining the Koch administration, and she made her way to Silver, first as a campaign volunteer.

Judy has been working for Silver for three-plus decades, but she can"t remember exactly when she got her current title.

“Thirty-five years ago there wasn"t a staff to be chief of, so I sort of grew into the position, she said late one night in the middle of talks to extend rent protections for city residents.

The first victory she remembers was stopping a large garbage incinerator, which she said would have hurt not only Williamsburg, where it was slated to be built, but also the Lower East Side, which would have had to breathe the fumes across the river. Had the project been built, she says she would have moved her family out of the Lower East Side. And now, like her husband, she can"t envision ever leaving.

With three sons and six grandchildren, she has a soft-spoken, maternal manner, but Judy Rapfogel is also known in Albany circles as a strong and passionate advocate for Silver"s agenda.

She serves on the board of the Trust for Governors Island and represents Silver at every meeting of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Rapfogel is most proud of the work she and Silver have done over the years to help residents recover from 9/11. She said in the days after the attack, Silver ordered his Albany staff to Lower Manhattan, going door to door, with food, water and medicine. “We rented a Winnebago's I didn"t even know what that was, Rapfogel said. “Usually you join the Peace Corps to do this kind of work, but we were doing it in our own neighborhood.

Rapfogel, who often is working on statewide issues, said it was the kind of hands-on local effort that her husband works on every day.

William Rapfogel took over the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in 1992. He said when he started, the group was already shifting its focus away from helping only one religion.

“In 1972 [when Met Council was founded], at that time people didn"t think there was anything like poor Jews out there, he said.

He estimates that roughly half the group"s clients today are non-Jews. Met operates 600 low-income housing units in Manhattan, and almost all of them are on the East Side. Citywide, the group has over 1,800 units, serves hundreds of thousands of meals a year and provides about $3 million in assistance.

Much of the council"s housing represents the 20 percent of “80-20 development projects, where most apartments are market rate. He said most of this affordable housing is in standalone buildings, which makes it easier to provide more assistance to people in need. “The beauty of off-site [affordable housing] is we can cluster the social services care, he said. Many of Met"s clients are just above the poverty line, making them ineligible for certain government services. He also donates some of his spare time advising neighborhood groups like Hatzalah volunteer ambulance services. Two of the Rapfogel sons, Michael, an attorney, and Mark, a college student, volunteer for the service. Jonathan, the third son, lives in Far Rockaway with his wife and their four children.

Michael, 26, is raising his two daughters with his wife, Ora Rapfogel, in the same Grand Street Houses building as his parents, who somehow find the time's occasionally's to baby-sit. He works on government relations at Forest City Ratner, a Brooklyn-based developer whose projects include a Spruce Street school and a residential tower about to open on Lower Manhattan"s East Side.

“It"s obviously a gorgeous building designed by Frank Gehry that enhances the New York skyline, he said. “I can see it coming over the Brooklyn Bridge and from my building. The school will provide more seats for kids.

He and his family often join his parents for Sabbath dinner or lunch, and they daven together at the Bialystoker Synagogue with neighbors like Speaker Silver, who lives across the street.

He also can"t see moving out of the Grand Street complex. “It"s an oasis in the city, said Michael. “There are parks on every block and more trees than anywhere except Central Park.

Judy said she still gets enormous satisfaction in her current job, doing things like helping the neighborhood"s historic settlement houses.

She laughed girlishly when asked about one in particular. “I love all the settlement houses, but I do have a soft spot for the Educational Alliance.

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