It’s a familiar scenario. In some corner of suburbia a new or expanding community of Orthodox Jews takes root. Hoping to attract others – particularly young families — the community’s leaders seek to create the infrastructure of a community, with the amenities that today’s Orthodox families have come to expect. Depending on various factors, the needed amenities may include additional shuls and day schools, a mikveh, a wide range of kosher food options and (unless there is already one in place) an eruv, the structure that enables observant Jews to carry on Shabbat on what would otherwise considered public streets.
In recent years, almost every Orthodox community of any significance in the US has erected an eruv. For the mothers of children too young to walk, the lack of an eruv essentially traps them in the house each Shabbat. The physical structure of the eruv is unobtrusive — only visible if you know to look for it — but for technical reasons, the construction of an eruv requires the cooperation of local municipal authorities, and often of public utilities as well.
In some suburban communities, plans for building or expanding an eruv have given rise to opposition from long-standing residents who claim to fear that the construction of an eruv will change the character of their community. It can’t be the appearance of the eruv that creates the opposition, since it’s barely noticeable. Some eruv opponents object to the cooperation of municipalities as an alleged violation of church-state separation, but unless the neighborhood is home to a high proportion of law professors, it’s safe to assume that the constitutional argument is the pretext, not the motivation, for the opposition.
Logically, there is only one reason for local residents to oppose an eruv: they want to limit the number of Orthodox Jews moving into the community. Instinctively, most of us would characterize such opposition as pure bigotry. Orthodox Jews, after all, can be, and usually are, perfectly good neighbors. Before writing off all such opposition as irrational prejudice, however, we should ponder whether those seeking to prevent a large influx of Orthodox Jews into their community might have legitimate concerns about how such an influx would affect the suburban lifestyle that they cherish.
To the typical suburbanite, a high quality local public school system is one of the prime attractions of suburban life. It is not an incidental benefit of residing in a particular neighborhood, but rather a frequently decisive factor in deciding where to live. Anything that threatens to diminish the quality of the local public schools is likely to make suburban public school parents nervous.
The vast majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Jewish day schools rather than public schools. Indeed, the near universality of Jewish day school education in the Orthodox community may be the most important reason that Orthodox Jews are successfully resisting the assimilatory pressures that threaten to engulf the rest of American Jewry. Orthodox Jews are not going to compromise their commitment to day school education, nor should they. But they need to be sensitive to the concerns of their neighbors.
It’s hard to fault public school parents who are concerned about the potential effect a large influx of private school families will have on their community’s commitment to high quality public education. America’s highly decentralized education system creates a strong link between geography and educational quality. In most of the country (except for some of the largest cities, including New York City) public schools are at least partly funded by local real estate taxes. Those taxes supplement state aid, which is generally allocated pursuant to a complex statutory formula.
School district budgets are usually subject to voter approval, and especially in hard economic times, approval of budgets requiring a tax increase is hard to come by. Even without a significant influx of private school families, proponents of increased education spending often face an uphill battle as older residents, whose children have already completed high school, increasingly give low taxes higher priority than school quality. It’s hardly irrational for public school parents to anticipate that Orthodox Jews whose children are in yeshiva day school will be unlikely to support expanded school budgets.
Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, often feel aggrieved by the educational system as a whole. Their taxes, both state and local, help fund public schools from which they receive little benefit. Direct subsidies to religiously affiliated schools are generally precluded by church-state considerations, though the courts have loosened those restraints to some extent in recent years. A few states have tried targeted voucher programs aimed at giving parents a means of escaping failed urban schools, and some Jewish day school parents advocate a universal voucher system to replace the current public school monopoly. Whatever the merits of such a change, current political and economic realities make it highly unlikely that any state will institute such a system in the foreseeable future. In some states, however – and New York is one of them – local school districts can provide a number of ancillary services (such as transportation, and textbooks) to private schools, including religiously affiliated private schools.
Of particular concern to those on both sides of the private school-public school divide is the system – if you can call it that – for providing special education services. As any parent who has gone through it is aware, the evaluation process to determine the precise services a particular student will receive is complex and cumbersome. In New York at least, if the needed services cannot be adequately provided in a public school setting, State law requires that the school district pay for the provision of those services in a private school setting.
This special education system creates an inherently adversary relationship between the parents and the local school district, since it is to the district’s advantage to offer as few services as possible, and to offer them exclusively – or almost exclusively – in a public school setting. The conflict between parents and school districts is further aggravated in the case of parents whose children attend Jewish day schools. Such parents, understandably, strongly prefer for their children to receive needed services in a yeshiva day school; the school districts, understandably, resist the extra expense.
As a result of the conflict inherent in the system, the parents of children with special needs often find that the only way they can assure that their children will receive the services to which they are entitled is by retaining a lawyer. Large urban school systems with permanent legal staffs have a significant advantage over parents in such a process, but small suburban school districts often face an unenviable choice between costly special services and unaffordable legal expenses. (By coincidence, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has complete control over the city’s public schools, has recently announced some regulation changes that are designed to ease the special education process and make it easier for private school parents to access. This was clearly made with students in religiously affiliated schools in mind.)
Systemic reform is needed, but it will be slow in coming, if it comes at all. In the meantime, those with conflicting interests need to find a modus vivendi for the sake of all the children for whose educational needs they are responsible. Those districts with large private school populations face a particularly difficult challenge requiring mutual sensitivity and respect. The ongoing conflict in the East Ramapo Central School District (ERCSD), in Rockland County, New York, provides a textbook example of how not to meet that challenge.
At the heart of the controversy are ERCSD’s unusual demographics. The district encompasses most of the Orthodox (and predominantly chareidi) communities clustered around Monsey, including New Hempstead, Spring Valley and the chassidic village of New Square. The ERCSD is one of the few school districts anywhere in which the students attending the public elementary and secondary schools are significantly outnumbered by those attending private schools, mostly the yeshiva day schools. It is not clear whether Orthodox Jews actually constitute a majority of ERCSD’s eligible voters, or merely a majority of those who bother to vote. (Some observers have suggested that a significant number of public school parents are new immigrants who are not yet citizens and therefore cannot vote, but I have not been able to verify that.) Regardless, what is not disputed is that the chareidim have held at least seven of the nine seats on the school board for a number of years, and the electoral process is unlikely to change that reality in the foreseeable future.
In good economic times, it might be possible to satisfy the needs of both public school and private school parents – but these are not good economic times. Many parents of the district’s overwhelmingly non-Jewish public school students — who are outnumbered by the Orthodox Jewish children who attend yeshiva day schools in the district – have accused the Orthodox Jews who dominate the local school board of cutting valuable public school programs in order to protect those ancillary services from which the yeshiva day school students may benefit, while encouraging Orthodox voters to vote against school budgets in order to keep taxes low. The school board members and their defenders have insisted that cuts in public school programs would be essential regardless of who was running the schools. The public school parents have retorted that reducing ancillary services to non-public school families could make some of the cuts unnecessary.
In addition, critics of the ERCSD school board have claimed that ERCSD, unlike most school districts, has given in too easily when a family whose child needs special education services has demanded a private school placement, thus draining desperately needed money from the public schools. They have also accused the school board of trying to sell an unused public school building to a yeshiva day school for a price well below its market value. Apparently, the yeshiva seeking to buy that building made an illegal pay-off to the appraiser. As the school board’s defenders have pointed out, however, there has been no evidence linking any school board member to the appraiser’s misconduct. The state education department has blocked the sale, but it remains unclear whether any potential purchaser of the building will offer a higher price.
Tensions have been rising for several years in the ERCSD, but until recently few people other than the local residents had paid much attention. The public profile of the controversy was raised significantly last spring when a coalition of parents and religious leaders accused the school board of starving the public schools of needed funds and sought the intervention of the State Department of Education. Of particular note was the decision of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group, to join the coalition. As a result of the coalition’s efforts, the State Education Department, at the urging of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has appointed a fiscal monitor for the district, though there is no indication that it intends to take over the district’s school system as a whole. The school board responded angrily to the appointment of a fiscal monitor, accusing the state authorities of capitulating to the “libelous accusations” of “bigots”.
One of the few things everyone in the ERCSD seems to agree on is that the formula that the state uses to allocate aid to local school districts assumes that public school students are the majority and thus shortchanges a district like ERCSD, where that is not the case. This was the primary argument relied upon by Rabbi Avi Shafran, the pugnacious defender of chareidi interests as spokesman for Agudath Israel, in response to Uri L’Tzedek’s criticism of the school board. In an opinion piece in the Jewish Week in April, Rabbi Shafran contended that “the state provides the district with insufficient funds for meeting anything beyond the bare-bone requirements of the law.”
It remains to be seen whether a significant change in the state aid formula is a realistic goal. But Rabbi Shafran’s contention that the formula was solely responsible for the devastating cuts to the public school programs in the district begs the question: if the school board really believed that, why did it make no effort to advocate a change in the formula before the coalition criticized it? The board members, after all, have a legal obligation to act in the best interest of the district. Why did they wait until they received well-publicized criticism from outsiders to call the State’s attention to the unfairness of the formula?
The bigger question, though, is the one the board’s critics have consistently asked. Why were seven chareidim, none of whom had or was ever likely to have a child in the district’s public schools, serving on the school board in the first place? The issue is not their legal right to serve, which is undisputed, but rather their motivation. School board membership is time-consuming and uncompensated, and the notion that they served out of an idealistic commitment to the public school students of the district wouldn’t pass what in my lawyer days we used to call the straight face test.
The only rational explanation is that the chareidim who dominate that school board are primarily there to maximize the money available for the services that benefit yeshiva day school families while avoiding or minimizing any tax increase. That is legal behavior in a democratic country, but not exactly the best way to remain on good terms with your neighbors. Some of the school board’s critics have made allegations of outright corruption, but, aside from the problematic appraisal, there seems to be no real evidence backing up that accusation.
Even if the substantive actions of the school board were entirely correct – and even if the cuts complained of by the public school parents and their supporters were entirely unavoidable – the board would still be at least partially at fault for the poisonous atmosphere that they helped generate. There are numerous clips on Youtube of public portions of various school board meetings over the last few years. I challenge any fair minded person to view any significant number of those clips and conclude that those public school parents and students were treated with the respect and courtesy that should be accorded to any fellow citizen seeking to address a public body.
Sure, most of the clips on Youtube, were posted by critics of the school board and are presumably the ones that paint the school board in the worst light possible – but even making allowance for selection bias, the behavior depicted on the clips should shock anyone who values civic harmony. Unless the clips were doctored – and to the best of my knowledge, no one has claimed that they were – then nothing can excuse the patronizing, disrespectful treatment of parents and even students by board members and their counsel.
To the school board members and their supporters, the criticism from the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek is particularly galling. Rabbi Ari Hart, one of that organization’s founders, has not been shy about labeling the school board’s actions as a chilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name). The school board and its supporters claim that Uri L’Tzedek got involved without knowing all the facts — by which they appear to mean without understanding perspective of the Orthodox school board members, who continue to insist that there was nothing wrong with their actions.
A debate on Zev Brenner’s radio show in May between Rabbi Hart of Uri L’Tzedek and Aron Wieder, a former president of the ERCSD school board, which can easily be found on line. (http://jpupdates.com/2014/05/13/rockland-ny-wieder-challenges-hart-east-ramapo-school-district-controversy/) provides some context for the controversy. Wieder trips up Rabbi Hart on some factual details, many of which have no relevance to the issues in dispute, but evades most attempts to view the situation from a broader perspective.
The result of this conflict is as unfortunate as it was predictable. Frustrated parents, feeling that their children’s education was being compromised and that those responsible were totally unresponsive to arguments and pleas, became increasingly angry and consequently less restrained in their language. Yes, some of that language crossed the line into outright anti-Semitism, and overt bigotry, on any side, should not be tolerated. But aren’t those who controlled the ERCSD school board, and hence its school system, at least partially responsible for the animus that they, whether knowingly or recklessly, provoked?
In his debate with Rabbi Hart, Wieder conceded only one mistake by the school board, its failure to handle the public relations aspect of the controversy. In this context, however, there is no easy separation between public relations and substance. The school board’s supporters claim that the public school cuts were unavoidable, but the very fact that seven Orthodox Jews are simultaneously serving on the school board undermines the credibility of that claim. If their control of the school board had no effect on the allocation of funds, then what are they doing there? If they believe that the accusations of their critics are examples of “shooting the messenger,” then why did they choose to become the messenger? The public school parents are frustrated not only by the cuts themselves but because they feel powerless to affect decisions that may have a substantial impact on their children’s future. Their perception of powerlessness is accurate even if their positions on some specific issues are not.
I have never subscribed to the belief that Jews in a free society like America’s should avoid seeking public office lest their actions in office give rise to anti-Semitism. We are fortunate to live as citizens in a country that enables us to exercise all the rights of citizenship. There is, however – or at least there should be – such a thing as common sense. Those whose appearance and lifestyle are conspicuous testimony to their adherence to Torah have a responsibility to act in a manner that brings credit to Torah. If they instead act, as they did here, in a manner that appears to be improper, they not only bring discredit to Torah, but, in our era of instantaneous communications, they threaten the interests of observant Jews elsewhere. The next time that a group of suburban residents objects to an eruv out of fear of the long-term effects of a large influx of Orthodox Jews, we’re going to find it harder to insist that their fear is irrational — and we will have the East Ramapo school board to thank for that difficulty.