A struggle for control of the East School Board in New York has pitted modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews against each other, with each side accusing the other of stirring up anti-Semitism.
The East Ramapo school district, situated in suburban Rockland County north of New York City, contains several largely hassidic communities including New Square and Monsey. More than 30 percent of the county’s residents are Jews.
The district’s schools have faced significant budget cuts in recent years. Class sizes have expanded, extracurricular programs cut and school buildings sold to yeshivas to the dismay of non-Jewish and secular parents.
The district’s growing hassidic community, which does not send its children to public schools, dominates the school board, where seven out of nine members are Orthodox Jews. East Ramapo’s decline and the resultant fight between ultra-Orthodox and gentile residents has garnered prominent media attention, with write-ups in publications such as New York magazine and The New York Times.
School-board meetings have grown heated, with board members invoking the Holocaust and death camps to quiet opposition, and parents and students beginning to view the fight for educational budgets as a religious conflict.
The state obtained a court order to delay the sale of a public school building to a yeshiva due to the sale price being far below market value.
Opponents of the board have said it used public funds to buy religious books for private schools and to pay for special-needs education for hassidic children outside of the public system, among other complaints.
The board and East Ramapo superintendent Dr. Joel Klein disagree, asserting that cuts in state funding have led to the difficulties.
It is less about religion and more about finances, the News 12 Westchester news site quoted Klein as saying.
Last week, an ecumenical group called the Rockland Clergy For Social Justice held a press conference in which it demanded that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo take direct control of the district.
Representing several faiths, including modern-Orthodox rabbis, the group said it will continue petitioning the state over the issue and that it plans on sending a delegation to the state capital, Albany, later this month.
One of the groups represented in the multi-faith body is Uri L’Tzedek, a modern-Orthodox advocacy organization.
“Reasonable people will disagree about the underlying reasons for these problems. Whatever the underlying issues, it has become clear that the current structure is not serving the needs of Rockland County’s children,” the group said in an online petition that has received hundreds of signatures.
The group asserted that it was “alarmed at rising rates of anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in Rockland County,” which it attributed to “misunderstanding and anger at the situation, primarily in the schools.”
Local students interviewed by New York magazine about the issue have said it is difficult not to see the issue as one of communal conflict in light of the religious disparity between those who run the district and those who rely on its services.
One former board member, interviewed by the magazine, reinforced this impression of racial tension, saying the hassidic community “stopped seeing the schools just as a burden and started seeing them as a resource to plunder.”
The ultra-Orthodox community, however, has a vastly different take on the matter.
One ultra-Orthodox member of the board was quoted as saying that people “want to see us gone because I have a yarmulke on my head” and that residents were resentful of the demographic changes wrought by the influx of hassidic Jews.
In response to Uri L’Tzedek’s statement, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a national body representing ultra-Orthodox interests, told The Jerusalem Post the conflict is due to the social-justice group.
“If there is more anti-Semitism in Rockland County, it is due to Uri L’Tzedek and similar groups that are promoting the lie that Orthodox school-board members in East Ramapo have short-changed public- school children in order to better provide for yeshiva students,” Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel said. “That is worse than untrue; it is a dangerous and scurrilous untruth.”
Severe cuts in state-allocated budgets have caused cutbacks in many areas, he continued.
“No school board operating in accordance with the law could have done anything other than what this one did. And for any group to insinuate that this board acted in anything but a responsible and fair manner is incendiary and a calumny,” Shafran said.