Let’s look at the question of perception and reality.
Philosophers, neuroscientists, theologians, and college freshman have debated that abstract issue for at least as long as there have been philosophers, neuroscientists, theologians, or college freshman. But sometimes the abstract has to give way to the pragmatic.
Sometimes perception matters tremendously, sometimes the perception isn’t reality, and sometimes the two have to be brought into consonance.
Ergo, to go from the abstract to the very specific, Rockland and Jewish.
Rockland County has a population of about 324,000 people, and almost a third of them — 31.4 percent as of last year, to be exact — are Jewish. That makes it the county with the highest number of Jews per capita in the country.
But there also is a problem. Although the liberal Jewish community is old and well established, for some time now the public face of Jewish Rockland County has been its rapidly growing chasidic community. New Square and Monsey provide images of a certain kind of Jewish life that often appeal to less traditional Jews — but evoke nostalgia rather than a sense of belonging.
And, of course, the ongoing problems in the East Ramapo school district, which faces massive financial difficulties and allegations that the school board — composed mainly of chasidic Jews whose children do not use the public schools whose funds they control — has diverted funding in ways that profoundly damage the district’s public school students. The situation has become so dire that a group of liberal rabbis, who until recently decided that it was more moral to sit on the sidelines than to be seen as attacking fellow Jews, has taken a public stance against the school board.
The situation in East Ramapo is fluid. On Monday, a team of monitors, headed by former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, said that the state should send a special monitor with veto power to the district, that a monitor should oversee the school board elections, and that at least some of the board members should have a child in the system. It also endorsed a report, filed by another state monitor, Harvey Greenberg, last year, that witheringly eviscerated what is sees as the board’s fecklessness.
What all this means is that there is a huge divide in Jewish life in Rockland County, with the liberal streams on one side and the various thriving and vigorously differentiated chasidic groups on the other. (The position of the modern Orthodox community is a story for another day.)
That’s where Rockland and Jewish comes in.
Rockland and Jewish (or RocklAND Jewish), at the most basic level, is a Facebook page. It’s a campaign, created and funded by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County and the Rockland County Board of Rabbis, to bring the real face of Jewish Rockland to public view.
It shows the world that Jewish Rockland is not black and white but made up of glorious color. (To find the page, go to Facebook and type in “Rockland” and “Jewish.”)
“Rockland and Jewish is the result of a very generous grant to the Board of Rabbis of Rockland County,” Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of the Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Orangeburg, said.
“It shows people and has little short stories about their lives,” Rabbi Drill said. “It says that we look like all kinds of people, and that like everyone else we are part of the fabric of the county.
“It also shows all the great reasons to be Jewish in Rockland. People talk about the kosher restaurants here, and about hiking here, and about Nyack being a really funky cool place. There are some lively stories of Jewish life. If people to the right of us would open their eyes and look at it, they would see something.
“This is what mainstream Judaism looks like, and here we are, living it, in Rockland County.”
The Facebook page Rockland and Jewish has been up only for about three months, but it’s been about two and a half years in the making.
“Rockland and Jewish is a dream that really started percolating with Craig Scheff, my co-rabbi at Orangetown,” Rabbi Drill said. “He is the president of the Board of Rabbis, and Rockland and Jewish is his brainchild.
“He was talking about the quandary of negative press here, about Jewish people finding ourselves somehow in the middle, between not wanting negative press for any Jewish people and also not wanting to be identified with the behavior of people in this county who are not us. So we came up with the idea of showing that this is the way we live, and this is also Jewish.
“This was right around the time that the Rockland Board of Rabbis became involved with Rockland Clergy for Social Justice. Here at my synagogue, many congregants were asking the rabbis what we were doing about the negative press.
“For both non-Jews in the county and Jews outside the county, it started being very negative,” Rabbi Drill continued. “Say I’m part of a young Jewish family in Riverdale or the Upper West Side, and we’re looking to move to the suburbs. Why would I look to move to Rockland? All I hear is how horrible it is there, and I don’t identify with any of those people.
“For people who already live in the county, it’s an ego lift. We’re not awful people. We’re showing people in the county that we live just like you. Our kids play little league like yours do. We serve the homeless like you do. We live in your neighborhoods.
“We want people outside the county, young people, young families, to consider Rockland County as a good place to live, a place with a viable liberal Jewish community.
Rabbi Scheff agreed that the point of the campaign is to counterbalance negative images with positive ones. The way to do that “is to craft an image without creating a we/they situation, instead throwing it open to everyone who wants to be part of it by promoting the good things we are doing.
“We consciously made the effort not to paint anyone as ‘other.’ I personally feel strongly that if we are to call out our neighbors in any way it would be done more privately and more sensitively. This is our way of going positive.
“There are issues that we as individual community members use our own ways to fight injustice in this world, but as a board of rabbis this is something that we all could buy into comfortably and believe it. It expresses what we all feel.”
Because the group decided to use social media for its campaign, Rabbi Scheff asks people to support it by sharing it. “Sometimes people forget that it is their job to carry forward this mission,” he said. “As institutions we can come up with an idea, and it can look good, but it loses steam if individuals do not take upon themselves the responsibility for making it happen.”
In this case, it is not hard work. Don’t just “like” it, Rabbi Scheff urges. Share it. Press that button.
He calls the Facebook page’s relentlessly optimistic outlook, its refusal to be negative, “love bombing.”
“We love-bomb our community,” Rabbi Scheff said. “Look at how wonderful everything could be.”
Barry Kanarek is the cantor of the Nanuet Jewish Center, a Conservative shul, and he is also the director of the federation’s Rockland Jewish Initiative. He enthusiastically supports the Rockland and Jewish campaign from both positions.
Cantor Kanarek thinks that there is far more cooperation between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities than public perception will grant, and that perception in this case is not reality. “We have had a number of celebrations with Jews from the Orthodox community,” he said. “We all celebrated Sukkot together, and some of us go and learn with them on an ongoing basis. They are doing kiruv,” outreach, he said. But it’s not unequal, no matter what the word kiruv might imply. “If you have two Jews studying together, that’s equal,” he said. They also make music together. “Our synagogue has a group called the Temple Dudes, and they have a group called the Traveling Chasidim, and we play together.
“I don’t think that Rockland and Jewish exists because we have separate communities,” he said. “It exists to show another side of Rockland, but not necessarily to draw us apart. It is just to highlight this other part.”
“Rockland is a thriving Jewish community, and a wonderful place to live,” Rabbi Daniel Pernick of Beth Am Temple in Pearl River said. “I say this as someone who never wanted to live in New York. I am from Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, and my wife is from Boston. Neither of us wanted to live in New York,
“But we have lived here for a little over 30 years, and it has been a wonderful place to live.”
He is entirely comfortable with Orthodoxy, Rabbi Pernick said. He keeps kosher, and benefits greatly from the butcher shops and restaurants that thrive in the county. He has four children; one of his sons is about to graduate from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox seminary in Riverdale, and his son-in-law was ordained there.
The campaign is to show “that although the news stories about Rockland are correct, and those issues are in the community, and it would be silly to claim that they aren’t — they aren’t part of most people’s daily life.”
He is saddened by the chasm that seems to increase between different groups of Jews, he said. It wasn’t always like that. “About 20, 25 years ago, we all came together,” he said. “There was an anti-Israel defacement of Temple Beth El in Spring Valley,” a Reform congregation that recently merged with Temple Beth Torah to form the Reform Temple of Rockland but was flourishing then. “The attack wasn’t as much anti-Semitic as it was anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, and it clearly came from someone within the charedi world.
“Ramapo’s town supervisor, Herb Reisman, held an unprecedented meeting, and called everyone in — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, chasidic. Everyone. He said, ‘You guys have to talk. This is unacceptable.’ And a lot of contact came from that. It petered out eventually, but a lot of relationships continued.
“We have our own identity,” Rabbi Pernick said. “There is a thriving Jewish community, and it is fascinating. Not everyone is exactly the same.
“The problem is that people feel that they are not being seen or heard or understood, because someone else is always getting the attention. Frankly, when somebody dresses different or looks different, that’s who gets the attention. So if you look on TV you see only chasidic Jews, as opposed to people who looked like me or like you, because we look just like everyone else.
“We are not newsworthy. We are just living our lives.”
Beth Singer of Beth Singer Design created the Facebook page. “The campaign’s objectives are to improve and restore the self-esteem of the Jewish community in Rockland, and to increase the public’s understanding of the diverse Jewish population there, and to differentiate them from ultra-Orthodox Jews,” Ms. Singer said. “Our campaign messages are that the Rockland Jewish community is diverse, vibrant, engaged, and tolerant, and that it has a positive effect on the community, and that Jews in the county are mainstream and responsible; that they are very different from the Jews who have dominated the news.
“The Rockland Board of Rabbis was very concerned about non-ultra-Orthodox Jews moving out the county. They were afraid that the population would shrink, and that it would become very difficult to attract more Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jews. The public perception of the Jewish community was becoming too negative.”
Ms. Singer, whose design and communications firm has worked with many Jewish clients, brought a team to Rockland, and the group — four crews, two making videos and the other two taking still photos — did 80 interviews over the course of two days, she said. “We put together a diverse list, so we could focus on all different aspects of the community.” Rabbis also were asked to talk to their congregants, hunting for volunteers.
Which stories have been the most powerful? Rabbi Scheff’s son, Jared, “said that he had been shomer Shabbat for his whole life, and when he invited his friends for Shabbat at first they would turn up their noses. They said they didn’t want to disconnect. And then they would come anyway, and they’d be delighted. They’d feel so taken care of, so wonderfully enveloped by the Scheff family. Jared was so proud that he could show his friends the joy of being shomer Shabbat.
“The most interesting thing about it, though, was that in the comments a young man said ‘I was one of those people, and I credit who I am as a man to the shomer Shabbat experiences at the Scheff house.’ It was just so beautiful.
“And there was Paul Galan, a Holocaust survivor, who said that he wasn’t bitter and that we should all look forward and not be bitter. The video crew told me they cried when they filmed it.”
There are many other stories on the page already; from a widow who started a support group for young widows and widowers from a woman who converted to Judaism and for the last 15 years has been teaching about prayer in her synagogue; from a young modern Orthodox woman who talks about how much she loves the Rockland Jewish community.
“The goal is to be positive,” Ms. Singer said. “We have a very clear directive not to be negative. Our goal is to restore pride in the Jewish community.”