Liberal rabbis take on East Ramapo

Liberal rabbis take on East Ramapo

Roiling troubles in school district engage Conservative, Reform communities

Members of Rockland Clergy for Society Justice are together at a rally. Rabbi Ari Hart of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale speaks; Rabbi Paula Mack Drill stands directly behind him. Rabbi Michael S. Churgel of the Reform Temple of Rockland sits at the far left. The three rabbis are, respectively, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. (Katrina Hertzberg)
Members of Rockland Clergy for Society Justice are together at a rally. Rabbi Ari Hart of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale speaks; Rabbi Paula Mack Drill stands directly behind him. Rabbi Michael S. Churgel of the Reform Temple of Rockland sits at the far left. The three rabbis are, respectively, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. (Katrina Hertzberg)

It is not overstating or editorializing to say that the situation in the East Ramapo school district is a mess. No matter who or what you believe caused it, or what may be keeping the issue from being resolved, the situation itself — the district’s poverty, the unusual demographics, the unconventional relationship between most of the board members and the district’s students, the students’ needs — is a tense and unhappy one.

As many media outlets, from local papers to the New York Times to the nationally broadcast National Public Radio show “This American Life” have described, and as a report — “East Ramapo: A School District in Crisis,” a November 2014 document compiled by Henry Greenberg, a fiscal monitor for New York State’s education department — shows, out of the 33,000 school-aged children in the district, which includes nine Rockland County towns, 24,000 go to private schools. There is a very high percentage of charedi Jews in the school district, and almost all of those private schools are yeshivas. As a whole, the district performed badly on standardized tests, had low rates of graduation, and came out low on all the conventional ways of determining success.

A majority of the school board members are Jewish. None of them send their children to public schools.

A majority of the school board members are Jewish. None of them send their children to
public schools.

An unusually high percentage of the district’s budget is dedicated to transportation, which includes taking yeshiva students to their schools, and to special education, which benefits yeshiva students as well as their counterparts in public schools, although the education department is not always happy with the way the district has chosen to spend its special education funds.

Also according to the report, the district’s funds are depleted, the majority will not allow taxes to be raised, the atmosphere at board meetings often becomes poisonous, with foul words exchanged and the board often retreating to private sessions; until recently it took comments from parents only once those private meetings were over, very late at night. The board has spent unusual sums on legal representation, and the firm it has used is controversial and widely disliked by the public, although it has been protected by the board. According to the board’s president, Yehuda Weissmandl, that firm no longer works for the board, although it apparently had been fired once before, only to return. As the financial crisis has continued, many teachers, administrators, and support staff have been laid off, and many arts and athletics programs have been terminated, along with full-day kindergarten. The cuts have been so deep that often students are unable to take the courses they need to graduate within the four years of a standard high school education. Many give up.

All this has left public school parents feeling underserved, unable to give their children the education they deserve, and profoundly voiceless.

In response, the board often accuses public school parents — who represent about 100 different countries, are more likely than not to speak a language other than English, and are unlikely to be Jewish — of anti-Semitism. The problems have to do entirely with inadequate funding and excessive government mandates, they say.

Despite the serious allegation in the Greenberg report, an attempt to have the state place a monitor in the district failed this spring in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, the liberal Jewish community in the county decided to act. The local rabbis were galvanized by the arrival of Adam Baldachin, a Conservative rabbi who arrived at the Montebello Jewish Center two years ago. Because he and his wife are still celebrating — and adjusting to — their new baby, a son, Lior, he was unable to talk about it (or anything else non-baby), but one of his colleagues, Paula Mack Drill, also Conservative and a rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, was able to talk about it, and about him.

“Rabbi Baldachin is really the source of the participation of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis,” Rabbi Drill said. “Before he came, many of us were wringing our hands, we were very worried, but we couldn’t get any kind of agreement from all the rabbis. There was a feeling that you don’t air your dirty laundry in public, and these were fellow Jews.”

In fact, the school board president, Mr. Weissmandl, refuses to engage with whether the board has made any accusations of anti-Semitism. “I have no comment on that,” he said. “I do not want to go down that road.”

He and the board have the entire community’s best interests at heart, Mr. Weissmandl said. “East Ramapo is a very complex, very complicated district. It is an anomaly in that it is severely underfunded and at the same time it is a very high-needs district. Our situation is very unique, and that makes it hard to run the district efficiently and provide for the needs of every child.”

He ran for the board, although neither his children nor any other children in his community who do not have special needs go to public school, because, he said, “I live in this community, I have lived here all my life, and I care dearly about every single child in the district.

“I think that I am succeeding in a lot of ways, not as fast as I would have liked, but this board has brought about a lot of change over the last couple of years,” he added.

He had a message to his doubters. “I say to them to look closely at my record, to sit down with me and get to know me, to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. To give the process an opportunity to work.”

Still, concerns continue to grow. The Rockland rabbis board is made up of representatives of the liberal movements; they are Conservative and Reform, and very few of their congregants live in the East Ramapo school district, and so they are not directly affected by the turmoil there. Still, there are many retired teachers in the Rockland Jewish community, and many parents of former public school students, and they were personally pained by what they saw. Their sense of morality was goaded into action. And the news from East Ramapo became harder to ignore.

When Rabbi Baldachin first arrived at his new shul, one of the first questions a reporter doing a new-rabbi-in-town story asked him was his feelings about East Ramapo, as he reported in a story in eJewish Philanthropy. He knew nothing about it then, but he learned quickly. He knew that what he was hearing was wrong, and that he had to act.

“So when Rabbi Baldachin came to Montebello and got involved in our board of rabbis, he spoke in an incredibly wise and prophetic voice,” Rabbi Drill said. “We needed him to get us jumpstarted about the need for tochecha,” for administering the kind of necessary rebuke to fellow Jews that the Bible and Jewish tradition mandate.

The board of rabbis joined with clergy from other religions to form the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, and they began an intensive lobbying effort, frequently going up to Albany to meet with Governor Cuomo’s representatives, eventually getting his ear, eventually getting Henry Greenberg’s report.

Dr. Oscar Cohen, right, and community activist Paul Adler on their way to Albany to lobby. (Rabbi Paula Mack Drill)
Dr. Oscar Cohen, right, and community activist Paul Adler on their way to Albany to lobby. (Rabbi Paula Mack Drill)

“We are organized by a couple of veteran NAACP folks, without whom nothing would happen,” Rabbi Drill said. “Chief among them is Oscar Cohen, who has been with us since the beginning. He is a longtime advocate for vulnerable people.

“He is also the retired headmaster of a school for the deaf, and without him nothing would be organized. He keeps us all in line. He’s your good old-fashioned secular Jew, and he is an amazing man.”

The members of the coalition that has come together over improving public schools disagree on many other issues — abortion rights, same-sex marriage, Zionism, among others, so “we have learned to keep our focus laser-straight on the kids of East Ramapo,” Rabbi Drill said.

Because the East Ramapo school board members and their supporters “have taken to screaming anti-Semitism, the presence of rabbis wearing kippot is essential,” she said.

The fight has been sobering — “I am a very wide-eyed, patriotic American,” she said, and therefore, at least on some subconscious level, she expected justice to be straightforward. It wasn’t. When the legislation to have the monitor in the district failed, she was shocked. “It was absolutely partisan,” she said; the Republicans didn’t let the bill get to the floor. Although, she added, “Part of it really is Republican ideology — the state should keep its fingers out of our school districts.” Still, it was painful.

Her own synagogue has taken up the challenge of helping students in East Ramapo. Among other programs and services, “Our kids volunteer with the kindergarten, which is down to two hours there,” she said.

Dr. Cohen, who is the education chairman of the Nyack and Spring Valley branches of the NAACP — East Ramapo is in Spring Valley — explains how he came to reach out to the board of rabbis.

“We have been working, trying to sit down with the school board leaders and leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community, ever since the majority of the school board became ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “We have brought in a law professor, Yishai Boyarin, a former Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper whose expertise now is in dispute resolution — his father is Daniel Boyarin, the well-known Talmudic scholar. Yishai was very interested in trying to bring peace to this issue, he spent a lot of time with it, pro bono, but the school board essentially told us, ‘We have the power, you don’t, and we are not interested.’

“We are not interested in demonizing or blaming or pointing fingers. We are only advocating for children. Period. We believe that state intervention is needed.”
– Dr. Oscar Cohen

“So then, in 2011, the NAACP filed a complaint with the Department of Education; that complaint has been ongoing for the last four years. There have been other legal attempts; the Advocates for Justice is a public interest law firm that came up here at the request of the NAACP and filed their own complaints. There really have been a number of attempts to find some resolution.

“And all the while we are watching services to public school students get cut more and more, and none of this seems to be getting any traction.

“And whenever anyone questioned the board or its motives, the board would cry anti-Semitism.

“I am of the school that says that if you can’t find a workable solution to a problem, change the problem. Redefine it.

“So if the fear of being charged with anti-Semitism was keeping government officials away, if that was the roadblock, then how could we counter it? So I started reaching out to people I didn’t know, to Reform and Conservative rabbis in Rockland.”

So this deeply secular man found himself organizing a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, sidestepping the landmines that could have exploded at any point. “We are not interested in demonizing or blaming or pointing fingers,” he said. “We are only advocating for children. Period. We believe that state intervention is needed.”

The problem, as he and his allies see it, is that “it is abnormal for people to be in charge of a public school system if they oppose that system for their own children. It is illogical. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I acknowledge that people often want to vote down taxes — often seniors, people on fixed incomes — but it is illogical to want to dismantle it.” Among other reasons, failing school systems often drag down real estate prices — but in the charedi community that is irrelevant, because the community sells its property to each other.

Meanwhile, the non-charedi Jewish community in Rockland has been trying to show that there is more to life in the county than the East Ramapo struggle would suggest. The board of rabbis has gotten a grant from the Jewish Federation of Rockland County — “a very generous one,” Rabbi Drill said — “to say that that we are Jewish Rockland. We live in the world, we want a thriving liberal Jewish community, but people from the outside say, ‘Why do you want to move there?’ They say, ‘Are you crazy? We don’t want to live in Monsey.’”

The campaign is up on Facebook; to see it, go to Facebook and type in “Rockland and Jewish.”

And the modern Orthodox community in Rockland, which feels constrained from making any kind of common cause with the movements to its left, “is under attack also,” Rabbi Drill said. “It feels like everyone is in their foxholes.”

She does have some good news. “Our synagogue is thriving. We have 500 families, about 70 of them from Bergen County. And Rabbi Baldachin’s synagogue is rallying around him. But his issue, with East Ramapo, is heartbreaking. Sometimes it feels like we’re doing great — but everyone around us is struggling.”