It felt like we had come full circle without moving forward at all.
We were asking the New York State legislature for the very same things that we had asked for five years ago. On the other hand, perhaps we needed a reminder that transforming broken systems takes a long time. We have made progress, but we have not reached our goals.
I am impatient working toward change. But I have learned to be persevering instead. Congressman John Lewis, one of my heroes, has said that what we need in difficult times is pilot lights, not fire-crackers. It is less exhilarating to be a pilot light, but I know that is how we will get the work done.
The Executive Committee of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice was meeting once again, this time to draft a letter to our state representatives in the Assembly and Senate regarding the public school students of East Ramapo Central School District. Five years have passed since the governor and the Board of Regents chancellor appointed Henry Greenberg to be a fiscal monitor and investigator, and he shared his findings in a report “East Ramapo: A School District in Crisis.” His forceful recommendations included these striking statements:
1) “It is unthinkable that additional state funds should be granted to the District absent an enforceable mechanism which would ensure such funds are allocated fairly.”
2) “No additional state funds should be given to the East Ramapo district without a vehicle to override, in real time, unreasonable decisions by the Board and Superintendent.”
Nominal progress has been made in the school district, enough so that protest and outrage went quiet for a few years. Five years after the Greenberg Report, however, there still is a gross lack of equitable delivery of funds and services to the public school children of East Ramapo. Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, since its inception more than seven years ago, has maintained a laser focus on one goal: ensuring the education guaranteed by the New York State Constitution for the children of ERCSD. We believe that this goal will be attained by the appointment of state monitors to East Ramapo who have the power to override unreasonable decisions from the school board or the superintendent.
To say that the times we are living in are complicated and confusing is a gross understatement. Rockland County is coping with serious issues of zoning, infrastructure, skyrocketing housing costs, and taxation. In the county, we are dealing with anti-Semitism and the aftermath of the horrific attack on Jewish people celebrating Chanukah at their rabbi’s home in Monsey.
In the midst of such upheaval and vulnerability, the Rockland County Board of Rabbis is working on behalf of the rights of 9,000 public school children of ERCSD, ninety-six percent of whom are children of color. By dint of this work, we thereby are critical of the decisions and actions of the members of the ERCSD board, where eight of the nine seats are held by people whose priorities are the 27,000 children attending the district’s private schools, 99 percent of whom are white.
Do we not have enough problems protecting our own Jewish communities from the violent rise of anti-Semitism? Should we raise yet more excuses for anti-Semitism in Rockland County? And more to the point, why is ERCSD our issue?
I glean wisdom from our teacher, Moses, who was chosen by God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into a covenant at Mount Sinai. One powerful rabbinic midrash explains that Moses proved himself in three distinct actions. First, he intervened when an Egyptian taskmaster was beating an Israelite slave. Next, he came between two arguing Israelites, trying to stop their quarrel. And third, he rose to the defense of the seven daughters of the Midianite priest when shepherds were driving them off from the well. Moses himself drew water for their flocks. According to the midrash, God chose Moses to lead the Israelite slaves from Egypt because he answered a call for justice from any source — whether the discord was between a non-Jew and a Jew, between two Jews, or between non-Jews. In this rabbinic consideration of Moses, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” applies to all people equally.
In the week when we observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I remind myself that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Change takes a long time, but it does happen when we keep a steady pilot light burning.
Paula Mack Drill is a rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg. She also has been a social worker at Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center and Golda Och Academy, both in West Orange, and the assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.