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In this June 8, 2013, photo, students of the East Ramapo School District hold a sign during the One Voice United Rally in Albany, NY. (AP Photo/Shannon DeCelle, File)
In this June 8, 2013, photo, students of the East Ramapo School District hold a sign during the One Voice United Rally in Albany, NY. (AP Photo/Shannon DeCelle, File)

In a NY town, increasing Haredi influence turns a school board into a battleground

A court says public schools in Ramapo, home to a large and growing ultra-Orthodox community, have been gutted by officials who prefer that tax funds benefit religious school pupils

Nestled in a nook of Rockland County, where the dense network of suburbs north of New York City give way to leafy tree-lined neighborhoods, forested boulevards, sprawling subdivisions and even farmland, lies the town of Ramapo.

Made up of over a dozen distinct hamlets and villages over 61 square miles, Ramapo is a town in name only. Its communities range from rich to poor, urban to rural, progressive to conservative; some have dense ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and some are largely Black or Latino, but as a whole Ramapo’s demographic makeup largely mirrors that of the United States. Some see it as a microcosm of the nation as a whole.

Behind the suburban idyll, though, the town has also become ground zero for a Kulturkampf pitting a booming ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredi, community against secular residents who worry that their needs and way of life are being shunted to the side as they recede into the minority.

A decade ago, Matthew Townsend was a struggling student at Ramapo High School when he enlisted in the pre-military Junior Reserve Officer Training Course, better known as JROTC. He credits the program with giving him a zeal for helping others that has lasted to this day.

“One of the key lessons that I’ve learned was ‘service before self,’” Townsend told The Times of Israel recently. “There are certain things we want to accomplish personally, but we realize, by doing it for the greater good, it tends to have a bigger impact for all of us.”

By the time Townsend was a senior, though, his school was cutting programs like art, advanced placement, and athletics to deal with budget cuts. Eventually, the program that gave him direction, JROTC, fell victim as well.

The cuts were the start of a trend that would see the East Ramapo School District, which covers much of the town, slump from one of the top school systems in the state to one of the worst. In January, the state deemed it the most fiscally stressed school district in New York. Critics charge that instead of fully funding public schools, the majority ultra-Orthodox school board has shifted money to services that benefit the ultra-Orthodox, such as buses and special education.

A New Square bus in Ramapo, NY. (CC BY ThoseGuys119, Flickr)

School boards across the US have recently become an ideological battleground, sundered by disputes over masking policies and critical race theory curriculum. But the East Ramapo school district has been for years at the center of a battle over what critics have deemed unofficial segregation and a contentious debate over the role of public money in religious institutions.

“They were just simply taking money from the public trust and paying for private needs. To me, it’s just as wrong as if they’d gone out and bought themselves a yacht,” Steve White, an activist for the public schools, told The Times of Israel, referring to the ultra-Orthodox on the school board.

“Public money is for the public use. Just because you’re the president of the school board, doesn’t mean you can just say, ‘oh, I think it should be spent on something else.’ It’s irrelevant whether something else is a private education or a private car.”

‘Jim Crow education’

Home to ultra-Orthodox redoubts such as Monsey and New Square, Rockland County claims to have one of the highest proportions of Jewish residents nationwide. Most ultra-Orthodox parents shun public schools, instead sending their children to a wide array of yeshivas and day schools that focus on religious subjects and texts.

Ramapo overall is 70% white and 27% Black or Hispanic, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. However, in East Ramapo school district, 96% of the approximately 8,500 public school students were people of color in 2017, while more than 99% of the 27,000 private school students were white, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

It was in 2017 that the NYCLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the local NAACP and seven Black and Latino residents against the school board alleging that minorities have been unable to meaningfully participate in school board elections for a decade.

From left: Then-East Ramapo School Board president Daniel Schwartz and board members Yehuda Weissmandl and Eliyahu Solomon attend a board meeting on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, in Spring Valley, NY. (AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerald)

At the time of the lawsuit, Orthodox Jews held six of the nine seats on the school board in East Ramapo, a majority the community had commanded since 2005, giving it the ability to influence the direction of public schools and education budgets.

NYCLU argued that this arrangement led to a massive disparity in the quality of education across the community, referring to it as “a regime of 21st Century Jim Crow education.”

In January 2021, after a long court battle, an appeals court affirmed that the election system for the East Ramapo school board violated the Voting Rights Act enacted in 1965 to curb racially discriminatory voting laws and processes.

“While correlation is not necessarily causation, the circumstances [in East Ramapo] indicate that schooltype is a proxy for race. Those policies favorable to the private-school community come at the cost of the public-school community,” the ruling said.

But with the school budget contingent on approval by referendum, activists say more needs to be done to address the disparities between schools available to all residents and institutions that exclusively serve ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“Because our private schools are more religiously-tied, it tends to create that divide of, if you don’t practice my religion, then you can’t necessarily receive these benefits,” said Townsend, who is teaming up with Cornell University to provide leadership training in hopes of fostering political engagement in underserved communities. “It’s really a sad thing what’s happening in the district.”

From proficient to crisis

Steve White has fond memories of growing up in Ramapo and attending East Ramapo schools in the 1970s.

“When I went there it was arguably one of the better districts in the state. There was really almost everything you could imagine,” White said.

Steve White in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

By the time his kids were students there, in the 2000s and early aughts, though, the schools, and community, had changed radically.

It was in those intervening years that Rockland County saw an influx of Haredi Jews that started out large and then snowballed. No detailed study has ever been done of the Jewish population in the county; Rockland’s Jewish leadership declined to participate in a 2011 study of New York cities and suburbs, according to a demographer involved.

But published estimates by the American Jewish Yearbook and American Jewish Population Project point to the addition of some 30,000 Jews — rising from approximately 80,000 to 110,000 — between 1990 and 2020 across the county. Over the same period, the total county population grew from 265,000 to 325,000.

Anecdotal evidence points to a large share of the ultra-Orthodox growth being centered in East Ramapo.

Schools were still performing well, though. In 1999, 87% of high schoolers were deemed “proficient” in the Regents English examination, which is needed for a high school diploma, well above average for the state at the time. By 2019, only 65% in East Ramapo would be able to reach the same standard, nearly 20 points lower than the state average.

In this December 30, 2019, photo, a group of Orthodox Jewish children cross the street in Monsey, NY. (AP/Seth Wenig)

Things began to go downhill in 2005, according to White. That year, Orthodox Jews won enough seats on the East Ramapo Central School District board to have a majority for the first time.

For years, the Orthodox community had fought property tax levies to fund public schools, which few Orthodox Jews utilized. They also sought for a bigger slice of public funding for schools to go to Jewish day schools, yeshivas and other religious institutions.

Now with a majority, they were able to push through the changes they sought.

The decline only accelerated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which had helped contribute to state budget shortfalls. In 2011, Andrew Cuomo came into office as governor and announced a $1.5 billion cut in previously earmarked school aid to help make up the deficit.

Where are they all going?… These are all programs that, in one way, shape or form, helped students really change their lives

“The real trouble began under Cuomo, when he did something called ‘clawing back’ money that was intended for distressed small districts,” said Lawrence R. Lynn, mayor of the neighboring town of Grand View-on-Hudson.

He recalled that in dealing with the shortfall, the board was faced with a choice: ask residents to make up for it, or cut services. Given that most board members sent their children to private schools, they chose to cut.

“There’s a big cultural gap there, but on the other hand, [the ultra-Orthodox] didn’t want to pay higher taxes to cover money that the state had promised and then clawed back. And that’s when things began to go really sour,” Lynn added.

Between 2009 and 2012, 400 teaching positions were eliminated, according to a state report on the East Ramapo schools. Gone were all social workers, big parts of the administrative staff, music programs, AP classes, and extracurriculars like the JROTC program. Even the director of the prestigious district marching band — a source of pride that was featured in the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” — was let go in 2012.

The East Ramapo marching band in the 2004 remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ (Screenshot)

Townsend recalled being nonplussed at what seemed like program after program falling by the wayside.

Matthew Townsend on July 30, 2021. (Courtesy)

“Where are they all going? We’re losing a lot of them… ROTC programs or the AP program for the different classes. These are all programs that, in one way, shape or form helped students really change their lives,” he said.

By 2014, the state had decided that it needed to step in to address the rapidly deteriorating situation. In June, then-head of the State Education Department John King Jr. — who would later rise to become the US secretary of education — appointed a fiscal monitor to assess the state of the schools in the district.

The resulting report, “A School District in Crisis,” was excoriating. King charged that the school board had instituted poor financial practices and that the district had “no strategic, long-term plan or plans for the future.”

According to the report, from 2009 to 2014, the board went from having $12.5 million in reserves to a deficit of $7 million, and saw other restricted funds dry up as well.

But at the same time as it was cutting public school activities, the board increased spending on services utilized by the ultra-Orthodox such as special education. Spending on legal fees skyrocketed from $330,000 a year to nearly $3 million, and transportation costs, which included gender-segregated buses, rose at double the state average.

“No meaningful effort [was] made to distribute pain of deep budget cuts fairly among private and public schools,” the report charged.

It also noted the board’s poor relationship with many constituents, discriminatory remarks by board members, a lack of transparency, and knee-jerk dismissals of complaints as antisemitic.

In this March 19, 2013 file photo, supporters of public schools turn their backs on the East Ramapo school board during a meeting in Spring Valley, NY. (AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerald, File)

Yossi Gestetner, an ultra-Orthodox community organizer from Spring Valley who heads the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, told The Times of Israel that many of the attacks against Orthodox Jewish members of the East Ramapo school board are inaccurate.

Gestetner claimed that private school students only received a tiny sliver of the schooling budget despite paying the lion’s share of property taxes to fund the district.

Excluding federally funded programs such as lunch and special education programs, public school students get $23,000 in services from the school district, while yeshiva students get about $1,000, he charged.

He particularly took umbrage at allegations that the Orthodox Jewish community “took over” the board in East Ramapo, calling it “BS,” and said that its position on the board was simply a matter of demographics.

He charged that misconceptions led to ultra-Orthodox Jews experiencing discrimination and hate.

Illustrative: This picture taken on April 5, 2019 shows shows two Jewish men hitchhiking during a rainfall in a Jewish neighborhood of Monsey in Rockland County, NY. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

“For many years, Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim, have been written about in news and online, and spoken about by candidates and officials, in ways not done here to African Americans, Latinos, or Muslims,” Gestetner said.

It was not just antisemitism, he claimed, but a specific strain of hatred directed against ultra-Orthodox Jews wherever they settle in large numbers, with laws passed to attenuate their influence. He pointed specifically to Ocean County, New Jersey, home to Haredi enclave Lakewood, where the local council put zoning policies in place to curb the construction of facilities and amenities for Orthodox communities, such as houses of worship and ritual baths.

“I can understand that the growth of a distinct ethnicity may raise curiosity from people, but this is not a reason to spread lies and innuendo, and to pass laws exclusively aimed to crush these communities,” he said.

In this October 4, 2020, file photo, two women walk with children during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

In Rockland County, residents say efforts to push back against Haredi influence over the school board or to preserve the area’s formerly secular way of life have skirted into genuine antisemitic abuse and even physical attacks.

Things got so volatile within the community that protests against the school board would sometimes devolve into chants of “F— Jews.”

In late 2014, Aron Wieder, a former school board president and the first Hasidic Jewish member of the Rockland County Legislature, received a disturbing piece of mail, sent with the name “Moshe Muhammad” and postmarked from within Monsey.

Inside the plain brown envelope, Wieder found a frightening image: his face superimposed on an ISIS captive about to be decapitated by a hooded figure dressed in black.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day called the mailing “one of the most vile and despicable renderings,” but in 2019 he was himself accused of using antisemitic tropes and imagery in an attack ad orchestrated by him and the county GOP. The ad singled out “Aron Wieder and his Ramapo bloc,” accusing them of “plotting a takeover” and attempting to link them to overdevelopment in Rockland.

Set to dramatic music and interspersed with footage of looming storm clouds and black and white slow motion footage of Wieder, the ad flashes pictures of apartments being built with special balconies used by Orthodox Jews for the holiday of Sukkot, headline clips about yeshiva funding and a supposed battle plan with menacing arrows moving into other areas of the county under the rubric of redistricting.

“What’s at stake?” the ad asks. The answer: “Our Families. Our Schools. Our Communities. Our Water. Our Way of Life.”

“If they win. We lose,” the ad argues, urging viewers to “take back control.”

Even outside the battle over the school board and local politics, antisemitism has leached into other parts of life as well, compounding the feeling of unease among community members.

In 2020, anti-Jewish crimes accounted for 88 percent of incidents that targeted a specific religion in New York, according to a report on hate crimes published by the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In Hanukkah 2019, a man from another part of New York attacked a gathering at a rabbi’s house in Monsey with a knife and machete, killing one person and wounding four.

Armed members of the Jewish community stand guard at a celebration, on Sunday, December 29, 2019, in Monsey, NY. A day earlier, a knife-wielding man stormed into a rabbi’s home and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in the Orthodox Jewish community. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Following the Hanukkah attack, requests for gun permits in Rockland County spiked and the Cherev Gidon Israeli Tactical Training Academy — which offered workshops to Jews after the shooting attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — provided a rifle training course to local residents of Monsey.

The divisive symbols were aimed the other way as well, further inflaming tensions within the community. During Purim in 2017, a black-faced effigy with dreadlocks and a hoodie was hung outside of a Jewish family’s home in Spring Valley. The doll was ostensibly a Purim decoration, meant to symbolize the character of Haman, the villain of the Purim story who attempted to destroy the Jewish people. But many in the community saw it as a racist depiction.

Eternal optimism

In recent years, though, there have been signs that some things are incrementally improving, thanks to millions of dollars of federal money given to the local schools due to COVID-19.

“Now, there’s more state money coming into East Ramapo, which might take some pressure off,” Lynn said. “But anger and the bitterness persists.”

Neighbors gather to show their support of the community near a rabbi’s residence in Monsey, NY, on Sunday, December 29, 2019, following a stabbing Saturday night during a Hanukkah celebration. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

In June 2021, Albany voted to give state monitors assigned to the East Ramapo Central School District expanded oversight powers, including the ability to veto board decisions.

“A strengthened monitor will increase oversight, limit financial mismanagement, and ensure that school board leadership is providing for all students in the district, not wreaking havoc on a generation of public school students of color,” NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

But the move has been vociferously fought by the local Haredi community, which has taken an oppositional stance to the state’s decrees. A court ruling that the school board owed $4.3 million in legal fees over the NYCLU lawsuit was met with a threat from the board to lay off teachers and school staff unless the fee was reduced to one dollar.

Nevertheless, the parents and students of the public schools hope that the school district will reclaim the educational prowess it once possessed. They maintain a certain kind of faith, if not exactly in the same way as the more religious-minded members of the school board.

“I’m an eternal optimist. So my answer is always ‘yes, there’s hope,’” White said. “And I really do believe that. I really do believe that not just because I’m an eternal optimist, but to a certain extent, every great movement for social justice has only ever gotten where it got through faith.

“Every reasonable person has always told folks from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to whoever: ‘Why are you wasting your time? Don’t you see how big and strong and powerful, how hard of a job this is? This is impossible. You are Don Quixote,’” he added.

“So there is no other alternative but just to manufacture hope or give up. So I choose to manufacture hope.”

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