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Our Education Problem

Jews living in the United States in the 21st century are afforded with nearly historically unprecedented opportunities. Not only is discrimination based on anti-Semitism illegal, but Jews have risen to the highest rungs of society. Many Jews, including Orthodox Jews, feel compelled by the doctrines of Tikkun Olam, advancing society, and have thus gotten involved in the political process, at both the national and local levels. We have the golden opportunity to be the bearers of real progress and change in society, something our great-grandparents could have never dreamed of. However, with this power comes a burden to act responsibly. 

The East Ramapo school district, based in Ramapo, NY, serves various towns in Rockland County, home to a substantial Hasidic population. The East Ramapo district is about two-thirds Hasidic and one-third black, the latter comprised mostly of poor Haitian immigrants. The problems began to unfold a few years ago when the Jewish community, which generally does not send its children to the public schools, took over the district’s school board. They engaged in aggressive politicking and were successful on Election Day—seven out of nine seats on the school board are currently occupied by Hasidic Jews.

In an effort to lower taxes, the school board substantially slashed spending to the schools, to the point where the schools have been brought to their knees. Arts, music, AP classes, extra-curricular activities, sports, computer science, business classes, and electives have all been cut, according to East Ramapo students. Schools were shut down and students cramped into smaller buildings. Astonishingly, recently the board has begun to cut basic services. Head Start, a vital early intervention program, will receive no funds this year, according to The Journal News. According to Pat Simmons, an elementary school principal in East Ramapo, virtually no money was allocated this year for new books, and bussing has been severely reduced. Countless teachers were fired and not replaced as class sizes now hover at around 32 students per class. Community leaders allege that the board has crippled the school lunch program, a move that will lead to many hungry children, as the district serves a severely disadvantaged immigrant population. The story is simply heart-wrenching.

Sadly, the list of accusations against the Jewish-controlled school board gets worse. The state allocates a certain amount of money to each district for each special needs child in a public school. The board has been formally accused of illegally channeling that money towards funding private yeshivas by enrolling Jewish children with special needs in public schools, and then pulling these Jewish children out of the public schools and placing them (and the state subsidies that come with them) in a private yeshiva without following requisite procedure. The board was additionally formally accused of attempting to sell two closed public schools to private yeshivas at well below market price. One sale was halted by the state, and the other is pending investigation.

Racial tensions have unfortunately become the next step in this dispute. The situation has led to a rise in anti-Semitic sentiments and verbal, even physical attacks against Jews. This past summer, members of the Haitian community were accused of shooting Hasidic Jews with paintball guns. Numerous organizations, including the NAACP and professional mediators, have tried to resolve the situation, all to no avail. The state has yet to properly address the residents’ complaints, and the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In 2012, school board president Daniel Schwartz referred to those who filed a petition to the state as being “chronic complainers…offensive and anti-Semitic,” making references to Auschwitz and Treblinka in his statement. This kind of sensationalist speech exemplifies the fact that it has become clear that this problem will not be solved from the inside.

Though most of us are not members of the East Ramapo community, this is a problem that should concern us all, as fellow Americans, and even more so, as fellow [Orthodox] Jews. A racially charged battle over education between Jews and blacks is obviously antithetical to Jewish values and an embarrassment to God and our people. It is hard to believe that only 50 years ago, the great Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight for the rights of our black American brothers.

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to East Ramapo. Other towns with large Orthodox populations that do not utilize the public schools have faced the issue of funding public education. As another example, Teaneck, NJ, my hometown, has been dealing with the issue of reconciling a large Orthodox population that does not use the public schools with the values of public education. Additionally, The Jewish Week recently reported on a dispute occurring over the school board selling public schools to private yeshivas (at market price) in Lawrence, NY, where the school board is also predominantly controlled by Lawrence’s large Orthodox population.

It should be self-evident that Judaism places a large emphasis on education. The bandit turned rabbi, Reish Lakish, proclaimed that every town in which there are not school children shall be destroyed (Bavli, Shabbat 119b). In another Talmudic story, the local prayer leader was able to cause rainfall simply because of the merit of his being a school teacher who “teaches the poor as well as the rich” (Bavli, Taanit 24a). With these texts in our historical consciousness, how can we stand by while our neighbors are receiving a deficient education? How is it that Jews who are learned, educated, and preach the importance of literacy and education for their children are seemingly promoting an agenda that intellectually impoverishes their own communities?

It should go without saying that a good education for everybody is in all of our best interests. Education is a basic civil right; universal moral values should be enough of a reason to promote a pro-education agenda. Furthermore, better education and after school programs will lead to more affluence, improve the economy, lead to less crime, keep children off the streets, and improve the general quality of life in the community.

Jews, for the first time in many generations, are in positions of political and social power. A historical consciousness of past trauma and inexperience in the political realm may have led to mistakes being made and brought about the debacle in East Ramapo. Jews growing up in the generation after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel may be used to the conception of Jews looking out for themselves, a sentiment that was once understandable. In 2014, however, we face a different reality that requires a different approach.

It is not too late for us to do right. Though differences exist between our various institutions, we can unite in promoting greater education for all of our fellow Americans and in using our community’s means, including money and other physical and intellectual resources,  to benefit the whole of society. The ultimate test of when Jews will truly be “free” is when we can use our positions in the general society to bring up other groups and people less fortunate than we.