Bias Vs. Backbone

A sports team owner’s base racism was all the talk of the world town last week.  But a more subtle – and thus more dangerous – prejudice has been on public display, too, of late.  It was largely ignored, however, likely because the bias revealed was against charedi  Jews.

The opportunity for expressing the bias was the situation in the Monsey-area East Ramapo school district, whose public schools service a largely minority population but where there are many yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs.  And a prominent salvo in the recent bias-barrage was fired by New York Times columnist Michael Powell, who pens a column in the paper highlighting people against whom the writer has rendered his personal judgment of guilt.

His villains in an April 7 offering titled “A School Board That Overlooks Its Obligation To Students” were the Orthodox Jewish members of that entity, which is charged with overseeing the workings and government funding of all schools in the district.  Of the approximately 30,000 school children in the district, roughly 22,000 are in yeshivos; the remaining 8,000 are in public schools.

Mr. Powell began his piece by lamenting the laying off of assistant principals, art teachers and a band leader at the district’s public schools, as well as the curtailing of athletics programs and the rise in some class sizes.

The problem, the writer informs us, began with the “migration” of “the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn – the Satmar, the Bobover and other sects” to the area.  Intent on “recreat[ing] the shtetls of Eastern Europe,” he explains, the newcomers have been “voting in disciplined blocs,” resulting in “an Orthodox-dominated board” that has “ensured that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars for textbooks and school buses.”  In case the bad guys’ black hats aren’t sufficiently evident, he takes pains to add his assertion that “public education became an afterthought” to the board.  The piece is accompanied by a photograph of a sad-looking black mother hugging her even sadder-looking son.

Then one Ari Hart, representing a Jewish social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek, jumped aboard the bandwagon with an opinion piece in the New York Jewish Week.  Insinuating that the school board members are contemporary Shylocks, he righteously invokes Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, who forbade yeshivos from taking government funds for which they do not qualify.  The article was titled “East Ramapo’s Children Are Suffering.”

What is really suffering here, though, is truth.

State funding to all school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers.  Wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.

For most school districts, where the large majority of students attend public schools, the state aid formula accurately identifies districts that are poor and require more aid, and those that are wealthy and require less aid.

East Ramapo, however, because of its odd student demographic and relatively high property values, is funded, following the formula, as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state – when it is in fact one of the poorest.

The critics seem unaware (or choose to ignore) that all schoolchildren, even Orthodox ones, need textbooks and a way to get to school, and are legally entitled to both. School boards are thus mandated to allocate the funds necessary to meet those needs for both public and nonpublic school students; they would be in violation of the law were they to neglect that obligation.  Unfortunately, because of the state allocation formula and substantial budget cuts over recent years, insufficient funds have remained to support public school programs in the district than had existed in years past.

The East Ramapo School Board’s members have disbursed the funds entrusted to them the only way they could – the only way any responsible school board could possibly do so.

Why, then, their vilification?  Good question.  There are, I believe, two answers.  One is that a common, if mindless, conclusion when members of ethnic minorities level charges of wrongdoing against others is that the latter are guilty until proven innocent – in some cases, as here, even afterward.  Secondly, while there are crass bigots like Donald Sterling there are also more “refined” ones, who take care to hide their bigotries behind a mask of high-mindedness.

Something, however, happened this past week that should give pause to those intent on assuming the worst about charedi Jews and on trumpeting their assumptions.

At a press conference in Monsey, some 75 people gathered to speak, hear or report on a new initiative, “Community United for Formula Change,” launched by a group of local charedi, black and Latino activists, who are working together to address the problem of the East Ramapo school district’s inadequate funding.  Among those involved in the initiative are Chassidic rabbis, pastors of Latino and Haitian churches, and American-born black community members.

I was privileged to be present at the conference, as a representative of Agudath Israel of America, which is concerned with the acrimony in East Ramapo and is backing a bill in Albany that would allow an alternative state educational funding formula to be used in Rockland County.  I was struck by the friendship, unified spirit and determination among the multi-ethnic backers of the initiative.

One black speaker at the press conference, Brendel Charles (a councilwoman for the town of Ramapo, but who attended as a parent of two public school children), told Tablet magazine that “she originally believed the problem was that the ultra-Orthodox members of the board were making decisions without regard to others in the community.”

“I thought that there could be a possibility that there was something wrong,” she said, “that there could be a prejudice of [their] thinking, ‘We don’t have to give them that [they felt], because it doesn’t really matter’.”

She recalled hearing another parent suggest that “Well, we want to send the Jews back to Israel.”  Worse things were in fact said openly at school board meetings. One speaker compared the board to “Pontius Pilate washing his hands, or the soldier who has committed war crimes who claims he was only following orders.”

But when Ms. Charles’ husband joined the East Ramapo school board, she recounted, he quickly “realized that… the school board members weren’t trying to hurt the public school kids,” but rather that “we don’t have the money” to provide the services needed.

Ms. Charles, according to Tablet, “criticized those in her community who have allowed the situation to deteriorate” and is quoted as saying, “It’s been a war.  It’s become religious against non-religious, black against white, them against us.  ‘Their children are getting everything, our children are not.’  And that’s the wrong energy.  The color is green.  We don’t have enough money.  That’s the problem.”

Michael Powell, Ari Hart and others like them would do well to hear those words well, and to realize that people of good will and intelligence, of different colors and creeds, understand what needs to be done in East Ramapo.  And, rather than rabble-rouse or prance around on bandwagons, they have chosen the constructive path, and set themselves to the task at hand.

© 2014 Hamodia

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