A bitter school board election in an affluent Long Island suburb has inflamed tensions between Orthodox Jews and members of the old-guard, liberal Jewish community in Lawrence, N.Y.
Tuesday’s election pitted Shlomo Huttler, a lawyer and Orthodox rabbi, against Stanley Kopilow, vice president of a local Reform temple. Kopilow won the race, which featured battling allegations in the local Jewish newspaper, concerns over violent rhetoric and a controversial letter from a prominent Reform rabbi.
Much of the election debate centered on perceptions that the growth of Lawrence’s Orthodox population has weakened support for its public schools. As in similar debates here and elsewhere in the region, liberal efforts to maintain traditional tax rates and services have led to heated charges of anti-Orthodox and even antisemitic bigotry.
“A certain set of social issues… are getting played out again and again in suburban areas where Orthodox Jews are moving in,” Huttler told the Forward. “What often ensues is extremely ugly debate. … You could almost call it a Kabuki-like quality.”
Kopilow, the Reform leader, dismissed Huttler’s comments as “the typical tactic of a losing campaign, and of a campaign that has nothing to say.” He argued that Huttler was “the guy who has been the loudest religion-baiter.”
Lawrence, population 6,500, is one of a group of leafy villages known locally as the Five Towns, affluent, mostly-Jewish suburbs on Long Island’s south shore. The area has seen an explosive growth in Orthodox population over the past two decades, fueled by spillover from the burgeoning Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The exodus has been accompanied by repeated tensions over school boards and school budgets, as well as land use, zoning and the legality of erecting of Sabbath barriers, or eruvs, on public property.
By all accounts, the Lawrence school board race took those debates to a new height of incivility.
With many Orthodox Jewish families moving into Lawrence and opting for Jewish day schools, the public school population has sunk dramatically, leaving some facilities vacant. Huttler campaigned on the idea that these properties should be sold, with funds from the sales — instead of additional property taxes — being used to cover budget increases. Lawrence voters have not approved a budget increase since 2002. According to a report in The New York Times, the number of public school teachers on Long Island earning $100,000 or more a year grew “fivefold” between 2001 and 2003. Lawrence had the second highest proportion of teachers earning six-figure salaries, at 25%.
While these budgetary issues produced the policy questions in the campaign, both candidates appealed on religious differences in the debate.
In an advertisement in Long Island’s Jewish Star newspaper, Huttler asserted that Kopilow was “counting on Orthodox voters just like you to not vote on May 17.” A 2002 survey conducted by UJA-Federation of New York found that the Orthodox constitute about 26% of the estimated 41,400 Jews living in the Five Towns and Atlantic Beach.
Kopilow ran his own ad asserting that Huttler would represent only the “private school community” and that Huttler had “chutzpah” for wanting to represent a district that has a “majority of Christian students.”
Then, at a meet-the-candidates night on May 2, Kopilow was asked what he would do if the proposed budget increase on the May 17 ballot was rejected by voters. Exactly what he said in response remains the subject of debate, but all observers agree he made some reference to using a “a shotgun.” Kopilow says that he simply quipped, “Other than taking a shotgun to someone’s head?” But some Huttler supporters in the audience claim that Kopilow said he would take a “shotgun to a certain group” if the budget received a rejection.
The Jewish Star couldn’t clarify the quote, but chimed in with an editorial condemning Kopilow for jokingly referring to shotgun use “in this post Columbine-Red Lake world,” and went on to endorse Huttler for the school board position.
Then Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, religious leader of Temple Israel of Lawrence, the Reform congregation where Kopilow serves as vice president, waded into the controversy. A leader in the Reform rabbinate, Rosenbaum used synagogue letterhead and the congregation’s fax machine to send out a letter to the other rabbis in Lawrence in an effort to “introduce” Kopilow. The letter did not offer a direct endorsement of the Reform candidate. Still, it incited complaints from many in the pro-Huttler camp who charged that by sending the letter, Rosenbaum had violated his congregation’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Kevin McKeon, a New York press liaison for the Internal Revenue Service, would not comment on the specifics of the situation, citing privacy laws, but referred the Forward to a press release from 2004 in which the IRS asserted that violators would include those who “distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate.”
For his part, Rosenbaum told the Forward that the intention of his letter was not to advance Kopilow’s candidacy but to “bring peace” following the uproar over Kopilow’s “shotgun” comment.
Many of the facts in this campaign that brought titans of the Jewish community to the fore remain unclear. And the election results present an equally murky portrait: While Kopilow beat Huttler, the proposed school district budget was voted down, with margins of victory in both cases rather tight.
Tighter still was the less controversial race for another seat on the school board, which ended with Huttler’s Orthodox sidekick, Murray Forman, beating out a non-Jewish opponent by a mere 70 votes. Kopilow’s advertisements had criticized Forman for “challeng[ing] the only African-American ever to serve on the school board.”