STAMFORD, Conn. — Breaking a longstanding taboo, a leading Orthodox Jewish advocacy group held an open discussion at its national convention here last week that touched on the question of whether Orthodox communities might themselves be partly to blame when civic conflicts arise with their non-Jewish or non-Orthodox neighbors.
The December 27 roundtable discussion at the 80th annual convention of Agudath Israel of America was titled “When the Orthodox Become a Majority.” The session, subtitled “Can We Reap the Benefits of Our Numbers Without Sowing the Seeds of Conflict?”, featured spokesmen representing ultra-Orthodox communities in a half-dozen locations in New York and New Jersey.
Conflicts between Orthodox Jews and their neighbors — over school taxes, zoning, Saturday traffic rules and other issues — have become a visible feature of life in New York and other cities during the last two decades, as a burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population has expanded beyond its traditional precincts in Brooklyn and established enclaves in new locations.
In the past, Orthodox spokesmen commonly have spoken of such conflicts simply as cases of antisemitism. Last week’s session was described by participants and observers as the first public airing by Aguda, the main public voice of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, of the possibility that Orthodox communities might bear some responsibility when such conflicts arise.
“We are by our very nature a threat,” said the panel’s moderator Raphael Zucker, a regional vice president of Agudath Israel in New Jersey, who represented the large Orthodox community of Lakewood, N.J. “When we move into a neighborhood‚ taking it over by virtue of our numbers, people who have lived in certain communities for many, many years feel threatened. The stores they had for the last 25 years [that] they like to shop at may not be there anymore because customers go away. Their child’s Little League team will not be there anymore. If we’re sensitive to that, that might help.”
The panelists — representing Lakewood, the village of Lawrence in suburban Long Island, the village of Kaser in New York City’s northern suburbs and the Orthodox neighborhoods of central Brooklyn — differed over whether to seek control or compromise when dealing with local governing bodies such as school boards and zoning boards. But to several observers, the session seemed to reflect a paradigm shift within these communities. Where these conflicts traditionally have been viewed as battles to be won, some Aguda speakers seemed to speaking of them as clashes of interests that can and should be resolved.
“It’s a political shift,” Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, told the Forward. “It’s a shift in strategy from being in a minority and struggling for your rights and making sure you’ve got every jot and tittle of what’s coming to you, to a situation where you are in a majority and have to learn how to use this new power in a judicious fashion so it doesn’t end up costing you more than benefiting you.”
One key point of disagreement on the panel was whether communities should seek to elect a majority of Orthodox candidates onto school boards. The school board has become a point of contention in many locales between Orthodox residents, whose children almost exclusively attend private schools and who resent paying rising taxes for public schools, and their non-Jewish or non-Orthodox neighbors, who say the Orthodox resist important school-funding measures and keep talented children out of public schools while taking advantage of auxiliary services like school busing.
In Lakewood, the Orthodox community refrained from exercising its voting power to take over the local board of education during elections this past spring, Zucker said. “The right thing was to vote parents [of public school children] onto the board,” Zucker said. “It doesn’t have to be us versus them. Maybe we can spend a few bucks to keep peace and not fight for every nickel we could save on taxes.”
But Orthodox voters in the Lawrence school district, in the so-called Five Towns section of Long Island, did not hold back.
“It’s our money, that’s what it comes down to,” Michael Fragin, a political activist in Lawrence, told the audience of about 60 people. “We should take advantage of the power and numbers we have.” After taxes continued to rise, and after spending “a lot of time trying to compromise,” Fragin said he helped organize an attempt to vote in an Orthodox majority this year in the Lawrence school district, which comprises the villages of Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Atlantic Beach and parts of Woodmere. The attempt failed.
Still, even Fragin appeared to be aware how his community can be perceived within the political and social arena. “The mentality that some people have,” he said, referring to some fellow Orthodox Jews, “is that the rules can be unfair and if they are unfair they are meant to be broken, and not to work within the civic infrastructure.”
“A lot of times we are creating very insular communities,” Fragin added. “We are creating an atmosphere where others do not want to live. As a community that has been excluded from other places, do we want to create such a type of atmosphere?”
Fragin, who volunteers for his local fire department and the Orthodox emergency medical service, Hatzolah, also acknowledged that his fellow firefighters feel a “tremendous amount of resentment” toward Hatzolah for draining the fire department of volunteers. Nevertheless, Fragin maintained that Hatzolah’s quick response time justifies its existence.
Following the panelists’ talks, several members of the small but lively audience complained that their communities need to do more to end bickering with non-Jewish and non-Orthodox neighbors. According to organizers of the session, the panel was put together because of the large volume of calls Aguda had received on this topic.
While many dilemmas were raised, few solutions were offered. Simcha Felder, a New York City Council member from Brooklyn, said that Orthodox elected officials should work harder to build alliances with other groups regarding issues upon which they can agree.
But Shlomo Koenig, deputy mayor of the mostly-Orthodox village of Kaser, north of New York City, warned that Orthodox communities should accommodate but not bend over backward for the sake of peace because their neighbors will take advantage of them.
“We put alot of money into the schools but they still want more money,” he said. “We can try to be nice and work with them, but if we’re not giving them money tomorrow that they want, they’re not going to be our friends.”