Non-Orthodox Jews Find Voice as Sharp Battle Lines Drawn in New York Suburb
Between economic challenges and declining affiliation rates, it has been a rough few years for the non-Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County.
Situated about 30 miles north of midtown Manhattan, Rockland has been named New York’s most fiscally stressed community for two straight years by the state comptroller, and median home values are still down about 18 percent from their pre-recession peaks.
The Jewish federation’s donor base is shrinking, the county’s Reform and Conservative synagogues have suffered double-digit rates of membership loss over the past decade and Rockland’s lone non-Orthodox Jewish day school only has about one-quarter of the number of students that its predecessor had in the early 2000s.
Of all the challenges, however, the most difficult has been the increasingly vitriolic climate in the county, many say.
At the center of the storm is Rockland County’s large and burgeoning haredi Orthodox presence, centered in places like Monsey, Spring Valley and the all-Hasidic village of New Square. Orthodox Jews here are blamed for everything from gutting public school funding in the East Ramapo Central School District, where the board has a haredi majority, to taxing the county’s finances and infrastructure.
Over time, the rhetoric has become caustic in this county of 320,000, an estimated one-third of whom are Jews. In December, an Orthodox county legislator, Aron Wieder, was mailed a photograph that superimposed his face on the body of an ISIS prisoner about to be beheaded. A Facebook page with nearly 5,000 likes dedicated to ending “financial abuse of Rockland by Hasidic-Orthodox Community” has become a magnet for bigoted comments, with the Orthodox derided as “locust swarms of non tax paying looters” and “a cancer.”
Many of the haredim’s most strident opponents have been non-Orthodox Jews. But for years, non-Orthodox Jewish leaders largely stayed silent, caught in the middle between their Orthodox coreligionists and their non-Jewish neighbors.
Then, about a year ago, non-Orthodox leaders decided it was time to take sides in the East Ramapo school board fight, with many publicly aligning themselves with their non-Jewish neighbors and lobbying for state intervention.
Meanwhile, the local federation and other non-Orthodox Jewish community leaders have launched a campaign to bolster the image of Jewish life in Rockland County and reverse the decline of its non-Orthodox Jewish institutions.
“We’re really trying to bring people to the county because it’s a beautiful place to live,” said Diane Sloyer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, which is funding many of the efforts from an annual budget of about $1 million. “It’s not just the bad stuff you read about in the papers. There’s a lot of good here, but how are people supposed to know?”
Non-Orthodox rabbis were among those at a news conference of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice calling for more state control over the controversial East Ramapo school board, Feb. 18, 2015. (Katrina Hertzberg) Non-Orthodox rabbis were among those at a news conference of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice calling for more state control over the controversial East Ramapo school board, Feb. 18, 2015. (Katrina Hertzberg) In late 2013, Rabbi Adam Baldachin of the Conservative Montebello Jewish Center led a group of rabbis who joined with the local NAACP chapter and Christian and Muslim leaders to organize a counterweight to the East Ramapo school board. The interfaith group, Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, which now includes 11 Conservative and Reform rabbis in the county, began holding public events and lobbying the state government in Albany to intervene with the school board. Retired teachers from at least one temple are volunteering to teach and help public school students in East Ramapo, the vast majority of whom are black or Latino. (Between 1989 and 2009, the proportion of non-white students in East Ramapo’s public schools skyrocketed from 38 percent to 93 percent due to an influx of immigrants and “white flight” from the district.)
“We decided we’re going to stand with the public school community even if it seems like we’re standing up against our fellow Jews,” Baldachin said.
“The common consensus was we have to be able to hold onto our Jewish values, which meant taking care of our neighbors even if they’re not Jewish and upholding the value of education,” he told JTA. “We believe it’s important even to air dirty laundry in the face of injustice.”
For many years, the Jewish community in Rockland was typical of New York suburbia, with a mix of religious denominations and only a tiny Hasidic community.
But by the 1990s the Orthodox presence had grown so large and politically powerful that open conflict had broken out between the Orthodox and other residents, including non-Orthodox Jews upset about their communities’ changing character and appearance. In 1991, residents of the 9,000-person village of Airmont seceded from the town of Ramapo in a bid to keep out Hasidim, redrawing zoning laws to bar synagogue construction in residential neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Orthodox carved out their own hamlets, altering zoning laws to accommodate their large families and build denser communities.
In 2005, a turning point arrived in East Ramapo when Orthodox members became the majority on the local school board even though they send their children to yeshivas. The haredi-controlled board made drastic cuts to school budgets as the Great Recession set in. Parents were outraged as school sports, drama, music and arts programs were cut. Two public school buildings were sold to yeshivas, one at a cut-rate price that was later annulled by the state education commissioner. And the board replaced its longtime attorney with a more expensive law firm that had a history of protecting Orthodox private-school interests in another New York district, on Long Island.
School board meetings devolved into rancorous affairs. Critics charged the board with plundering the public school system to benefit Orthodox private-school families and keep school taxes low. (In New York, private-school students are eligible for public funding for such things as special-education services, transportation and textbooks.)
Defenders of the haredim said the education cutbacks were a consequence of recession-plagued district budgets, noted cuts in neighboring school districts and charged critics with anti-Semitism.
Authorities recently began investigating the school board. The state attorney general indicted a real estate appraiser retained by the board after a public school building he under-appraised, the Hillcrest Elementary School, was sold by the board to a yeshiva for $3.1 million, some $2.6 million below market value. After the state education commissioner annulled the initial sale, the school was resold to the same yeshiva last year for $4.9 million.
Last June, the state appointed a special fiscal monitor to review the school board’s actions and make sure it was properly managing and accounting for state and federal funds received.
The school board president, Yehuda Weissmandl, called the monitor’s appointment deeply offensive.
“The serial critics of our Board openly contend that the Board’s actions are suspect merely because a majority of our members are elected from the District’s Orthodox and Hasidic communities,” Weissmandl wrote in a letter to the state education commissioner. “They assume – based on our religion alone – that we have stolen from the very children we were elected to serve. This is nothing but hateful bigotry.”
The Jews behind Rockland Clergy for Social Justice cheered the monitor’s appointment but say they want more: legislation to give the new monitor the power to veto school board decisions in real time.
On Wednesday, the group held another news conference supporting such legislation and said they would be traveling to Albany next week to lobby for it. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he expects the state legislature to pass an oversight bill sometime between April and June.
The rabbis involved in the clergy group hope their campaign will show local residents – Jewish and non-Jewish – that there’s more than one kind of Jew in Rockland County.
“We want to put forward a more positive image of what it means to be Jewish in Rockland,” said group member Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center, which is Conservative. “We’re taking a proactive role in reshaping the role between Jews and non-Jews in the community in order to protect the image of the Jews in Rockland County against what was being seen in the press all the time.”
That effort comes in tandem with the campaign to bolster non-Orthodox Jewish life in Rockland. For years, the county’s non-Orthodox institutions in places like Nyack, New City, Nanuet, Montebello and Orangetown have been on the decline. Baldachin’s 175-member synagogue in Montebello had lost about 100 families in the five years before Baldachin arrived in late 2013, he says. The Reform movement’s Temple Beth El in Spring Valley and Temple Beth Torah in Nyack announced two weeks ago that they would be merging.
Federation donors are disappearing, JCC membership growth is flat and the county’s only non-Orthodox day school, Rockland Jewish Academy in West Nyack, ends after fifth grade. Now in its third year, the nondenominational Jewish community day school has 83 students, up from 64 in its first year.
Its predecessor, the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in New City, which was Conservative and ran through the eighth grade, closed in 2012 after its student population fell by more than half over the preceding decade, from 350 in 2002 to 150 in 2012. Gittleman’s building was sold to an Orthodox school known as Ashar.
“There are some people who fear New City will one day turn into Monsey, though I’m not nervous about that personally,” said New City resident Wendy Cowen-Smith, who belongs to the Conservative synagogue in Orangetown. “Monsey is like another world. It’s very segregated. The fact that an Orthodox population took over Gittleman was very painful. I blame that on a lot of things: families changing, values changing. I think it’s more a symbol of us weakening than them strengthening.”
Last fall, the local federation hired two Jewish researchers at New York University, Stuart Himmelfarb and David Elcott, to run a survey asking current and former non-Orthodox synagogue members about their engagement in Jewish life or lack thereof.
Conducted in December and January, the survey found not just significant synagogue membership declines — none of the county’s 11 non-Orthodox synagogues are seeing robust growth — but also that many of those who have stayed as members are thinking seriously about quitting their synagogues. Himmelfarb and Elcott also found that synagogue leaders have a much rosier picture of what is happening in their congregations than their own congregants.
“People are voting with their feet,” said Himmelfarb, a senior fellow at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and CEO of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging baby boomers in Jewish life. “What we hope is one of the outcomes of our study is that synagogues look a little more creatively and with a little more risk taking at what they do.”
There’s been some movement in that direction. The Rockland County Board of Rabbis, which is made up exclusively of non-Orthodox clergy, is using a $50,000 federation grant to pay a Washington-area messaging and branding firm, Beth Singer Design, to help rebrand Jewish life in the county in an effort to engage unaffiliated Jews. The firm’s first meeting on the project in Rockland is set for March.
A federation-funded group called Rockland Jewish Initiative, founded in 2012, launched a program to ease entry into synagogue life by offering synagogue membership discounts of up to $500 for new members and running workshops for clergy and synagogue lay leaders about how to get more people into their synagogues.
“We want to avoid a scenario where synagogues just die out,” said Barry Kanarek, director of the Rockland Jewish Initiative and also a cantor at the Nanuet Hebrew Center, a local Conservative synagogue.
For their part, non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in the county insist they’re not anti-Orthodox. The federation and the JCC have Orthodox board members, Sloyer notes, and there is plenty of interaction on the individual level – including in the copious kosher markets, shops and restaurants in the county’s Orthodox areas.
But with few exceptions the Orthodox don’t really frequent the county’s non-Orthodox Jewish institutions, preferring to use their own social service institutions, welfare networks, elder-care programs and charities. That leaves the federation to focus primarily on non-Orthodox Jews.
“It’s not about us and them. Our agencies are not separating ourselves from that community,” Sloyer said. “But we all have a focus, and I just think we have different missions.”