In this diverse, changing suburb, liberal Jews are struggling to understand their Hasidic neighbors
Sometimes, when Katrina Hertzberg sees a visibly Jewish person in her neighborhood in Nyack, N.Y. — a woman wearing a wig, say, or a man in a black suit and hat — she thinks to herself, “Oh my God, are we next?”
She wonders whether her area of Rockland County, N.Y., is next to receive an influx of Hasidic neighbors, which she worries could mean lots of disruptive changes and new construction — housing, yeshivas, synagogues.
But then, Hertzberg, 74, who runs an after-school program, said, she remembers her own family’s Orthodox roots. “I transpose my grandmother’s face onto that person,” she said.
In Rockland County, N.Y., a diverse string of suburbs about an hour from Manhattan, non-Orthodox Jews have frequently joined with their non-Jewish neighbors in resisting the Hasidic community’s rapid growth over the past 30 years, citing concerns about strains on public services and overdevelopment. But rising anti-Semitism in the last few years, especially a recent series of violent attacks against the visibly Orthodox, has left Jews like Hertzberg feeling caught in the middle.
They may not agree with the Hasidic world’s practices or lifestyle, but they understand that hatred of Jews — especially when it shows up close to home, as when a man with a machete attacked Jews at a Hanukkah party in the Rockland hamlet of Monsey — is something that should unite the whole community.
Rabbi Craig Scheff, who has served the Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Rockland County, for 25 years, said that when area residents criticize the Hasidic community’s insular culture or exercise of power in local politics, it sometimes feels like they’re indicting all Jews. “That’s where the tension with us lies, on the one hand being defenders, on the other seeing certain realities that make this dynamic difficult,” he said.
With the memory of the Monsey attack still fresh, a trial is starting Monday in U.S. District Court over the electoral process for the school board of East Ramapo Central School District. The district’s board has long been controlled by members who have served the interests of the Orthodox community, which sends their children to private yeshivas. Local liberal Jewish activists, along with the Orthodox community and civil rights advocates, will be monitoring the two-week trial closely, seeing it as a kind of proxy for the sociological battle that has been unfolding there over the past 15 years.
Rockland was once a hub for Reform and Conservative Jews, whose observance may be restricted to the high holidays or include regular synagogue attendance, but who generally do not dress or live much differently from their non-Jewish neighbors. But in the last two decades the Hasidic Jewish community in Rockland has more than doubled to at least about 50,000 people, experts estimate, out of about 325,000 total residents in the county. Meanwhile the non-Orthodox Jewish community has shrunk, and synagogue membership decreased by as much as half in some synagogues, according to the most recent community survey, from 2015.
The trial concerns a long-running battle over funding of the public schools and control of the school board in East Ramapo. The district itself now serves significantly more Jewish private-school students than public-school students — 30,000 to about 9,000. The Jewish private schools are growing, with 2019 enrollment up more than 70% from 10 years earlier, according to OJPAC, an Orthodox advocacy group. The district includes villages like Monsey, Kaser and New Square, all of which are more than 90% Hasidic, as well as more racially diverse towns like Spring Valley, Hillcrest and Chestnut Ridge.
The nine-member board is elected not by geography but “at-large” across the district, and by 2009 was majority Orthodox. Since then, the board has cut funding to public schools while increasing funding for busing and special education. Between 2009 and 2012, the board cut hundreds of teachers, aides and support staff, including all social workers; eliminated summer school; and cut extra-curricular activities and athletic offerings by half.
According to board members, these actions were taken in response to dwindling funding from the state, whose formula for determining how much state money a district receives, they have said, unfairly penalizes East Ramapo for having such a high proportion of private school students. During the years when the cuts were made, the district received considerably less money from the state than most other districts. The cuts also helped the district fund the expansion of busing systems and special education for private-school students — something they are legally mandated to prioritize ahead of extracurricular school programs.
Hertzberg, along with her friends and several Reform and Conservative rabbis in the county, felt this was wrong. They helped form groups to advocate for public-school students, such as Rockland Clergy for Social Justice. And the attention they shone on the issue — as well as coverage by national media outlets like the podcast This American Life and New York Magazine — led to lawsuits against the board, including the one going to trial Monday brought by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The plaintiffs argue that the system to elect school-board members disenfranchises black and Latino voters. In a county that is heavily segregated — primarily because Hasidic Jews generally want to live in enclaves close to their schools and synagogues — they argue that a ward voting system, in which each of the nine seats is tied to a specific geographic area, would better represent the different interests. Civil-rights groups have used similar litigation for decades to help minority communities elect their preferred candidates to white-controlled city councils and school boards.
The East Ramapo board, which is the defendant in the suit and is being represented by the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, denies that there are any barriers to electing black and Latino candidates, and argues that board elections have reflected only genuine policy differences among voters — not identity politics.
Many liberal Jews in the area, including 10 liberal rabbis and East Ramapo activists who spoke to the Forward, say they support the NAACP’s position, but are also concerned about how easily criticism of the Orthodox population growth and political influence can turn into anti-Semitism.
Discussions about the school board in official public meetings have included anti-Semitic rhetoric, such as that claims Jews only care about money, in reference to the board’s repeated decisions to cut public-school funds rather than raise taxes to help cover district costs. In August, an ad released by the county’s Republican party, widely condemned as anti-Semitic, tied the school board and issues of overdevelopment to a planned “takeover” by a Hasidic politician and his “Ramapo bloc.”
Scheff, the Conservative rabbi, said that the ad was a turning point for many non-Orthodox Jews in recognizing that such rhetoric may become a danger to all Jews.
“People share with me that on the one hand, they want to battle the anti-Semitic overtones of the public battle that takes place,” he said, “and on the other, they want to engage their Hasidic neighbors and ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing more to help people understand why you do what you do?’”
A Jew speaking out against other Jews
Liberal Jewish opposition to the school board coalesced with the creation of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice,which was established in 2013 to advocate on behalf of East Ramapo public schools. The group has lobbied New York State lawmakers in Albany and county officials to establish a permanent fiscal monitor for the district, as was done in 2014 in Lakewood, N.J., another heavily Orthodox area where an Orthodox school board was accused of draining public-school resources to pay for busing for private yeshivas.
“It was really hard as a community rabbi to feel like I was a Jew speaking out against what other Jews were doing,” said Rabbi Adam Baldachin, a co-founder of the social-justice group, who worked at Montebello Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Suffern, from 2013 to 2016.
Baldachin said that one of the first things the group did was have meetings for non-Orthodox Jews to process their frustration and ambivalence about the district conflict.
“The majority of people basically said that it was hard for them to read the news” of school cuts, he said, “and see that the terrible things that were happening to these kids were being caused by a part of the Jewish community.”
Among non-Orthodox Jews, advocates for the schools said they have tried to manage antipathy towards Hasidic Jews by bringing historical perspective and nuance to the conversation. They remind people that tuition for yeshivas, like any private school, is expensive, and that Hasidic families therefore might find it particularly hard to support tax increases to help the public schools.
Instead of placing all the blame for the decline of the East Ramapo schools on the Hasidic community as a whole, these Reform and Conservative rabbis said they have encouraged their congregants to pressure other elected officials, such as local representatives to the state legislature, to increase funding to the district and establish a permanent monitor with veto power over its board.
“What we are struggling to work through is really having conversations that are not focused on ‘the Hasidic community,’ but understanding that its a group of communities, and that we’re talking about individuals,” said Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, of The Reform Temple of Rockland, who is also active with the social-justice group.
Sharff said that these distinctions are crucial, because painting the community with a broad brush can give fuel to anti-Semites.
“As much as we might be concerned or upset by what’s going on,” he said, “there’s a right way to have a conversation to come up with meaningful solutions, and a wrong way, which empowers people who would seek to do us all harm.”
All of Israel is responsible for one another
Compared to other areas with large Hasidic populations, leaders in Rockland said there are solid connections in Rockland between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Secular Jewish residents said they have strong relationships with their Hasidic neighbors. The local Jewish Community Center’s preschool program almost always has Hasidic children enrolled alongside those without yarmulkes.
Gerri Kurland, an educator at the JCC, studies Torah and Talmud in an Orthodox women’s group, and said it has inspired her to deepen her personal relationship with God. But she and others said that in these person-to-person relationships between non-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, the thorny issue of the school district rarely, if ever, is broached.
Also, non-Orthodox Jews said that they have been disappointed that, as they have tried to stand in solidarity with Hasidic Jews against anti-Semitism targeting them, few Hasidic Jews have participated in the pluralistic efforts.
After the attack in Monsey, in which a mentally ill man barged into a rabbi’s house and injured five people with a machete, non-Orthodox Jews organized a unity event at the Jewish Community Center, and carpooled to New York City to participate in January’s huge “No Hate, No Fear” march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“We take kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba zeh” — all of Israel is responsible for one another — “very seriously,” said Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of the Orangetown Jewish Center, who is on the leadership committee of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice.
Neither the JCC nor the march in Brooklyn had more than a few Hasidic Jews in attendance. Reform and Conservative Jews in Rockland found that “enormously frustrating,” Drill said, and have seen that as a missed opportunity, or evidence that Hasidic Jews are not interested in the kind of Jewish unity that liberal Jews seek.
Baldachin said that while he was in Rockland County, he tried to establish dialogues with his counterparts in the Hasidic world, but failed repeatedly.
Rivkie Feiner, an Orthodox businesswoman and life-long Monsey resident, said that it has been difficult for the Hasidic world to open up for conversation about East Ramapo — even with other Jews — because they have felt unfairly attacked in so many public forums over the East Ramapo school-funding fights.
“Their dialogue is just to come and scream at us about how we’ve ruined the county,” she said.
Many non-Orthodox Jews in Rockland said they are doubtful that the two communities will be able to reconcile anytime soon, regardless of the outcome of the trial.
“That’s a great challenge of today,” Baldachin said, “to hold onto multiple truths, to be able to support one community on one day, and be critical of them on another day.”