A former professor of education who now lectures and consults, Shani Bechhofer never thought running for office would be part of her career arc. But when a group of community activists asked if she would consider joining a coalition of candidates running against the establishment slate for Ramapo Town Council, she felt that she had no choice but to sign on.
“There are serious problems in the town of Ramapo,” she told The Jewish Week during an extensive telephone interview late last week. “There has been rampant overdevelopment without a plan. And it seems like there are a few people with an ‘in’ to the government, and everyone else has been living through this disaster of government run amok.”
Bechhofer’s decision to run for town council is not only a divergence from her own career path, it is also a sharp departure from past elections, where it was unheard of for Orthodox Jews to run on opposing tickets. In the past, many Orthodox Jews have voted for the Democratic ticket, which always had several Orthodox candidates on it, under the belief that doing so would best protect their interests, such as allowing zoning variances that paves the way for affordable housing for the large families typical in Orthodox circles. But the explosive rate of development has caused enough dissatisfaction among Orthodox Jews that the unity in this town, 30 miles north of Manhattan, has broken down, and for the first time in recent memory, Orthodox Jews are running on opposing tickets.
Bechhofer is running as an independent on the “A New Direction for Ramapo” slate. She is running against “Ramapo for All,” which has four candidates, three of whom are Jewish: Yitzchok Ullman, who has served as a Ramapo councilman for the past 10 years, and David Wanounou, who owns Alpha Gas and Electric, an energy provider, who are both Orthodox, and Michael Specht, an attorney. Also on the slate is Fred Brinn, who is running for superintendent of highways.
“There has been rampant overdevelopment without a plan. And it seems like there are a few people with an ‘in’ to the government, and everyone else has been living through this disaster of government run amok.”
Bechhofer knew breaking ranks was risky, but said someone needed to voice the opinion of what she calls “the silent majority” in the Orthodox community, who are fed up with unfettered development and looking for change.
“They don’t represent the interests of many in the Orthodox community and so many of the people who are living here do not like what has been going on in this town,” she said of the Ramapo for All slate. But, she said, up until now, “We haven’t felt we’ve had a choice.”
Ramapo has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, especially in Orthodox areas such as Monsey, which has drawn an increasing number of Orthodox Jews priced out of Brooklyn. As a result of this migration, Ramapo’s population has jumped from 108,905 in 2000 to just over 133,300 in 2015, a 22.4 percent increase.
Waiving zoning laws to accommodate rapid construction has placed a strain on roads and other infrastructure. In addition, in the past few months, several officials have been convicted of corruption charges, including former Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, Ramapo Building Inspector Anthony Mallia and former Ramapo Councilman Samuel Tress.
“Christopher St. Lawrence was supervisor here for like 16 years. There has been corruption and incompetence that has been entrenched,” Bechhofer said.
Michael Miller, who founded the anti-overdevelopment group Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods, helped recruit candidates for the New Direction for Ramapo ticket. He felt it was important to have a diverse slate. While all of the candidates on the Ramapo for All slate are white men, New Direction’s slate has a white man, a charedi woman (Bechhofer) and a black man.
“We wanted the candidates to look like Ramapo,” he said, adding that having Bechhofer on the slate allows people to see that “it’s not the Jewish people against the non-Jewish people.”
Also on Bechhofer’s slate are Republican Bill Weber, a CPA who is running for town supervisor, and Democrat Grant Valentine, a Chestnut Ridge village trustee who has retired after serving as director of strategic planning for the New York State Division of Parole.
Weber has been endorsed by the area’s daily, The Journal News, which said in an editorial that he offers “financial knowledge and a strong commitment to ethics and transparency” as well as “a fresh start” for a town that badly needs one.
Weber’s opponent,Specht, who is a longtime deputy town attorney who advises the zoning board of appeals, agrees that the town needs to clean up corruption, but says there is no reason he shouldn’t be the one to do it.
“Anyone who knows me knows my character, knows that I’m somebody who has never done anything unethical or improper and I wouldn’t tolerate that in anybody who works with me or for me.”
“Anyone who knows me knows my character, knows that I’m somebody who has never done anything unethical or improper and I wouldn’t tolerate that in anybody who works with me or for me,” he told The Jewish Week.
Wanounou, who is running for town council, said both sides want to end overdevelopment and what voters need to decide is which team is better prepared to do it. He says his team, which includes an experienced councilman, a longtime deputy town attorney, and himself, a successful businessman, has the best skill set to get the job done.
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a pluralistic Jewish research and education center, sent out a personal endorsement of Bechhofer (not on behalf of the Hartman Institute). A former Wexner fellow with Bechhofer, Kurtzer said he thinks her candidacy is important, not just from a local perspective, but also for symbolic reasons.
“I think that there’s a piece of the story of how are Jews showing up in public life as citizens and stakeholders in their communities. That’s explicitly the case for Shani, who has said publicly that she thinks a lot of the issues in her community are creating chilul HaShem, desecration of God’s name, because of the way Jews are acting and are being perceived as acting. … For somebody to stand up and say: I don’t want this to represent my community and not in my name, I think is incredibly noble,” he told The Jewish Week.
“For somebody to stand up and say: I don’t want this to represent my community and not in my name, I think is incredibly noble.”
“I think also a lot of people are really looking for optimism in politics, whether on a national level or even on a local level. And to see the possibility that the good guys will win is exciting for a lot of people,” he added.
Bechhofer, who has a Ph.D. in education from Northwestern University and has taught at Yeshiva University, Touro and Torah Umesorah, says she is running to express dissatisfaction in her local government on several fronts. Not only are residents unhappy with the overcrowding — “people don’t want to live in tenements,” she said — but also with the rise in hostility between the Orthodox community and the rest of the residents, and the failure of government to expand infrastructure to keep up with the development.
“There is no assessment of the infrastructure and resources needed to support the increased density, and that’s from a lack of competence,” she said. It has led, she claims, to accidents and flooding. “And the town’s failure to maintain some sort of law and some sort of process and to have any sort of transparency at all has really exacerbated the hostility between different groups here. It’s just so irresponsible,” she said.
Minna Greenbaum, another of the activists that put together the New Direction slate, said Specht, as a town attorney, and running mate Yitzchok Ullman, the longtime town council member, were “part of a process that just turned a blind eye that allows everything [zoning variances] to pass. They’re part of the good old boys who just let everything go.”
The way things are now, she said, “you can live on a single-family block and all of a sudden your neighbor is putting up a 12-unit building.”
“That’s why there is a huge undercurrent in the Orthodox community that says enough is enough,” she said.
For Bechhofer, running for town council is a way to “speak out on behalf of our community and our Torah values.”
She added, “If I didn’t think I was representing a huge sentiment in Monsey I wouldn’t have run. I think it’s a story about a lot of really good people in Monsey that people don’t hear about.”