Pine Bush, N.Y. — Suddenly, they don’t even recognize their own town anymore.
The six women eating in a diner near the Crispell Middle School in this hamlet about 75 miles north of New York City said they were incredulous when they read that a civil rights lawsuit had been filed against the Pine Bush School District claiming that it is rife with anti-Semitism that has gone largely unchecked.
The women, who like most of the 15 residents interviewed at a diner and supermarket this week declined to give their names, said the community described in the lawsuit bore little resemblance to the one they’ve lived in for years. In fact, one said she retired as a Pine Bush Elementary School teacher five years ago and was dumbfounded by the complaint — especially the allegation that all five of the children whose parents brought the suit said they experienced anti-Semitism in the Crispell Middle School.
“Crispell was the place where we all wanted our kids to go,” she said. “It has a safe, nurturing, comfortable environment. The teachers there I know are caring, loving people — the kids always came first.”
Many of those interviewed questioned the timing of the front-page article about the suit in The New York Times earlier this month. Some suggested that community opposition to a 396-unit townhouse being built in the school district and reportedly marketed exclusively to Satmar Jews somehow triggered the Times’ story.
As they explained it, the developers decided to fight growing opposition to the development by claiming residents don’t want Jews moving in. To prove their point, they leaked the suit to the Times as evidence of anti-Semitism in the community.
But Holly Roche, leader of the Rural Community Coalition, which is spearheading community opposition to the project because of its size in a village of 375 residents, said that theory no longer worked after she disclosed she is Jewish.
“Now they are calling me anti-Satmar,” she said.
“The best defense is a strong offense,” explained a Jewish resident about the developers’ approach, who asked that his name not be used for fear it might complicate his business dealings in the area.
The developer, Shalom Lamm, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But he was quoted as saying he has nothing to do with sales of the townhouse and that anyone who wishes may buy one.
There have been several articles, including a 16-page supplement, published in Jewish and Yiddish newspapers promoting the development to the Satmar chasidic community. A girls’ yeshiva is also under discussion, and residents said they have heard talk of a boys’ yeshiva being built as well.
The Times’ story has sparked state and federal investigations, and Rabbi Joel Schwab of Temple Sinai in Middletown said the Anti-Defamation League would be presenting a program at his synagogue next month for Jewish parents and students on how to handle anti-Semitic incidents.
Lucy Fox, the synagogue’s Hebrew school director and principal, said she welcomed such a program because she “would not know what to do or what to tell students to do.”
She was one of a half-dozen Jews interviewed at Temple Sinai who said the allegations of pervasive anti-Semitism in the school system surprised them — and their families.
“My mother called from Woodmere hysterical after reading the story,” said the Jewish man who asked to remain anonymous.
Dahlia Fox, Lucy Fox’s daughter-in-law, said her “mother in Stony Brook called and said she read the article and wanted to know what’s going on. I said we’re OK, we’re fine — and my son is very vocal about being Jewish.”
Ali Manzo, the mother of fourth grade twins, said she had had no problems with anti-Semitism and even asked her children if they “knew what a swastika is and they didn’t.”
The suit alleges that the five students from three Jewish families experienced anti-Semitism that was rampant in this rural community that straddles Orange and Ulster counties. It claimed the “anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment was a relentless and inescapable aspect of plaintiffs’ school life” and that each “has been psychologically traumatized, and some have suffered physical harm. One is now being home-schooled, another was taken out of the school district for nearly a year to help him recover from the psychological trauma, one is considering the possibility of transferring to a school outside the district and the other two are still attending schools within the district.”
It is alleged that nothing was done about swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti throughout the schools.
“The physical attacks against Jewish students included a swastika drawn on a student’s face against her will, the severe beating of one plaintiff with a hockey stick, and repeated slapping of another plaintiff in the head,” according to the suit. “Students also threw coins at plaintiffs, sometimes on a regular basis, and one plaintiff had to fight off two students who attempted to shove coins in her mouth.”
The incidents were alleged to have occurred in the Pine Bush Elementary School, the Crispell Middle School and the Pine Bush High School beginning in 2008. The school district has denied the allegations.
And people interviewed at random here said none of it rings true.
“In my heart of hearts, I can’t believe it,” said one woman. “I know many of the students and they are kind and helpful. A lot of people here are talking about it and have the same sentiments I do.”
Shaun Burgos of Bloomingburg, the site of the controversial townhouse, said the oldest of his two sons is a student at Crispell and that he spoke with him about anti-Semitism after the article appeared.
“I asked if he saw anything like that there and he said, ‘No dad,’” Burgos said. “He would have told me if there was.”
He then questioned why, if these alleged incidents have been going on for so many years, the parents waited so long to sue.
Another shopper, when asked about the Times’ article snapped, “Why now? It’s planting seeds of bad thought about the school district.”
The woman, who said she could not give her name because she is a school district employee, said: “From what I hear, incidents may have taken place against these kids but not to the extremes [claimed]. And if other parents had known what was happening, they would have backed up those families. There are many parents who speak out here.”
Asked if the suit has besmirched the good name of the community, she said: “Absolutely, yes. Just Google ‘Pine Bush’ and the first thing you get are the anti-Semitism charges.”
One of the women at the diner agreed, saying: “No one likes to hear anything negative about their community – and this has tarnished its image.”
“The whole thing is unfortunate,” said the woman seated next to her, who said she is Jewish and who said she found it hard to believe.
Susan Notar, a retired teacher who serves as the volunteer chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County, said she gave courses on tolerance in 2011 to teachers and three months ago to the entire eighth grade at the Circleville Middle School after Jewish parents complained about anti-Semitic incidents there.
Notar recalled that Pine Bush had once been home to a local Ku Klux Klan chapter and for a time Jews were not welcome.
One woman in the supermarket said she vividly remembered that time. She explained that she had a Jewish sounding maiden name and that after her family moved to Pine Bush in 1960, someone threw a lit bag of manure onto the front porch of her parents home.
“There was a lot of fire,” she said. “They thought we were Jewish. When my father came home, he made a big sign that he put in the front lawn. It said, ‘We are not Jewish and even if we were, it is none of your business.’ The lawsuit reminded me of that incident. I thought that stuff was long gone from here, but apparently it’s not. To me, it’s horrible. … There is no excuse for prejudice.”
Charlie Carnes, supervisor of the Town of Crawford (one of seven towns within the Pine Bush School District), said he believes anti-Semitic incidents have occurred in the school district but that they were “isolated.”
“In just about any school district — especially rural ones — that is how kids are, and the complaints were not handled properly,” he said. “I know that some kid drew a swastika on a desk a few weeks ago and it was immediately removed. … I have two kids in school and one graduated two years ago. I haven’t seen it [rampant anti-Semitism], nor have my children nor their friends. Occasionally they will hear something, but it is very isolated.
“If these things were proven to have happened, I have not heard about it. … Now when Bloomingburg comes up, all of a sudden it is on the front page of The New York Times. It makes one think.”