Along the peaceful streets of Riverdale on a sunny summer afternoon, signs of Jewish life are everywhere. Kosher shops and restaurants abound on Riverdale and Johnson avenues, and seven synagogues and the Riverdale Y are bursting with activity in this suburban-flavored, hillside Bronx enclave overlooking the Hudson.
Yet synagogues, kosher shopping or even housing stock do not hold the key to Riverdale’s Jewish future, community leaders say, as much as a single unremarkable building on the corner of Independence Avenue and 237th Street: Middle School 141.
Concern over the quality of education at the only middle school in District 10, and at nearby John F. Kennedy High, has led an increasing number of families in the area to send their children to private schools or public schools outside the neighborhood. In some cases, they are leaving the area in search of a better district.
The trend, complete with racial overtones, threatens to destabilize the neighborhood.
"Whenever you go to a birthday party, the parents are talking about where they are moving," said Amy Kaminsky, who pulled her son, Lewis, out of 141 three years ago.
"I was disappointed with the academic environment," she said, citing the teacher-to-child ratio in the 1,400-student school and her perception that a cohesive educational philosophy was absent.
The Kaminskys began to look to Westchester and other suburban areas with better public schools, but ultimately the Reform Jewish family elected to stay put and place their two older sons in a private school.
"I was resentful that I had to move when I loved Riverdale," said Kaminsky, an at-home mother and former Upper West Side resident.
The issue underscores the centrality of public schools in sustaining communities. Across the city, even in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Brooklyn, where few Jewish students utilize public education, Jewish communities keep close tabs on local school boards as a way of maintaining property values and quality of life.
In Riverdale, residents know all too well that the decline of a neighborhood’s public schools is often the harbinger of white flight that has been the death knell of Jewish communities citywide. While the highly visible Orthodox community there is well entrenched, it comprises only about 5 percent of the overall Jewish population of around 45,000, according to Diane Rubin, director of the Riverdale Y.
"There has been a basic demographic shift over the years in the community as a result of families" concern over the schools," said Rubin. "We are seeing [younger] families leaving the community."
Robert Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said his agency is concerned but not alarmed by the situation.
"This is not a panic but a trend that needs to be addressed," he said.
The concern has fueled a grassroots movement for change that led to an upheaval in May’s school board election. In a race that drew the largest percentage of eligible voters in the city, four of the nine members of Community District 10 (which includes Riverdale, Kingsbridge and heavily minority Marble Hill) were replaced with Riverdale residents.
The four new members of the board, which now has six Riverdale residents, were aligned with two incumbents. Noteworthy among the newcomers was G. Oliver Koppell, the area’s former assemblyman and an ex-state attorney general. A lifelong Riverdale resident, he is now a lawyer in private practice.
Synagogues and the Y undertook a major effort to encourage voter participation.
"The future of Riverdale is at stake," said Nancy Luria, director of the Riverdale Jewish Community Council. "The previous school board was polarized, and people in Riverdale and Kingsbridge felt underrepresented."
Koppell has championed a plan, resisted by the previous school board, to expand MS 141 to include a high school. That would require freeing up space at 141 by constructing another middle school.
Koppell’s faction also wants to restrict the zone from which 141 draws its students, limiting the influx from outside Riverdale and Kingsbridge. The white population at 141 (now 17 percent) then would return to about 30 or 40 percent, as it was a decade ago, before the zone was expanded to include Marble Hill.
The result would be a redefined school with far smaller classes: raising the quality of 141, some say. Riverdale and Kingsbridge children would no longer have to attend the drug and gang-plagued JFK high school.
"If they can have a continuum of 141 right through high school, people will stay in the community," said Kaplan, the JCRC’s director of intergroup relations and community concerns, who has been advising the Riverdale JCC and aiding in coalition building for the school plan.
"We see it as an essential mission to ensure that Jewish communities are re-evaluating how they approach public education to ensure quality of life," he said.
Koppell, whose three children attended 141, said the intention is to create a community-themed school based on neighborhood pride.
"We want it to have a particular mission and appeal that will be an especially attractive environment for students," he said.
That approach has an apparent resonance for many parents. "I would like to see my son at a school that has more Riverdale students," said Randy Martos, co-president of the P.S. 24 Parents Association, whose son is now a fifth-grader. "I have lived here for over 30 years. We have a business nearby. I try not to think about leaving."
But the 141 plan does not come without a price. Minority residents of the other neighborhoods in District 10 have fought the plan at every turn, and vow to continue fighting, although they no longer have the votes to block it. The situation threatens to stoke racial tensions.
Opponents say building the new middle school would allow Riverdale residents to create a semi-private school at 141, to be operated at public expense. But the Riverdale board members say they are acting to preserve integration at 141 by maintaining the balance of white students.
In March, the board voted to reject construction of the proposed Middle School 368. But on July 1, the first orders of business of the new school board were to elect Koppell president and pass a resolution in support of the new school. This week, the board is expected to pass a resolution to expand MS 141 to a high school.
The next step, and the most controversial, is to redefine the boundaries of 141’s zone, a move Charles Williams, one of two African Americans on the school board, vows to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
"It’s not preserving integration as much as changing the current integration pattern to be more reflective of Riverdale," said Williams, who supports expanding MS 141 to include a high school, as long as anyone in the district can attend.
A social worker at Harlem Hospital, Williams said the plan is a manifestation of "racial profiling" in which black and Hispanic students are being targeted for exclusion.
"They were going to call [the new school] the Riverdale Academy until the [mostly white] community in Kingsbridge started complaining, so now it’s the Riverdale-Kingsbridge Academy," said Williams.
Koppell, who insists the school was always to be called Riverdale-Kingsbridge, bristles at the racial preference charge.
"We anticipate that more than 50 percent of the students will still be students of color. We are not creating a segregated school but somewhat reducing the geographic zone from which most of the students will come," he said, noting that students from outside the zone already enrolled will not be displaced.
Williams insists the posture of the Riverdale activists will fuel tensions not only between Jews and blacks but between Jews and other white groups who perceive that they are being excluded. Now that the school board election is over, Kaplan said the JCRC will be hard at work creating a multi-ethnic coalition in the area, employing a strategy of identifying mutual issues of concern.
"We will sit down with people who have various different opinions and put all things on the table and sort it out," he said. "We will either defuse it or come up with initiatives that will satisfy both sides."
Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who has served his Orthodox congregation for 27 years, dismisses any notion of racism in the school plan.
"This is a matter of doing what’s best for the school," said the rabbi. "When people begin to throw all kinds of slurs at each other, it is not reasonable or acceptable. Oliver Koppell’s record on civil rights is well known."
Still, the rabbi acknowledged a need for healing efforts.
"I think a lot of work has to be done when you come out of a battle like this," he said. "There are scars that are very real."
Rabbi Weiss insisted, though, that Riverdale’s outlook was as optimistic as ever.
"I’ve always said that Israel is the place for the Jewish people to live," he said, "but if you’re not going to live in Israel, Riverdale is an extraordinary community."