The Talmud teaches that: “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.” It is in that spirit that the Jewish people have valued education so highly for thousands of years. That statement also reflects a profound truth: Education is the key to a healthy, productive society, and to individual physical, emotional and spiritual flourishing. Unfortunately, that precious breath is being cut short for thousands of schoolchildren in Rockland County.
The East Ramapo public school board has been at the helm of a once-leading school district that is now in tatters. Access to academic and elective classes have been curtailed which has led to excessive non-classroom, non-instructional time. Students encounter major obstacles in their efforts to fulfill graduation requirements. Activities, clubs, and teams have been cut across the board, leading to a feeling of discouragement and despair amongst the students.
To give some context: The district has faced challenging financial times lately which has exacerbated communal tensions. The combination of a shifting of the tax base to lower-income ultra-Orthodox Jews and recent immigrants in addition to recent sequestration cuts have made the job of running the school very difficult. Tensions have been rising which have led to nasty exchanges and inexcusable anti-semitic outbursts from some community members.
The nine-member board has seven fervently Orthodox members overseeing a district of about 9,000 public school students, about 90 percent of whom are black or Latino and two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The tuition crisis plays into this as well. As Orthodox Jews, Uri L’Tzedek understands the financial strain placed on religious members of Rockland County. As a day school alum and in a few years, God-willing a day school parent myself, I am keenly aware of the problem. I am not looking forward to paying double for schools: with my tax dollars and then with my tuition dollars. I know that this places tremendous strain on the families of Rockland County. There are deep, systemic problems that need real solutions.
But many of the solutions that emerged from the leadership of the East Ramapo School Board have not been the right ones. Cutting-full day kindergarten is not the solution. The dubious sale of a public school to a yeshiva for $3.24 million after an initial appraisal valued the school at $5.9 million is not the solution. Hiring aggressive, verbally abusive attorneys to intimidate parents is not the solution. Rather than collaboratively work on the issues in partnership with the community, the board has adopted policies that alienate non-Orthodox community members and appear to favor the haredi community.
Efforts to improve the situation from local politicians have not been successful, and the children of East Ramapo continue to suffer. That is why the situation requires involvement from the outside.
This is exactly what a group called Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, a grassroots effort of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy, is asking for. They have been petitioning Governor Cuomo to help with the local schools by providing funding and restructuring the school board. Their goal is not to blame or attack but to find long-term solutions to these problems. We are encouraged that the Governor recently took similar action in the troubled Yonkers school system, and we hope that he will do the same here.
They asked for support from the Jewish community for their effort. After careful review of the facts and speaking with leaders from the Jewish and non-Jewish community, Uri L’Tzedek: The Orthodox Social Justice Movement, is supporting their efforts. In under 72 hours, over 500 Jewish leaders from across the denominational spectrum, including Orthodox rabbis, have signed a petition in solidarity with these efforts.
In our activism, we are inspired by Rav Moshe Feinstein, the leading American Orthodox legal decisor of the 20th century, and his exhortation that religious communities appreciate and not take advantage of the malchut shel chesed, the government of kindness, where we currently live. Rav Moshe was was asked in a responsum whether it was permissible for yeshivas to take more than was allotted by the government [Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:29].
His answer? Without hesitation, without the slightest equivocation, no. Rav Moshe writes that any form of inappropriate securing of funds, whether through theft or through inflating the number of students, accounting, or any other less than ethical means is absolutely forbidden. Rav Moshe also noted that, in addition to this being against the law, “that this is also a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and a disgrace to the Torah and its students.”
Rav Moshe’s demand for the utmost yashrut, or ethics, in our public dealings is an inspiration for all Jews, regardless of denomination to follow.
There is currently an effort by activists from Agudath Israel, the fervently Orthodox lobbying group, to peitition the state government to bring more money to the district. We support that effort and hope it is successful, but at this point money alone cannot solve the school board problems. East Ramapo needs a fresh start, with fresh governance that reflects the needs of all residents of East Ramapo, regardless of religion or race. May God support the work of all communities in their sacred task of providing the best possible education for their children.
Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of Uri L'Tzedek.