In Midwood, It’s Jew Vs. Jew Over Charter School
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In Midwood, It’s Jew Vs. Jew Over Charter School

Orthodox residents defend their opposition to synagogue’s decision to rent to a charter school instead of a yeshiva.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

East Midwood Jewish Center is proposing to rent space to the Urban Dove charter school, which has touched off a controversy.
Wikimedia Commons
East Midwood Jewish Center is proposing to rent space to the Urban Dove charter school, which has touched off a controversy. Wikimedia Commons

After weathering a withering media storm over its protest of a Conservative synagogue’s decision to rent its school building to a charter school instead of a yeshiva, an Orthodox neighborhood association is fighting back. It released a statement clarifying its stance and insisting that its objections had everything to do with the shortage of day school space and nothing to do with the fact that the school is 95 percent black and Latino.

The criticism culminated last week with a New York Daily News editorial headlined, “A shanda: Shame on some Midwood Jews raising racially insensitive alarms about a charter school in the neighborhood.

The editorial was in response to comments by residents at a meeting late last month to introduce the Urban Dove Charter School to area residents. In addition to citing the need for more space for day schools, several of the residents said they were afraid for their children’s safety.

The Conservative synagogue, East Midwood Jewish Center (EMJC), located on Ocean Avenue a block away from Avenue J, the borough’s Yeshivish Mecca, was founded in 1924. It started the day school soon after and built the school its own building in 1950. Eventually the school became a separate entity, which thrived for decades before closing a few years ago. In 2018, EMJC rented the space to an Orthodox school, but Midwood Day School shut soon after owing the synagogue $125,000 in back rent, according to the synagogue’s president, Michael Schwartz.

A view of someone praying in the sanctuary of the East Midwood Jewish Center. Getty Images

The synagogue, facing its own financial strains, looked for a new tenant. According to Schwartz, the congregation cast a wide net, approaching public schools, day schools and charter schools. They even listed it on the general real estate site MLS.

“We needed a tenant there, and we needed a tenant to start paying rent as soon as possible,” Schwartz told The Jewish Week.

While they showed it to plenty of yeshivas, only one of them was able to give EMJC a solid offer, and that deal fell through during negotiations.

“We must have shown it to 15 to 17 [potential] tenants,” Schwartz said. “The one tenant that made an [acceptable] offer was Urban Dove.”

When EMJC announced the community meeting, a neighborhood group called Midwood Jewish Heritage (MJH) wrote a message urging area residents to come to “respectfully” protest the decision to rent to a non-Jewish school and suggested that the 300-student high school for “at-risk students” would make the neighborhood more dangerous. (Urban Dove uses the term “at-risk students” on its website but in an interview with The Jewish Week, Urban Dove founder and director Jai Nanda clarified that the school is for academically at-risk students.)

MJH asked the Flatbush Jewish Community Council (FJCC) to send the message to its email list, which it did. The email said residents should come to show their “commitment to maintaining the safety and integrity of our neighborhood.”

The email also said that “local yeshivas offered to rent the building on the same terms,” a claim Schwartz emphatically denies.

A voter enters the East Midwood Jewish Center which was a polling station during the 2016 presidential election. Getty Images

A leader of Midwood’s Orthodox community, who asked for anonymity, said that the views expressed in the FJCC email were MJH’s only. He said residents’ primary concern was the day schools’ need for additional space. But, he said, there is a K-8 girls’ day school nearby and some parents were concerned about their daughters walking by the high school for at-risk students — as they would be no matter what the race or ethnicity of the students. It could be a Jewish school for at-risk students and parents would still be concerned, he said.

At the meeting itself, as well as at a protest outside the building on Dec. 7, while the congregation was inside celebrating the installment of its new rabbi, Sam Levine, protestors more directly shared their fears.

“My main concern is the security of my children, of my block. The minute your children walk out of that building, what security do I have?” one person said at the meeting, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Some people had straight-out wrong information.

“These are not just poor students, these are students with serious criminal records,” a woman told amNewYork. “I can’t have my kids walking home from school now.”

Rabbi Levine calls such comments not only incorrect but also “thinly veiled racism.” The students do not have “serious criminal records,” he said. They are students who “are academically at risk of failing high school. They were failing and they wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Nanda, Urban Dove’s director, said that the school is just for students who failed ninth grade.

“These are great kids who have chosen to come to our school to get themselves on track,” he said. “If we can get this information out about our kids, we think a lot of this negativity will go away. We just have to get to a real conversation.”

Late last week, MJH sent The Jewish Week a statement that said, in part, “There are local schools in desperate need of this classroom space … . With available land in the community scarce and the cost of construction high, every building established for [Jewish] communal use is precious and irreplaceable. While the charter school’s mission is worthy, it is unfair for it to come at the expense of the educational needs of the local community.”

Schwartz said EMJC did their due diligence, talking to the school’s current police precinct to see if the students were affecting the safety of the area (they weren’t), and visiting the school (where they found the students to be polite and dismissal to be orderly).

The sanctuary of the East Midwood Jewish Center. Via emjc.org

Students who fail ninth grade have two options: repeat the grade at the school where they failed, or transfer to Urban Dove. Nanda founded Urban Dove in 2012 to help students graduate without losing any time. Many have learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD, Nanda said. At Urban Dove, students spend two hours of their extended school day playing sports, something they will do on the top floor of the school, which will be turned into a gym.

Urban Dove students also learn how to coach, and work with middle school students during their recess period. Nanda said he’d love to send the students to nearby day schools.

“We’d like to talk to some of the yeshiva schools — it would be a great way to bridge gaps,” he said.

Midwood Councilwoman Farah Louis and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, together with Councilman Robert Cornegy, who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Urban Dove currently resides, put out a joint statement: “As people of color, we would never participate in any endeavor that we believe would seek to deprive children of an opportunity to realize their full potential. We … are working to achieve a solution that prioritizes the needs of our children.”

State Sen. Simcha Felder, who also represents the area, and Councilmen Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch, whose districts are adjacent to EMJC’s district, did not return requests for comments.

While EMJC chose the charter school for its financial dependability, Rabbi Levine said renting to the school also aligns with their values of tikkun olam.

“Urban Dove is part of our mission; it comports perfectly with what we do,” he said.

He says he hopes the synagogue and the community can come to an understanding.

“We are really committed to a peaceful and harmonious outcome,” he said. “We hope everyone could just take a deep breath.”

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