Redefining “Rabbi” in Rockland County (NY): Pursuing Justice in Public Education
[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and Clal’s CLI program. The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Each month CLI offers a column called “Innovation and Institutional Change: What it Took; What we Gained.” Past columns can be found at: cliforum.wordpress.com.]
By Rabbi Adam Baldachin
As rabbis, we are trained to access the collection of texts that deal with the stuff of life. The law, narratives, interpretations, and inner yearnings that make up the Jewish tradition give us the background we need to do our holy work: to bring truth, meaning, justice, and empathy to anyone who will connect with us on their Jewish journeys. Yet when I began to work full time as a rabbi in Montebello, NY, I couldn’t have guessed where my training would lead me.
In my first week on the job, a local reporter asked my opinion about the crisis unfolding within the East Ramapo school district. Knowing nothing about the issue, I declined to comment. Instead, I began my justice work by holding one-on-one conversations and listening, as I learned while at JTS in a course taught by Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice. So upon arriving at Montebello Jewish Center, I met congregants in my office, out for coffee or in their homes to hear their stories and find out what might motivate them to get involved in some issue that affected them, their community or society at large. The issue that was mentioned over and over again was the situation in the East Ramapo School District, which is located about three miles from our synagogue.
My congregation is located in Central Ramapo and has its own school district. Only a small number of my congregants currently send their children to East Ramapo schools due to an inability to move elsewhere. The older members of our congregation moved to the area decades ago to send their kids to, what was then, among the best schools in the county. Today, these same schools have deteriorated both in infrastructure and in academic performance. Over 90% of the student population is African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino immigrant families and they are being cheated of an education and of a future.
How did this happen? For almost a decade, Chasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been running in elections for the local school board, even though their own children attend private yeshivot. Their singular goal was to prevent an increase in school taxes. Once having secured a supermajority on the school board, the haredi members made cuts unprecedented in the county, cutting over 400 positions, including all full-day kindergarten teachers and social workers, eliminating extracurricular activities like sports, music, art, and clubs, and slashing academic offerings. Effectively, this made it extremely difficult for many students to complete their state course graduation requirements in four years. Moreover, the school board hired expensive lawyers to exploit state loopholes that diverted public funds to finance private special education, and even sold two elementary school buildings to private schools at bargain-basement prices, moving the children attending public school to overcrowded classrooms. To add insult to injury, the school board moved the public comments section of their open meetings to the last item on their agenda. They then held private “executive sessions” until late into the night, leaving parents to choose between waiting to speak or putting their children to bed.
When I learned what was happening, I was appalled. As the father of small children, as a Jew, as a human being, I could not believe that a school board would operate this way. Yet nothing could really stop the board. They were duly elected. They used claims of anti-Semitism as a shield against any criticism from public school advocates. It was outrageous.
I decided to reach out to other clergy in our area to take a stand. Rabbi Ari Hart from Uri L’Tzedek put me in touch with Dr. Oscar Cohen of the local NAACP. Dr. Cohen and local advocates for social justice had reached out to the school board and members of the ultra-Orthodox community to resolve the conflict privately. Board members replied that they were duly elected and would run the district in accordance to their views. “If you don’t like it” – the board president told the public at one particularly heated meeting – “move.” Dr. Cohen and the NAACP turned to Governor Andrew Cuomo for support. Unfortunately, they did not receive the support from the Governor’s office they had hoped for.
To more effectively gain Governor Cuomo’s attention, we organized a group of ministers, imams, and rabbis as the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice and began to hold weekly meetings. These gatherings grew in number and intensity and resulted in a petition to the Governor and a local press conference. We also made a trip to Albany to raise the profile of the issue. We delivered a petition signed by 150 clergy members to Governor Cuomo and other public officials, asking for a fiscal monitor of the school board and the convening of a task force to consider revising the current system of governance to reflect the uniqueness of the East Ramapo school district.
Throughout this process, our group met privately with one another and in larger groups, always beginning by sharing words of strength and commitment in the pursuit of social justice from our various faith traditions. The result has been a strong group of caring individuals that has the Governor’s ear as we pursue justice for the students of East Ramapo. A few weeks after the visit to Albany, Governor Cuomo, Board of Regents Chancellor Tisch and Education Commissioner King appointed Hank Greenberg, a former federal prosecutor with an extensive background in state governance and fiscal reviews, as fiscal monitor to the East Ramapo public schools. After a five-month study of the district, Greenberg provided a report stating that the school board had mismanaged the district, disrespected parents and students, and appeared to use power and resources to favor private schools over public schools. He recommended that the state create a mechanism to oversee the board’s decisions, with the ability to reverse them if necessary – a solution similar to one employed in Lakewood, NJ, which had faced similar problems.
Building on this report, our local state representatives, Senator David Carlucci, and Assembly Members Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski, composed legislation (A. 5355/S. 3821) that mirrored Greenberg’s recommendation. If passed, the law would authorize the appointment of a state monitor in the district to ensure that all children are assured a sound education that could provide them with the knowledge and skills to become upstanding American citizens. Involving a monitor would offer transparency to the community, giving parents the ability to trust that the school system is operating with the best interests of their children at heart.
Nothing in my rabbinical training prepared me for this kind of lobbying effort. Even as I write this, we do not know if our efforts will result in dramatic changes for the students in the East Ramapo schools. But what I do know is this: advocates who have long felt helpless now have reason to be optimistic that their vision for their schools might be championed. Our work has provided for rich dialogue within the Jewish community about our obligations to the community we live in. The Jewish values of “pursuing justice” and “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” that usually are restricted to sermons are now guiding the community’s behavior.
Advocating for this important cause has brought great meaning to my rabbinate and an important vision to my community. But it has also taken up a considerable amount of time and energy. I hear more and more congregants beginning a voice-mail message with the phrase, “Rabbi, I know you’re quite busy, but if you have time I have one quick question…” Because of a day of advocacy in Albany, I was not able to call a congregant who had undergone minor surgery that day, something I normally would have done. I have often had to change or push off meetings with congregants because of a meeting with a local public official or a brainstorming meeting with other clergy.
In general, however, my congregants have been extremely supportive of this work. They supported me with their presence at public meetings. They are eager to be updated on the progress we are making on the issue. My activism has helped me integrate into the dynamic of the wider community and given me a chance to play an important role in the justice efforts of local groups.
I do struggle with the perception that I am pitting Jew vs. Jew in Rockland County. There is already antipathy towards the haredi community and the actions of the local interfaith clergy – of which I am part – has brought more focus on the wrongful use of public office by haredi school board members. I have been attacked on social media as the “Korach of Rockland,” and as an “interloper,” inserting myself beyond my own jurisdiction since I am not living in the school district. While these attacks are at times hurtful, I continue to advocate with my message of equity and social justice. The children of East Ramapo deserve a future just like the children of the other seven school districts in Rockland deserve a future.
I remind my congregants, and am reminded by them at times, about a midrash, which teaches that people should not idly sit around in their homes and say to themselves: “What have the troubles of the people to do with me? What do I have to do with their laws? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’ If one does this, they overthrow the world.” (Mishpatim 2)
I feel blessed that my rabbinate has taken on a strong social justice trope. Not only am I doing it because I believe the cause is just but I also hope that it will affect the culture of my community. I am engaged with a movement that finds common interest within diversity and amidst divisiveness, and works towards equity and a belief that we are all created in God’s image. Overall, this is a pretty good starting point to give a synagogue a strong sense of mission.
Rabbi Adam Baldachin is the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center in Rockland County, NY. He is a founding member of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, and serves on the board of the JCC and Rockland Jewish Academy. As a guitar player and shliach tzibbur, he formed the band, “Seeing Sounds” which performs at his congregation throughout the year.