I was already in a bad mood when I arrived at Costco before Shabbat. The store hadn’t let my son make my purchases, since he wasn’t on my account. I had to wait for him to return home with my card, and then go back to the store myself.
Since it was Friday afternoon, the store, which is off Route 59 en route to Monsey, was swarming with Orthodox shoppers. There were men in black hats, sporting frock coats and tallit ketana; women in pillbox hats and double layers of seamed stockings. Hats and sheitels, kippot and tichels covered heads.
For some reason, this riled me. Why were they in my way, with their quirky clothing and their smartphones, which I thought they weren’t supposed to be using anyway?
I got my few items and stood in line behind a young Orthodox woman with three little girls. The two smallest sat side by side in the cart, one about a year old, the other about three. The other girl, just old enough to attend school as her long plaid skirt uniform indicated, pushed them through the checkout.
The baby began to wave at me, giving me a two-toothed smile, so I waved back. The three year old, looked at me and said proudly, “My baby.”
And suddenly I felt ashamed.
I was ashamed at my anger, and how general and misdirected it was. I was ashamed at how very real it felt, even though I had little interaction with anyone in the store.
This anger is at an “other” that is a part of us. Yet we see that “other” as wanting little or nothing to do with us, and one that we feel fuels the simmering anti-Semitism in the county.
Our county is changing, more quickly than anyone ever imagined. We like to refer to it as “demographic shifts,” a nice, pareve way to say that the right-leaning Orthodox community is growing, and that the rest of us, wherever we see ourselves on the Jewish spectrum, are not. There is a feeling that the place we call home, may one day not feel like one.
We look to what has happened in the East Ramapo Central School District, and wonder, “How long?”
Because it was not that long ago that Jews attended Spring Valley High School, and it ranked among the best in the state. It was not so very long ago that the JCC of Spring Valley was the largest Conservative congregation in the county, and that Monsey Jewish Center, a traditional congregation, sat on Route 306.
Today the East Ramapo schools have come to symbolize the divides in the county; and a great deal of anger is focused on the school board, in which seven of the nine members are chasidim or Orthodox. The district serves about 9,000 students, mostly African Americans, Hispanics and Haitian immigrants. Within the district’s borders, however, are 20,000 private school students, most of whom attend yeshivas and Jewish day schools.
This Orthodox majority pays dearly to send their large families to those schools. Their tuition and tax burden is one that many do not grapple with or understand. But from their point of view taxes continue to rise with little benefit to anyone in the district.
The families who use the public schools see a different picture. To them, the stewards of the system care little about educating those who attend it. They see continued cuts, fire-sale prices for selling off school buildings — which become yeshivas — and a system that no longer serves their children.
There is probably no way to square those disparate views. Add into the fray that East Ramapo’s tax base is stagnant and its fixed costs, like those of most school systems, continue to rise, and you have a difficult financial picture exacerbated by a huge cultural divide.
East Ramapo is not singular. The Lakewood Public Schools in New Jersey has a board that is seen as representing the 25,000 Orthodox Jewish students in the district who do not attend them. And similar battles have taken place in the Five Towns in Long Island, where Orthodox needs butt up against those of the population that uses the schools.
When Adolph Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland moved into the building that once housed Reuben Gittelman, a Conservative Jewish Day School, the ripples of “here, next” ran through the eastern side of the county’s Jewish community, and as we always fear, it fueled the kind of hatred that lies beneath the surface of our community. Comments on news stories ran from simply nasty to virulently anti-Semitic.
And it is true; the ASHAR community is looking at the neighborhood. I’ve seen signs in ShopRite in New City — a place where very few Orthodox ever shopped when I first moved here, but which now boasts a comfortable Orthodox presence — advertising homes as “walking distance to ASHAR.”
ASHAR is within the Town of Clarkstown, but it a part of the East Ramapo Central school district. So, “here, next,” feels a little premature.
The ASHAR families seem like they want to be good neighbors. When I went to visit recently, the administrators and teachers I spoke with all recognized how hard it must be for me to be there, as a former Gittelman parent. That sensitivity was very welcome and was more than I was willing to extend during my trip to Costco.
The coming years will clearly see a growing Orthodox presence throughout the county, not just in Monsey and the surrounding areas. How we approach and deal with the thorny issues that will arise as we encounter our frum neighbors, will set us either on a collision course for conflict or one in which we find some common ground. The lessons of East Rampo are that we desperately need to find that place.
However we approach it, the end result for both sides should not be one that ends in shame.