By Rabbi Adam Baldichin, Montebello Jewish Center, Suffern, NY
Early in my tenure as a community rabbi in Montebello, NY, a local reporter asked how I responded as a rabbi to the situation unfolding within the East Ramapo school district. I declined to comment since I knew nothing about the issue but the question stayed with me as I set out to discover social justice issues of concern to my congregants. Justice work begins with a one to one conversation as I learned while at JTS in a course taught by Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice. So on 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 motivates them to get involved for the betterment of their lives, their communities or society at large. On a number of occasions I took part in communal discussions in my synagogue based on these one-to-ones as well as with other Rockland County Rabbis. Those who participated overwhelmingly spoke about the situation in the East Ramapo School District as a case of injustice they experienced in their lives.
Problem in East Ramapo School District
In 2007 a new school board with a majority of Haredi members that had been elected by a majority of voters from the Haredi community decided to eliminate or drastically reduce public education services to a far greater extent than in any other Rockland County school district. This included the elimination of extracurricular activities such as sports, music, art, and clubs as well as sharp reductions in academic offerings that often made it impossible for students to complete their necessary state requirements for graduation in four years. The budget cuts leave many underserved in a 9,000 student school district, 90% of whom are children of color.
Clergy Come Together for a Solution
In order to add to the strength of the voices I heard in my own community, I reached out to other clergy. Rabbi Ari Hart from Uri LeTzedek put me in touch with Dr. Oscar Cohen of the local NAACP. Together, we organized the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice and began weekly meetings that grew in number and intensity as we developed a strategy, composed a petition to the governor and planned a local press conference. We also gathered together as a group of 30 clergy members - leaders of churches, mosques and synagogues - for a trip to Albany to make our voices heard.
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. A few weeks after the visit to Albany Governor Cuomo, Board of Regents Chairman Tisch and Education Commissioner King appointed as fiscal monitor to the East Ramapo public schools a former federal prosecutor who has an extensive background in state governance and fiscal reviews.
Our work has also resulted in a lot of positive energy from advocates who have long felt helpless to confront this complex dilemma. It has provided for rich dialogue within segments of the Jewish community about our own Jewishness in light of the actions of the school board and the Jewish communities that support the board. Most importantly, it has caused the Rockland Jewish community to think about its responsibility in fighting for a fair public school system for every child in the county.
Throughout this process, our group has met privately with one another and in larger groups, always beginning by sharing words of strength and commitment to 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. We have continued to organize through further meetings about the situation in East Ramapo as well as in individual and small group sessions to discuss widening our base to confront other areas of injustice in our county. I have been grateful for the guidance of Rabbi Jay Miller and the Peninsula Clergy Network.
I am very grateful for the support I have received from mentors and colleagues to help me navigate this cause and would be happy to discuss it further. I wish us all a shana tova, tikateivu veteichateimu.