Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Ultra-Orthodox Jews should play better with others

Credit: ChamelonsEye, courtesy Shutterstock
Credit: ChamelonsEye, courtesy Shutterstock

Credit: ChamelonsEye, courtesy Shutterstock

It has not been a great couple of weeks for the Orthodox Jewish world.

This is not about Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox rabbi in Washington, DC, sentenced to prison for voyeurism in the mikveh.

Nor is it about Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, NY, who had meaningful conversations with boys in the sauna — naked.

It’s about the situation in the East Ramapo school district, in Rockland County, New York, northwest of New York City.

I went to camp and college with kids who grew up in that school district — Spring Valley and Monsey. It was always a thriving, upper-middle class area. Spring Valley High School had once been one of the top five hundred schools in the country.

But then, the Angel of Demographics visited. The area became increasingly ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic. Check out the memoirs by Shalom Auslander and Shulem Deen, who describe Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox life in the community. The area has also become more African American, Latino, and poor.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews now constitute the majority of the school board. They have cut taxes and budgets. Here’s a short list of casualties: teachers, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, social workers, administrators, full-day kindergarten, AP classes, ESL classes, high-school electives, music, athletics, professional development and extracurricular activities. Academic standards: have sunk.

What about the children of the ultra-Orthodox? They’re not in the public schools. They attend yeshivas. That’s where the district’s resources have gone — for transportation and special needs education.

Many residents are upset about this. They have criticized the actions of the school board. Some school board members retort that their critics are simply anti-Semites.

Uh-uh. Not this time. Because if anyone is acting anti-Jewish, it’s those school board members.

Here is my fantasy — an Orthodox rabbi in Spring Valley, delivering this year’s Yom Kippur sermon.

“My friends, I stand before you in humility, and in despair. We have allowed the following sins to run rampant in our community.

“We have violated the contract that Jews have with the non-Jewish world. When were were exiled in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah said to us: ‘Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.’ When we encounter a non-Jewish ruler, we offer a blessing. During the Torah service, we pray for the gentile government. America has given us freedom from persecution. This is not Ukraine, circa 1600. We are commanded to have a positive influence on our surroundings — because we can — and we have failed to do so.

“We have violated Jewish ethics regarding gentiles. The children in the public schools are the children of the gentiles. We have obligations to them. The Talmud teaches: ‘One supports poor non-Jews together with poor Israelites, and one visits sick non-Jews together with sick Israelites, and one buries dead non-Jews as one buries dead Israelites in the interests of communal harmony.’ We sat back, and we allowed our school board to destroy community harmony.

“We have misrepresented Torah.” Again, the Talmud. ‘If someone studies Scripture, and is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to people, people will say that the Torah is beautiful. But if someone studies Scripture and is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, people will think that the Torah is itself corrupt.’ Have we forgotten that we are the PR agents for Torah in the world? Have we forgotten that the way of Torah is to create paths of pleasantness? Where are our paths of pleasantness?

“We have defamed God. When Jews behave badly, it’s called hillul ha-shem — a desecration of God. The Talmudic Encyclopedia defines hillul ha-shem has anything that causes gentiles to say: ‘The Jews don’t have a Torah.’ You say that the protesting members of the community are anti-Semites? How dare you! Is it not possible that they are looking at our behavior, and they are wondering aloud: “If Judaism is so great, why are these people behaving this way?” Let me switch to our native tongue – Yiddish. This is a shanda.”

As a rabbi, I am proud of my colleagues who have not stood idly by while the blood of this proud school district has been shed. Rockland Clergy for Social Justice has asked Governor Cuomo to intervene. A bill in Albany — introduced in the Assembly by Ellen C. Jaffee and Kenneth P. Zebrowski, and in the Senate by David Carlucci, all of whom represent parts of the school district — would implement a fiscal monitor for at least five years.

Let’s hope that this bill succeeds. Because when Jews betray their civic responsibilities, it reflects poorly on all Jews. What were the first words that God said to Abraham? “Be a blessing to the nations of the earth.” The actions of the East Ramapo school board is not what we woulds call “being a blessing.”

It’s not: “what will the goyim say?”

It’s: “what will God say?”

I suspect that God is embarrassed.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

33 Comments

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  • Thank you for speaking out on behalf of the children of East Ramapo.

    Whenever we try to engage in civil discourse locally, we are shouted down as anti-Semites. It has created a very ugly atmosphere that nobody wants except the instigators on both sides.

    We need leadership like yours so we can co-exist. After all, we are neighbors.

    Thank you again!

  • Everything you say here needs to be said, and I thank you for teaching these pearls of our tradition, the ethics that should guide us all.
    I find no impulse of chesed in the East Ramapo School Board, no effort to consider the needs of anyone outside the Ultra-Orthodox community there.That lack saddens me as a person and embarrasses me as a person and as a rabbi. This is not how I want the world to think of our people.

  • Thank you for speaking out. I am proud to live in such a diverse community but we all need to respect each other, in all ways. It is not pleasant being called an anti-Semite when we simply try to make sure our children are educated as the state has mandated. I hope unity can be restored in our area or I feel it will turn ugly.

  • Thank you for having the courage to write this. None of this is about anti-semitism. It’s all about being good neighbors and running the community as a community for all. I hope your good words don’t fall on deaf ears.

  • Thank you for speaking out. I am a Conservative Jew and certainly not anti-semitic. My children received a fine education through the East Ramapo school system including a deep involvement with music. My son is a professional musician through the encouragement of his teachers throughout his schooling. It is embarrassing to me to be told that the people on the “other side” are labelled anti-semitic. But they are certainly sending us in that direction with these despicable antics. The bottom line is that the ultra-Orthodox seem to follow their own rules and have no respect for the community other than their own. Had I seen this coming when we moved here in 1976 we never would have moved here. Now we want to move and real estate value has significantly plummeted because of the mangled situation with the school system. I certainly hope justice will be served and equality can be restored to what was once a stellar school system of which we can all be proud. THEY SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED!

  • Thank you, Rabbi. Those on the ERCSD School Board should not even be called “Hasidim” – they are far from pious. They’ve been caught red-handed; the veil of their “religious” orthodoxy has been lifted. They have no excusable defense for their actions. They have no right to masquerade as “victimized” Jews. How dare they continue to invoke the Holocaust, Hitler, etc. (and the Ayatollah). How dare they stand on their soap boxes and claim to speak for both Jews and Americans. They are truly anti-Jewish in their morals and anti-American in their actions: they are a disgrace to the worldwide Jewish community – only reinforcing horrible stereotypes, especially about the ultra-Orthodox – and shame this great nation. They should not only be removed from power; they should be stripped of their American citizenship. They are truly seditious.

  • Former graduates of East Ramapo are currently leaders of major US Fortune companies, prominent doctors, attorneys and researchers. We used to all stand proud and tall, now we weep at the total destruction of a system due to neglect and greed. Todah for trying to help us help the helpless.

  • Beautiful article. Most Jews, I suspect, do feel this way. However the Hasidic community seems to have a unique ability among Jews to truly not give a hoot about outsiders and then cry anti-semitism when people try to stop their antics.

  • Ever notice that the term “anti-semite” is nearly always flung out by anti-gentilites? When they are accusing you of anti-semitism for defending yourself or speaking out against wrongdoing, they are basically showing their gentile hatred. Just ignore it; don’t let the term sway you. A bigot is a bigot.

  • Rabbi Salkin,

    As a proud former “Shabbos goy” who lit Molly Weissman’s stove every week and who had more Jewish friends than not, who grew up in the East Ramapo School District (1961 graduate of Spring Valley High School), I can say that you have articulated so well today’s concerns, and I thank you. Molly, Orthodox herself, would be saying, “Chillul haShem” here.

  • As commented by many people, this “Rabbi” has not contacted anyone from the Orthodox world, whether it be Agudas Israel or any local organization or leader for his take on this situation. However, being that there is so much anti-semitism in Rockland County, it must be that it’s the Jews own fault, as in Germany for causing the World Wars and also for all of the ills of the world.
    Perhaps People should try to see someone else’s view on the subject.
    Weissmandl does a decent Job.
    http://forward.com/opinion/309720/why-is-east-ramapo-school-board-under-siege/#sthash.yX0HzFHn.dpuf

  • “This is not about Rabbi Barry Freundel, the Orthodox rabbi in Washington, DC, sentenced to prison for voyeurism in the mikveh.”

    Chuckle, chuckle.

    Salkin continues:

    “Nor is it about Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, NY, who had meaningful conversations with boys in the sauna — naked.”

    Chuckle, chuckle. Yes, yes, Orthodox. Chuckle, chuckle.

    Salkin then tells us what he is about to write about.

    “It’s about the situation in the East Ramapo school district, in Rockland County, New York, northwest of New York City.”

    My dear Rabbi Salkin, if the article is not about the earlier two incidents, then why mention them at all?
    The answer is clear. You are attempting to demean and besmirch Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Jews. There are no “ifs”, “ands”, or “buts.”

    I don’t know what they taught you about the ethics of how to make an argument in the Rabbinical seminary of Hebrew Union College, or wherever it was that gave you the title of “ethical…

  • but there is something deeply disturbing about your article.

    Say what you want about the Hasidic Jews that have been voted in to the school board by the taxpayers of the school district. Say what you want about how they have decided to allocate the tax moneys that the constituents of the school district pay, but don’t, repeat don’t, bring in the behaviors of others to besmirch them.

    My dear Rabbi, imagine if you were making an argument against a group of African Americans, and just to make your point -you mentioned that your article is not about African American X that committed this crime or African American Y that committed that crime. You would have been correctly declared a racist. The situation is no different here. The beginning of your article is blatantly racist – racist against your Hasidic brethren.
    But your racism does not end there. You mention that the area has become “ultra-Orthodox” and Hasidic.

  • You use a term to describe a group of people that they themselves do not use to describe themselves because it is offensive. “Ultra” is a pejorative term that means excessive. My dear Rabbi, would you ever use a term to describe another group that they themselves would find offensive? No, you would not. Why? Because in your book, it is okay to be racist and biased and offensive to the Hasidic and to the Orthodox, but not to anyone else.

    We move on to another part of your article.

    You write, “As a rabbi, I am proud of my colleagues who have not stood idly by while the blood of this proud school district has been shed.”

    I am sorry, did I just read that correctly? Did you just use the terminology of shedding blood? Let’s step back a moment and get some perspective. In fact, let’s get a historical perspective.

  • Almost two and a half centuries ago, there was a specific defining moment in who are as a nation. The Tea Act of May 10th 1773, had validated a notorious British tax that was to be placed upon the American colonists. The tax was one that benefited Great Britain, but did nothing for those who actually paid the taxes.
    “Taxation Without Representation!” became the rallying mantra of the colonists, and eventually this great nation was born. The “Boston Tea Party” was soon to take its place in our history books. It represents, to American schoolchildren, the spirit that is America.

    It is now almost two and a half centuries later.

    There is another group of people who are being taxed, with little benefit for those who are actually paying the taxes. For years, for decades, these people struggled to get for their children what those around them received for free. They struggled to get transportation to school. But those in charge, the modern day British refused.

  • “No, we care not a whit that your child has special educational needs. And we don’t care that you have struggled for years with this. We will not pay to help your child – even though some of the tax money that we are in charge of spending comes from you and your community. You must pay for all of this by yourself – even though we will pay for special needs education for other children.”

    This was the situation in the East Ramapo school district, in Rockland County, New York, northwest of New York City, for many, many years.

    But then the demographics changed a bit.

    The Hasidic Jew became the main taxpayer. Those who paid the majority of the taxes to the school districts, Spring Valley and Monsey, were now the Hasidic Jews themselves – those very people who have been refused the benefits of school busing and education for their own special needs children.
    These taxpayers then did something that has infuriated certain groups. They have infuriated many in the field of education

  • accustomed to rubber stamped budget increases, the liberal media, and they have also angered you, Rabbi Salkin. What did they do?

    They exercised their right to vote.

    The people that vote are the people that pay taxes, and while you or me may not like it, the taxpayers have an absolute right to decide that all children in the district should have busing to school instead of some children in the district have busing to school and also music. That is what democracy is about – it is about voting.

    Now do we agree with everything they are doing? No. They should be sensitive to everyone in the district and they should strive to increase testing scores and basic education. I think that the Ramapo district could learn a lot from what the school boards in the Five Towns area have done – where they have not only reduced the tax load but they brought up the testing scores in the public schools as well.

  • Rabbi Salkin, let’s cut the unnecessary and racist swipes. Let’s try and be a bit more fair and balanced when discussing these issues, and realize that there are two sides to every story. It very well could be that this community is frustrated at how much of their taxes are going toward paying for gym programs, music and all sorts of extra-curricular things, while they had fought for years just to get basic busing.

    Did you, Rabbi Salkin, ever pen an article or ask a legislator for assistance for special needs children education in the Hasidic community or for busing? You quote a Talmudic passage about giving charity to the gentiles along with one’s fellow Jews – a passage that is certainly true and must be emphasized more. But let’s not forget that the passage says along with – that means we have to be concerned about the Jews too and not give just to the gentiles

  • It doesn’t take a heck of a lot of courage to go after the ultra-Orthodox and accuse them of “chillul HaShem.” Granted, it’s not that the charge is never true. All too often, much of their behavior does speak for itself, unfortunately.

    But before jumping on the “chillul Hashem” condemnation train, ask yourself why there are no articles on how the other end of the ideological spectrum can be equally guilty of the same charge? How about a synagogue that a generation ago, hosted Al Goldstein, the notorious porno peddler, and gave him some award?

    Now granted, having a free society means plenty of things that are immoral still are rightly legal. This is as it should be. But there’s no reason to honor such activity by bestowing awards on those who make money on it.

    If you’re going to accuse others of chillul HaShem, you need to be consistent about it……and apply it not just to ideological foes or easy targets, but to all who fit the bill.

  • I don’t for a moment believe that the ultra-Orthodox in that district gave a hoot about disadvantaged kids outside their community, so I’m not ascribing high-minded motives to their votes to restrain school budgets.

    Nonetheless, there is not a shred of evidence anywhere to suggest that more money spent per pupil actually improves educational outcomes. Some of the worst school districts in American spend huge amounts per pupil…..but the results remain abysmal because bad systems don’t become good systems simply by throwing more money at them. Common sense suggests the opposite.

    Now the system in question was a great system…..but consider why. It wasn’t because of the lavish school spending, but instead, the high incomes of families there. High family income means great public schools because rich parents have alternatives if the local public schools are less than stellar.

    So the premise that more money for education means better education is fatally flawed.

  • “Nonetheless, there is not a shred of evidence anywhere to suggest that more money spent per pupil actually improves educational outcomes”

    Except in every study of high schools and average SAT scores. High incomes of families becomes lavish school spending. Many people willingly move to suburbs with high property taxes where the school districts spend heavily because it translates into improved outcomes. Property taxes + high spending per students usually translates to good school systems.

    “High family income means great public schools because rich parents have alternatives if the local public schools are less than stellar. ”

    That makes no sense. Rich parents with alternatives to less than stellar public schools don’t improve the public schools. They just go private and let the public system rot. New York City is a perfect example of this. High incomes, low property taxes, and mostly crap public schools.

  • President Wiessmandel, a ray of hope in your article?

    “The District’s superintendent and administrators are experienced education professionals, who work tirelessly despite difficult conditions.” I believe that you do work tirelessly and conditions have been difficult…for everyone.

    “We have done our best to govern ….”

    I and many others including the bulk of you co religionists, hope that this is true. Can you entertain for even a moment that “doing your best” has resulted in social, political and fiscal disaster for the district public schools and children? And…, to the detriment of your own community?

    Give up victim-hood. Majority rules but not at the expense of the public good. This bill is in your community’s best interest….I refer you back to Rabbi Stilkin’s strong but very compassionate message inviting self examination. . Prophet Jeremiah. The covenant has an outer and inner aspect. Having political power is only to really “prosper” if ,,…

  • With all due respect President Wiessmandel, one cannot help but notice that you did not address the heart of Rabbi Salkin’s article which is so, so relevant to what is happening in this community.
    Hank Greenburg.(State appointed Fiscal Monitor)..”The district is in dire need of financial assistance from the State but I cannot recommend giving it one more penny without oversight.”The bulk of his report…as you must know was devoted to the social cultural problems in the district.
    Never-mind, I will respond to the article written by you that you directed us to.
    First paragraph, “…. a “monitor” to exercise complete control over the school district.” etc. A completely untrue statement and you know it. The veto power gives him credibility in the eyes of the Board…anything less than that would mean….business as usual. No funny business, no veto. His main function is to be a monitor/mediator/adviser between the 2 communities, public and private.
    Sincerely, Susan G.

  • Interesting that you see it that way Martin. I don’t.

    There are ‘bad apples’ in every community.

    Seemed to me that Rabbi Salkin used those examples to illustrate the categorical difference between individual bad action and communal bad action, intentional or unintentional.

  • Larry, if that were true, why are the highest-spending-per-child school districts so often such terrible performers? Washington, DC is an example….huge amounts spent with little to show for it.

    The real correlation, again, isn’t money spent on education, but money made by district families.

    And as for New York City, it’s a bad example, because even the neighborhoods with the highest median income are often part of school districts that include some of the poorest people in the country. The Upper East Side of Manhattan comes to mind. If you’re a rich person living in Park Avenue not far from 96th Street, the likely public school that serves the area will have a preponderance of East Harlem families who, due to their low incomes, will have no alternatives to public schooling. Thus the public school is likely to be bad, not good.

  • Jack, it’s like it is with the Duggars. These are the Jews who proclaim themselves the guardians of “Torah Judaism” (cf. “Bible-believing Christian”), who call the rest of us “Am Ha-Aretz” (“people of the land,” ie. uneducated secular hicks) or apikoros (heretics) for daring to practice Judaism differently. So when they err, chillul Hashem gets thrown at them in a way it does not when scandals erupt in the Conservative or even Modern Orthodox communities.

  • Because the money is not being spent by high income families paying high property taxes on their public schools. The source of the money is as important as the amount (See article below)
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/23/the-dramatic-inequality-of-public-school-spending-in-america/

    High income families in the area tend to live in the suburbs outside DC where their income goes directly into supporting the public schools. People move out there and are willing to put up with exorbitantly high property taxes in order to both keep poor families out and so their money can be allocated into lavish spending for school resources.

    You missed half of my argument.

    Property taxes + high spending per students usually translates to good school systems. You missed the property tax part.
    ..cont’d

  • Rich people in NYC do not send their children to the public schools. Property taxes in the city are far far lower than the surrounding areas. Home ownership is dismally low. There is no impetus for wealthy families to contribute towards the public schools in the same way they are in the surrounding suburbs. The effects of the wealthy are far more dispersed.

    In the surrounding suburbs, property taxes are much much higher and they are used to fund the schools in a more direct fashion. Property taxes are a function of relative wealth and a bar to entry to many communities. They permit the wealthy to use their money in a more focused fashion to the benefits of their children in the public system. Generally in wealthy suburbs the people who send children to private schools are the religiously bent or with special needs children. Education quality is not a major factor.

  • Martin’s comments are distinguished by their rare combination of passion and self evident truth. I wonder why Rabbi Salkin has not deigned to respond to Martin’s remarks about Rabbi Salkin’s shameless demagoguery in the style of “I am not here to praise Caesar.” In any case, it is certainly true that the Hasidim are acting in concert with Ayn Rand and enlightened self interest, and that’s what democracy is all about.

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