Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rancor Where Private-School Parents Make Public-School Decisions

By Peter Appelbome, The New York Times

Spring Valley, N.Y. - If you wanted to help a Martian understand this sliver of the planet in Rockland County, you might do two things.

First, you would take him (or her or it) to the cavernous Foodmart International on the main drag, Route 59.

The shoppers chatter in the broad, chilly aisles in every language under the sun. The wares include Cuban bread, Thai jasmine rice, Vietnamese chili-garlic sauce, Chinese kidney and liver herb extract, Haitian sugar, Salvadoran pickled vegetables, Honduran cream, Malaysian papaya pudding — like the provisions for some modern ark.

Then, you would head a mile or so down the road toward Monsey, where you would see gaggles of observant Jews in traditional garb walking on the street, pushing strollers, popping into shops offering kosher pizza, falafel and ice cream.

This would be helpful in understanding not just this area, but disputes along sensitive cultural fault lines that are playing out in several suburban communities. In fact, the East Ramapo school district here is going through the same drama as the district in Lawrence, on Long Island.

In both cases, the boards voted to close one of the local schools. In both cases, one reason given is declining enrollments because so many local families now send their children to yeshivas. In both cases, the decision was made by boards dominated by Orthodox Jews who are running the public schools but don’t send their own children to them.

Many of the Orthodox here and elsewhere feel crushed by the weight of high school taxes and private school tuition. Making sure the school district is fiscally prudent seems a necessity. Nathan Rothschild, the president of the East Ramapo board, said its record demonstrated a clear commitment to provide a quality education, not just to carefully manage costs.

He said this was still a democracy, where whoever gets the most votes gets to serve.

“I take great offense to the idea that you can tell a specific part of the community, ‘You’re not entitled to run for office,’ ” he said. “That’s outrageous.”

But increasingly, others are chafing at the idea that people who don’t send their children to the public schools are making the decisions for those from very different cultures who do.

Steve White, a parent who is partly of Jewish descent, speaks fluent Creole and is married to Emilia White, a Haitian-American, has put together a slate of candidates for the three seats on the ballot in the May 19 school board elections. One is his wife, the second is Hispanic and the third is an Irish-American candidate who replaced an African-American who dropped out for health reasons. People wonder, he said, where the justice is in a public school district that’s overwhelmingly Haitian, African-American and Hispanic being run by what Mr. Rothschild calls “the private school community.” And, Mr. White added, in an area where the Orthodox have most of the economic clout and control the local health care center as well, the situation is a breeding ground for resentment.

“The current system doesn’t address the question of governance with the consent of the governed,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t feel like America.”

The issue has percolated since the Orthodox gained control of the board a few years back. It gained a measure of acrimony a year ago when two Orthodox school board candidates dropped out of the race a week before the election, in effect giving their seats to two other Orthodox candidates, one of whom never campaigned, never supplied information for a candidate questionnaire and never showed up at candidates’ forums.

It went into overdrive this year with the decision to close one of the schools, a decision that critics said played out more in private than at public meetings. Mr. Rothschild said the process was open and the decision was based on disrupting as few families as possible.

Mr. White said that recently announced plans for new housing and the growing number of Hispanic families with many children made it unclear whether a school closing made sense. And he said the composition of the board gave the appearance the decision was being influenced by the opportunity to turn the site into another yeshiva.

The enduring dynamic here and elsewhere is the Orthodox voting in huge numbers and, invariably, for one of their own. Competing here with splintered, low-income, ethnic constituencies, they invariably get the votes.

Of course, not all victories are worth the costs. And critics ask how the yeshiva parents in Ramapo would feel if the decisions about its schools were dictated by local black or Hispanic residents.

Memo to the Martian: Yeah, we live together, sort of. But it’s a lot more complicated than it might seem down here. Watch your back.

Bes Iyar Farbrengen Tonight

There will be a farbrengen with Rabbi Lesches tonight, Sunday, April 26, following the 9:30 PM Maariv minyan, in honor of Bes Iyar, the birth date of the 4th Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Maharash.

The fourth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (1834-1882), known by the acrynom "Maharash", was born in the town of Lubavitch (White Russia) on the 2nd of Iyar of the year 5594 from creation (1884). His father, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the 3rd Chabad Rebbe, known as the "Tzemach Tzeddek") once remarked that Rabbi Shmuel's birthday, coinciding with 17th day of the Omer Count, is defined by the Kabbalistic masters as Tifferet sheb'Tifferet ("Beauty of Beauty")

Although Rabbi Shmuel was the youngest of Rabbi Menachem Mendel's seven sons, he was chosen to succeed his father as "rebbe" and leader of Chabad in the movement's capitol, Lubavitch (five of his brothers established branches of Chabad Chassidism in other towns in White Russia and Ukraine). In addition to leading his Chassidim, guiding and advising their spiritual and material lives and authoring many maamarim (discourses of Chassidic teaching), Rabbi Shmuel traveled extensively to throughout Europe, meeting with government and business leaders to exert pressure on the Czarist regime to halt its instigation of pogroms against the Jews of Russia.

Rabbi Shmuel passed away at age 47 on the 13th of Tishrei, 5643 (1882).

Monthly Moshiach and Geulah Shiur

The monthly Moshiach and Geulah shiur by Rabbi Lesches will take place tomorrow evening, Monday, April 27, following the 9:30 PM Maariv minyan.

A Cleansing for a Holiday, in the Spirit of a Campfire

By Peter Applebome, The New York Times

Monsey, N.Y. - Maybe it was the intersection of the beginning of Passover and the Birkat Hachamah, or Blessing of the Sun, celebrated by observant Jews once every 28 years, when, according to Talmudic tradition, the sun returns to the position it occupied at the same time during the week of its creation.

But there did seem to be an exceptional degree of ardor at the site of the old Rockland Drive-In, its giant white screen hovering ghostlike over the vacant land next to the Kosher Castle restaurant, cars jamming Route 59, flecks of snow falling from the sky, at the annual Monsey chametz burning Wednesday morning.

“No plastic bags, no aluminum foil, no children,” Nathan Rothschild, Monsey’s fire commissioner, joked as people, about two-thirds of them Hasidim in traditional black garb, approached a giant trash bin, waves of heat and smoke pouring into the sky, with loaves of rye bread, crackers and cookies, boxes of cereal and other food to be burned before the Passover holiday began Wednesday evening. “You can throw in your mother-in-law if you want.”

Observant Jews are required to remove all chametz, the Hebrew word for leavened bread, from their homes, cars and person before Passover begins, then burn a portion of it and throw out the rest. The idea is for a spiritual cleansing as well as a house cleaning, and a prayer is recited that releases the family from ownership of any crumbs left behind.

Burning chametz is an ancient tradition that sometimes runs afoul of modern fire codes, population densities or standards of safety. A rabbi’s 27-year-old son was badly burned and four others were burned less seriously in 2004 when he poured paint thinner on a chametz fire in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Hence the communal chametz burnings, which have become increasingly organized in recent decades. Monsey’s dates to 1977, when Mordechai Eizik, a local firefighter, brought two trash barrels to the firehouse parking lot for chametz. Since 2002, it’s drawn thousands to the former drive-in, which once was the proposed site of a new Wal-Mart. It sits on a busy avenue where immigrants looking for work, international markets and Hispanic clubs eventually give way to the suburban shtetl of Monsey.

And so they came, in old Buicks and new S.U.V.’s, mostly men and their children while the women were home cooking the Passover meal. Some were from far away: Shlomo from Baltimore, who gave only his first name, and his children, who usually burn chametz at the Pimlico racetrack; Martin Bernstein from Buenos Aires. Both were visiting friends or family in Monsey. A vast majority were locals who brought their chametz in plastic bags from the Rockland Kosher Supermarket or the All Fresh Supermarket just up Route 59, or in a pickle bucket from Flaum Appetizing. In addition to white bread or melba toast, many brought lulav, fronds of the date palm tree used during the Sukkot holiday and customarily destroyed in the ritual fire.

The men brought prayer books and read them, rocking back and forth, islands of religious focus amid the hubbub. The children, for the most part, just seemed taken with the spectacle and the opportunity to throw anything in the fire — bread, potato chip bags, licorice. “It’s free entertainment,” said David Rabinowitz with a shrug, as his kids suggested assorted offerings for the blaze.

People started coming before the site opened at 6:30 a.m., and kept piling in until well after the scheduled closing at 11:41 a.m. — the product of another Talmudic calculation. It took about 200 wooden pallets to keep the blaze roaring. Water was poured on the embers around 1:15. The final count — suspiciously precise, but we’ll go with it — was 9,876 participants.

It was, all said, a big success. There were eight trash fires elsewhere in town during the day, all presumably chametz-related, compared with the 40 or so expected without the communal burn. Do-it-yourself chametz burning, some pointed out, is very inefficient — bread being much harder to burn completely than paper or wood — so the religious purpose was better served in the industrial-strength trash bin.

And, just as some traditions are old and some not so old, Mr. Rothschild pronounced it a worthy community event.

“What I find rewarding is to see so many different parts of the community, different Hasidic groups and others, coming together in one place in unity,” he said. “And kids love it and look forward to it. If you have a fire in your backyard barbecue and burn chametz, it’s not a memory. You do this, standing among 500 or 1,000 people doing this together, it’s a memory.”

And, at least, they all got his jokes. One man looked at the burning trash bin and the orange one behind him for bags, trash and the rest, as if not sure what each was for. “Milchig and fleishig,” Mr. Rothschild said — dairy and meat, the basic delineation of keeping kosher. The man smiled and threw his chametz into the fire.