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Them and Them

Up in Ramapo, the immigrant community and the growing population of Hasidim had eyed each other with increasing wariness. Then the Orthodox took over the public schools and proceeded to gut them.

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From top, Students at Spring Valley High School. A Hasidic man walking in Ramapo.  

One morning in June 2005, a team of real-estate agents left Manhattan and drove an hour north to the western part of Rockland County to ­repossess a house. The home, in a village called New Square, had long since fallen into delinquency, and the bank had sold the property. The new owners, investors, had offered a cash settle­ment to the occupants as an enticement to leave before the formal eviction, but that offer had been refused. The agents had been told that New Square was a Hasidic village, but they had not given that fact much thought. Arriving, accompanied by the police, one of the agents noticed that the village had a gate and that the gate was attended.

In retrospect, that gate seems like a portal. Inside, young men and boys seemed to be everywhere, dressed alike. One of the agents was a woman in business clothes, her hair uncovered, and as the group passed through the village, her colleagues noticed a Hasidic woman covering a young boy’s eyes. At the house, the owner answered the door and the eviction began. The agents took a look at the place—a yellow house divided into four units, a small structure in the yard, no great prize.

The phrase “all hell broke loose” conjures an ancient kind of chaos. Perhaps it applies. Dozens of Hasidim arrived, forming a crowd, some just curious but some very upset. Villagers took photos of the police, of the agents, of the license plates on the agents’ cars, of the possessions being piled on the lawn. One Hasid stuck a microphone in the lead agent’s face and yelled questions at him, as if he were a corrupt politician. A group of workmen had been hired to help with the physical eviction; they had rocks thrown at them.

Things seemed unstable enough that afternoon that the police decided to patrol the property overnight. By the second night, there was no police protection. Soon after, someone fixed cables to the house’s pillars, tied the other end to a car, then revved the vehicle into drive. The pillars gave way and the house’s deck collapsed. The local paper, the Journal News, reached one of the agents, a man named Alain Fattal. He was outraged. “This is no longer about a real-estate deal,” Fattal told the reporter. “This is about my constitutional right to own property. I will not be intimidated.” The police could not figure out who was responsible for demolishing the deck. They tried to interview neighbors and got nowhere. But to the agents the case was clear: The villagers had destroyed the property rather than let outsiders move in.

Every community is formed by the stories it tells. In a few villages within the town of Ramapo—Monsey, Spring Valley, New Square—the Hasidic population, the dominant subset of the long-standing Orthodox community there, had been growing very rapidly since about 1990. For years, these Hasidic enclaves had been seen by their neighbors as strange but benign, and as part of the same larger community. But when the story of the collapsing deck appeared in the local papers, it revealed a more basic difference—what was a dispassionate matter of law outside the villages seemed a violent transgression to those within—and signaled that the growing Hasidic neighborhoods could be capable of unified, even defiant action. It started becoming more common to hear secular residents talking about the Hasidim in the binary terms of opposition: Us and Them.

But this was all still prologue. A few months later, as schools opened, an Orthodox Jewish majority, having been elected on the strength of the Hasidic vote, took control of the board of the East Ramapo School District. Which is when the conflicts really began.

Meria Petit-Bois registered for classes at Ramapo High School in April 2010, one of a hundred new arrivals from Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the great Haitian earthquake. Petit-Bois’s family had been well off in Haiti, and in their neighborhood the disaster had arrived with a distant, fragmentary surreality: She thought the earthquake was just her brothers playing upstairs until she opened the door and saw crowds running through the streets. Afterward, as hastily buried corpses began to rot, the family would wear masks outside or carry wedges of lemon to ward off the stench. The days were stagnant, convalescent. Her private school reopened, but in tents. Petit-Bois was 16 years old, and had always been expected to leave Haiti for university. When her father told her he was sending her to live with her aunt in Rockland County, to attend the public schools there and prepare for college, it seemed a rebuke to the disruptions of the earthquake—as if possibilities, despite everything, were opening up.


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