The students come to board meetings, in many cases, because their parents can’t. “Many parents don’t speak English or are too busy with work,” Olivia Castor says. But it leaves them in a difficult position: They are ostensibly the people the board is supposed to serve, but they have also become anti-board activists. “At a young age, you hear ‘Jewish’ and you automatically think, Oh, they’re trying to kill my school district,” says Tendrina Alexandre, a student leader at Spring Valley High School who graduated last year. “That’s not necessarily the case. I had plenty of Jewish friends that I grew up with. But then when you look at the school board, it’s like, What else are you supposed to think? Because it’s all Hasidic Jews. And it’s them against us.” In the past few weeks, while a state assemblyman was proposing the district be split geographically into two—one for the Yeshiva community and one for the public schools—the rhetoric intensified. Students held protests. After one contentious meeting, the board’s attorney buttonholed a high-school senior and called him a “piece of shit.”
There is a small, committed group of adult activists in the district—one remnant of the liberal middle-class culture that once predominated. They act as watchdogs and antagonists, have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the students, and run a monthly radio show, “East Ramapo Underground,” that serves as a communal vent. One of its hosts, Peggy Hatton, first became involved in the district’s politics in 2007, after she heard from a teacher that her son’s school might be sold to a yeshiva. She started to attend meetings, and when the board voted to cut a program in which her son was enrolled, she approached the board president and explained that he was making a terrible mistake. Hatton says the president gave her a blank look. “They have no idea what they are cutting,” she says. “They’ve not spent one day in the public schools to see what goes on in the lives of students.”
Public-school parents have often challenged Orthodox candidates for the board, but in recent years they have always lost. “Here is what everybody’s missing,” Weissmandl told me. “The private school community is two-thirds of the district’s children. They are very organized, very vocal.” Both Schwartz and Weissmandl told me that they recognized the cuts they have instituted have been painful. Schwartz himself had received an excellent education and was “very sad to entertain the prospect that there might be a lot of children in the district who won’t be able to look back in their adult years on their education similarly,” he told me. Last Friday, citing personal reasons, he submitted his resignation. But the other Orthodox board members remain. They have a massive community to represent, one that they believe deserves its share of political power. “We’ve been elected,” Weissmandl says, “fair and square.”
Weissmandl grew up in the Skverer Hasidic sect in New Square, where his father had been the village administrator, and he remembers the opposition to Hasidic shuls and yeshivas. His community, he said, had to fight for everything it had; at times the local villages had seemed almost dictatorial. What had changed, he explained, was the demographic power of the Hasidic vote. The votes in the Hasidic villages are often 1,000 to one, Weissmandl said, not because the votes were coerced or ordered by rabbis but because the community has a common interest, and understands that this interest can be secured by voting together. (It is the same reason, he says, that Hasidic arranged marriages work: common values.) “Now that we elect—and we’ve been influencing—certain politicians to accommodate our needs, what used to be opposition has turned into hate. Because people can’t stand that this community has turned out to be what it has turned out to be,” Weissmandl says, speaking of the activists. “What they want is to see us gone. They want to see us gone because I have a yarmulke on my head.”
But Weissmandl has not left. He has stayed, and now he has seven children, and when they have families of their own, he expects that they will live nearby, within walking distance from the shul, a sacred space that had been invented, within a couple of generations, from a plot of land that had once been anonymous and profane.
Place is something to which most Americans attach tremendous nostalgia, but our attachments are conditional, dependent upon what the place has to offer. The speed with which East Ramapo has changed—the tenuous grasp middle-class institutions had on it—has been, for the liberals, a depressing shock. Recently, when a longtime elementary-school principal named Pat Simmons assumed the responsibilities of laid-off social workers, she discovered immigrant families that were living in houses where one bathroom served 30 or 40 people. After a water main broke in her school and the building was left without running water, she found herself talking to a student and discovered he was familiar with the situation; his house had no running water either, and his parents were using barrels to collect snow. The East Ramapo Simmons thought she was living in has disappeared, and what has replaced it, at least for her students, is at best a way station. Alexandre and Petit-Bois have already departed for college, Castor will go in the fall, and if the aspirations of their parents and their community are fulfilled, they will probably not return. In many ways, the promise of the public schools is that every child will have a chance to leave.