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Reported and written in May 2011.  The full article is also available at Thanassis Cambanis’ website.

Aron Wieder, Vice President of East Ramapo's public school board, keeps a Twitter account. His tweets vary from the cultural (“This purim—a springtime Jewish festival—it was unusually quiet on the streets of Monsey”) to the secular (“I read to the kids a Curious George book”). Photo: Aron Wieder.

Steve Forman, one of Ramapo High School’s assistant principals, was stunned to find on a recent morning that his town’s sectarian feud had spilled into his school. On the blackboard in an empty classroom, someone had scribbled: “IT’S THE JEWS’ FAULT.”

Forman immediately knew the anonymous student was not referring to the latest conflict in the Middle East.  The anti-Semitic jab was much less global.  In all likelihood, the student was referring to the Jewish members of the local public school board, who have drawn fire over the dilapidated state of the school district.

The East Ramapo school district is deeply divided.  Located twenty-five miles northwest of Manhattan, the suburb consists of a sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, now the single largest ethnic group in town, and a mix of immigrant groups, including communities from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Though Ramapo High School boasts a colorful mural with the phrase, “Unity in diversity,” the community has largely ignored this mantra.  Over the years, festering tensions between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox populations have led to disputes over real estate, traffic safety, and most contentiously, education.  Non-Orthodox residents complain that the Orthodox community has used its political muscle to lower taxes and gut the public education system, while Orthodox residents contend that the district must be more responsive to the needs of the changing population.

These disputes mirror those in many other towns with bourgeoning Orthodox populations, such as in Long Island and in Brooklyn.  East Ramapo’s tensions may be mounting to unprecedented levels, though, with the US Department of Education recently having begun an investigation to see whether the school board has engaged in discriminatory practices against public school students.

Ultimately, the community-wide dispute has the largest impact on the 8,200 students who attend the public schools, over half of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch (a proxy for low-income status).  The dispute also directly impacts the 17,000 children in East Ramapo who attend private schools, the vast majority of which are yeshivas, or traditional Jewish schools.

**

Long-time East Ramapo residents often talk about the “golden age” of the school district.  “When I attended Ramapo [High School], it was a totally different place,” a middle-aged woman whispered to me during a school board meeting.  “Things have really gone downhill.”

In the context of East Ramapo, the phrase “gone downhill” has several specific connotations. I grew up in the area and attended East Ramapo’s public schools, so I am familiar with several of them.

Among residents of Rockland County, which embraces East Ramapo, “gone downhill” most often implies the changing ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the district.  In 1989, 38 percent of Ramapo High School’s students were non-white; by 2009, this figure had jumped to 93 percent, due both to the influx of sizable immigrant populations and to “white flight,” defined in this case as hundreds of East Ramapo’s white families either moving or sending their children to other schools.  “After white flight we began seeing black flight,” said Forman, an assistant principal at Ramapo High School.  “Middle-class black families started to leave our district too.  Who are we left with?”

“Gone downhill” also often refers to the perceived quality of education in East Ramapo.  SchoolDigger, a national school-rating website, currently ranks Ramapo High School 824th out of New York’s 1113 public high schools.  Less than 75 percent of students graduate, and of those that do, only 40 percent continue to four-year institutions.  Most publicity the district receives today centers around fights, arrests, and gangs.  This is a starkly different picture from twenty years ago, when East Ramapo was, according to my mother, a long-time resident, “considered one of the best school districts around, with some of the best teachers.  That’s not the case anymore.”

More recently, “gone downhill” sometimes tacitly refers to the composition of the East Ramapo school board.  The nine-person elected board has enormous influence on the school district: each member has a say in which lawyer the district should hire, which extracurricular programs to fund, and which union contracts to uphold.

Historically, the board consisted of ardent parents of East Ramapo students.  Over time, however, the town began electing several equally ardent “private school parents”—a local euphemism for Orthodox residents—to the board.  Members of the grassroots group East Ramapo Stakeholders for Public Education, among others, have credited the elections to a supposed Jewish bloc vote combined with general voter apathy.  They have also complained that many of today’s East Ramapo parents are not US citizens and thus have no say in local elections.

As of April 2011, there were five Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish men serving on the nine-member public school board.  All of them send their children to private schools.  These board members included Nathan Rothschild, who served as President of the school board from 1998 until his sudden resignation on April 14.  The following day, he appeared in a US District Court on unrelated felony charges (he is accused of engaging in mail fraud while serving as fire commissioner in Monsey, one of East Ramapo’s more Orthodox neighborhoods).

The East Ramapo Central School District board in 2009. Five of nine members are Hasidic Jewish and send their children to private yeshivas. Photo credit: Vos iz Neias

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100 giggling women, all looking for a relaxing night with the girls. 85 mobile phones on silent mode. 62 cups of Diet Coke. 43 buckets of caramelized popcorn. 12 packets of tissues, for those with particularly high levels of internal emosonal attyachar.

And 1 standard-issue chick flick, with correspondingly standard-issue character clichés, “funny enough” situations, tear-jerking moments, and happy endings.

From the beginning of time — or at least since Meg Ryan began acting — this genre has tried to help young, Western(ized), heterosexual women escape from real-life boy drama for 120 minutes. These movies give the audience a non-controversial, entertaining, and relatively mindless mirror to society, as the filmmakers perceive it to be at the time. The audience is expected to consume every drop, relate to it, occasionally quote from it, and eventually forget about it. (more…)

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