Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, recently disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town of Ramapo, N.Y. — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey — to vote against today’s referendum on political districting. The measure would reshape the town’s voting districts away from a citywide to a ward-based system of membership on the Town Board that would ultimately, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”
The second part of the referendum calls to increase the Town Board from four to six members. Agudath Israel’s statement also cited “voter minority dilution” as the referendum’s purpose and equated the potential lack of Orthodox representation with that of the local African-American community.
“The reason we felt a particular need to speak up loudly here was to make sure that voters were aware of what is at stake, namely the inhibiting of the voting power of easily disenfranchised minorities,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel, wrote in an email. “Currently, the Orthodox Jewish community in Ramapo is able to play a role in electing public officials, as are other minorities. The referendum at issue seems clearly intended to erode, if not eradicate, that ability.”
Agudath Israel is not the only voice bringing Ramapo’s local politics to a national light.
A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and everybody else over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.
Both the Town Board and the school board function independently, but it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the upcoming referendum mirrors the school board fight.
“It’s 100 percent just as polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.
White is also editor of communications for the grass roots organization Power of Ten, which hopes to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community to poll sites today.
“Right now they take all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, added White. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now … since the 90s.”
In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition to ward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.
“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”
Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.
“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”
Two other villages are Wesley Hills and New Hempstead, which White called “extremely segregated.”
“That’s why I think the [redistricting] referendum would work,” he said. But “this is not a Jewish thing or a non-Jewish thing, it’s about when democracy is not really working well, when people cannot have free communication and free will.”
Ramapo has had its share of political discord, and even the redistricting vote taking place this week took two years to finally happen. According to news reports, the battle began with petitions that were thrown out. The petitioners sued the town and were granted the right to hold the referendum by the New York State Supreme Court.
Social media has played a strong part in mobilizing the vote in Ramapo for announcing meetings, polling sites and volunteer opportunities.
A Facebook post the day before the election on the Preserve Ramapo page appeared to come from a loosely-identified Jewish group that used Hebrew phrases throughout and featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield is listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.
Several pages of graphics and text then urged citizens to vote yes for the redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that voting yes would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”
Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.
“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” said Castelluccio. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”
White wasn’t as hopeful.
“I think that we’re going to get clobbered,” he said. “They’ll bring out their full force of 12,000 [voters].”
Shafran saw the election in broad terms.
Though he wrote via email that he “wouldn’t go so far as to say that as goes Ramapo so goes the nation,” he added, “It isn’t paranoia to imagine that if a tactic is employed successfully to disenfranchise Jewish voters in one locale that others might see fit to try to follow suit. So anyone concerned with preserving the rights of minorities to play a meaningful role in the election of public officials should be concerned with the current situation in Ramapo.”
Melissa Gerr is senior staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, WJW’s sister paper.