Community groups fighting the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in New York City’s northwestern exurbs are joining forces to counter the Hasidic bloc vote in this year’s gubernatorial election.
An organization called United Monroe opposes the expansion of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village that brought high-density housing to the rural town as it grew by 63 percent since 2000. Two others, Concerned Citizens’ Group of Pine Bush and the Rural Community Coalition, are battling plans by a Hasidic developer to build 396 townhouses in Bloomingburg, a village in the foothills of the Catskills.
The activists want to prevent what they call “the next East Ramapo,” a school district about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Manhattan, where critics say the state is standing idle as a Hasidic-controlled board of education cuts programs for public-school students. A group called Preserve Rockland and a coalition of religious leaders, including rabbis, are pressing Governor Andrew Cuomo for oversight.
“We’re essentially becoming the other bloc vote, which is really the only way to gain representation in local, county and state government,” said Emily Convers, who leads United Monroe. “We need to play the same game. That’s the only way to get heard. Otherwise, we can kiss the mountains and the streams and our homes goodbye.”
Tensions in the lower Hudson Valley have been mounting as members of the largest Hasidic community outside of Israel leave gentrifying Brooklyn in search of lower-cost housing and raise families with an average of four children. The local disputes over development and public education are entangling state agencies and Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat who faces re-election.
As the groups pool resources, they’re raising the stakes for gubernatorial candidates who have historically focused mainly on winning endorsements from ultra-Orthodox leaders. That includes Cuomo, whose father’s close ties with the Hasidim helped him win their backing in 2010.
“No candidate likes to find themselves in the middle of this kind of contemptuous cultural conflict, but it’s unavoidable,” said Ryan Karben, a former state assemblyman from Rockland County and a blogger who chronicles the disputes.
The battle has already moved to Albany, the state capital. The Environmental Conservation Department is in the middle of a fight over Kiryas Joel’s petition to annex 507 acres from the Town of Monroe in Orange County. The agency has to decide which entity should lead the environmental review for the land change, which could lead to more than 1,200 new homes on property zoned for one house on every three acres.
Convers of United Monroe mustered 5,996 votes in November’s town supervisor race against an incumbent councilman who won with 6,735 votes, almost all from Hasidim in Kiryas Joel.
Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, backed the creation of the Kiryas Joel school district in 1990, which helped the community tap state funding for special-education students. In 2010, Andrew Cuomo told one of the two chief rabbis of the Satmar Hasidic sect that he “did a lot of work” at Kiryas Joel as U.S. housing secretary under President Bill Clinton because of the connection between the village and his father.
“I understand your community, I understand our relationship and I want to be as helpful as I can,” Cuomo said, according to a video of the meeting posted on YouTube.
Hasidim, meaning “pious ones” in Hebrew, are part of a movement within Orthodox Judaism that was founded by Eastern European mystics in the 18th century. In the U.S., they live in insular communities, often speak Yiddish and seek to maintain the lifestyles of their European ancestors.
Their customs can create friction with neighbors and political strife. The battle over the 396 town homes planned by developer Shalom Lamm in Bloomingburg, a Sullivan County town of about 400 residents, led to the March ouster of the mayor who backed the project.
Bloomingburg is part of the Pine Bush school district, which encompasses seven towns across three counties: Orange, Sullivan and Ulster. John Kahrs, leader of the citizens group opposing Hasidic influence, wants to reshape the school board so each member represents a ward, rather than being popularly elected by the entire district. He is working with board member Roseanne Sullivan, who is also a legislator for Orange County, which includes the 22,000 residents of Kiryas Joel.
“When the Bloomingburg development came up, people started wondering, ’Oh my God, what’s going to happen to our school district,’” Sullivan said. “They looked at East Ramapo and there was this fear factor that our school district would be taken over and we’d have the same problems.”
East Ramapo, a school district in Rockland County, includes Kaser and New Square, which have grown by about 50 percent since 2000 amid an influx of Hasidim. The district has about 9,000 mostly minority public school students -- and more than 20,000 pupils mainly in private Jewish schools.
Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, a group of rabbis, priests and imams, and Preserve Rockland, a local outfit seeking to counter the Hasidic bloc, say East Ramapo has been siphoning public funds for private schools since the education board was taken over by the ultra-Orthodox in 2005. The district has slashed sports, advanced-placement programs and full-day kindergarten.
Public v. Private
East Ramapo Superintendent Joel Klein said the board cut those program because, like districts across the state, it’s managing a reduction in state funding. The district is also unique in the number of private-school students it must accommodate, he said. The state requires that public schools pay for private-school busing.
Oscar Cohen, the education chairman for the Spring Valley National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he formed Rockland Clergy for Social Justice to give a voice in Albany to the East Ramapo public-school students. Last week, the group met with Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s top aide, to press for state oversight and a task force to determine how districts like East Ramapo could be better governed.
“We’re saying that currently the governor is part of the problem, the legislature is part of the problem, by knowing this and not doing anything,” Cohen said. “The Haitian, Latino, and African-American groups aren’t being heard in this because they don’t come together as a bloc vote.”
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration is working with lawmakers and the state education department to find a “short-term solution to address the concerns” in East Ramapo. It also has been reaching out to local leaders.
The meeting involving Schwartz and the clergy “was part of these efforts and we believed it to be productive,” Azzopardi said by e-mail.
Calls for comment to Shalom Lamm and Gedalye Szegedin, the village clerk for Kiryas Joel, who often speaks for the community, weren’t returned.
About 40 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million Jews identified as Orthodox in 2011, up from 33 percent in 2002, according to the Jewish Community Study of New York from the UJA-Federation of New York.
David Pollock, the director of governor relations and security at the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, said an endorsement by Hasidic leaders usually indicates who will win an election.
“There’s very few ways to acquire votes wholesale,” Pollock. “Hasidic communities are one of the few groups with a proven track record of delivering blocs of votes.”
Satmar, the biggest faction of Hasidim, are split between two brothers. Cuomo received the backing of both leaders when he won election. In his first year in office, he fulfilled a promise he made to one of the grand rabbis, Aaron Teitelbaum: He pushed through a bill that gave theological undergraduate students -- including those studying at yeshivas, or Jewish schools -- access to millions of dollars in state grants.
Robert Rhodes, a Democrat and chairman of Preserve Ramapo, which joined with the Clarkstown Preservation Society last year to form Preserve Rockland, said he won’t vote for Cuomo because of the way the governor has handled East Ramapo.
In November, Preserve Rockland, whose members are mostly Democrats, according to Rhodes, threw almost 9,000 votes behind Ed Day, a Republican, to put him ahead by about 4,000 votes in the county executive race. Though Cuomo hasn’t formally entered the gubernatorial race, he’s raised more than $30 million for re-election.
“We’re hoping to embarrass Cuomo as much as possible,” Rhodes said. “Here’s a guy who faces no problem getting re-elected and yet he refuses to help East Ramapo schools.”