We are Rockland mothers. We must stop failing East Ramapo’s children

The following editorial letter by Beatrice Weber and Nancy Bermon appeared in The Sunday Journal News May 28, 2023

“As Jewish mothers whose children went to public and nonpublic schools in Rockland County, we are coming forward to advocate for high quality education for all children. The recent narrow defeat of East Ramapo Central School District’s budget adds to its dubious distinction of defeating more school budgets than any district in the state. When one school district fails, we all fail. It’s past time for a broader segment of our county and state to speak up and hold our elected officials accountable to New York State’s mandate to educate all our children.

We represent both the public school and the yeshiva system.

As a mother of two graduates of the Nyack schools, where our budget always passes, I, Nancy, find myself distressed that Nyack’s children have much better educational resources and outcomes than East Ramapo’s. The statistics in East Ramapo are egregious — it has the highest dropout rate in Rockland County, 20% compared to 6% or less in other districts. In almost every grade, fewer than 10% of English language learners in East Ramapo reached proficiency on math or English language arts tests. In 2019-2020, only 17% of East Ramapo students received an advanced diploma, compared to 34-74% of students in neighboring districts.

Secular education is the birthright of every child in New York State and to withhold it is not just unconscionable. It is against the law. In fact, New York State Education Law 3204 — more than 100 years old — mandates all schools to provide all children with a secular education in English, science, math and social studies. When schools fail to provide instruction in these core subjects, they are depriving their students of an essential building block for future health and success.

This century-old law applies not only to public schools, but also to nonpublic schools that must provide ‘substantially equivalent’ education. The reality is that far too many of the 180 yeshivas in East Ramapo, with its close to 30,000 students, do not meet this basic standard. For every success story from the Hasidic yeshiva system, there are scores of stories of struggle and despair, and of families on public assistance. There is close to a 0% graduation rate in the Hasidic yeshivas in Rockland County with an unacceptable level of ignorance of American history and civics. Even the history of the Holocaust is not taught. How is it possible to justify the perpetuation of this reality?

Challenging this shameful status quo has been my, Beatrice’s, mission, both as the executive director of a nonprofit dedicated to the improvement of education in Hasidic and Haredi yeshivas and as the mother of 10 children, all whom were raised within Rockland’s Hasidic community. Some are struggling professionally as young adults due to their education deficit. I fear that my youngest child, a 10-year-old who currently attends a Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn, and his peers, may face the same outcomes as so many thousands of Hasidic adults, handicapped from pursuing their dreams due to the lack of an education.

East Ramapo exemplifies holistic failure. Neither the public school nor the nonpublic school children receive the education they need and deserve; it literally embodies the worst of both educational worlds. The local public schools don’t have the resources to provide equivalent education to that of other districts in the county, while many yeshivas in East Ramapo don’t teach English, math, science and social studies. Tragically, the public schools and yeshivas are pitted against one another for resources.

As a result, we are failing all our children.

This must stop. We must ensure a solid education for our children in every school. It is the right thing to do and it is the law.

Calling for improved secular education in Hasidic yeshivas is not tantamount to an attack against this community but the tactic of smearing education reform activists as antisemitic is as effective as it is cynical. If you doubt this, take note of the many politicians who remain silent out of the fear of being considered prejudiced against Jews. Our elected officials must stand up to this canard, find their courage and stop kowtowing to those who oppose changes in the yeshivas. If they do not take these steps, the children of Rockland County will continue to serve as pawns in the battle for resources and political gain.

Rep. Mike Lawler, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski and state Sen. Bill Weber, all who benefited from Rockland’s schools, must lead the effort to correct the dangerous trajectory East Ramapo, Rockland County and New York State are on. This must be a prime and pressing issue in all election debates in our villages, our towns, our county and our state. We must choose fearless leaders who will unite us and stand up for equitable, high-quality education for all our children, and reverse the course of our floundering educational system.

Silence and the failure to act is a grievous sin of omission, guaranteeing that an entire generation of children will be consigned to a lifetime of struggle — intellectual, professional and financial — and robbed of their fundamental rights as New Yorkers and as Americans. Continuing to fail these children is the surest way to lead our county and state toward failure.

Nancy Bermon is a member of Rockland Jews for Immigrant Justice, with members representing multiple Jewish organizations in Rockland County. RJIJ works in solidarity with Proyecto Faro, an immigrant-led nonprofit that provides mutual aid, temporary housing, legal services, accompaniment, organizing and advocacy with and for Rockland’s immigrants. https://proyectofarorockland.org/

Beatrice Weber is Executive Director of YAFFED — Young Advocates for Fair Education — a nonprofit organization founded by individuals raised within Hasidic and Haredi communities, committed to improving secular education in Hasidic and Haredi schools