New Midwood charter school sparks racial and religious tensions

November 26, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A charter high school that serves as a last resort for struggling students is facing outcry from its potential new neighbors in Midwood, who say they’re so concerned that they’re willing to buy out the school’s lease.

Chants of “membership now,” a reference to paying more money rather than accept the school’s presence at the East Midwood Jewish Center, rang out at the end of the contentious meeting on Monday night. The meeting was meant to be a welcoming, and to debunk rumors about the new charter school, rumors that began circulating after neighbors learned it was bidding to rent out the space attached to EMJC’s synagogue.

Urban Dove is a transfer school that provides additional support and specialized teaching methods for kids who have failed the ninth grade.

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Audience members cited concerns about safety and a lack of community input, and voiced a strong opposition to a non-Jewish entity taking the day school’s place.

“Why did the center not commit itself to having a Jewish school?” asked one woman, who identified herself as a longtime member of the center named Freddi. “I want to know why, when it came down to dollars, you opted for a school that does sound wonderful but is not committed to what we want.”

The building at 1256 East 21st St. had long housed the East Midwood Hebrew Day School, and later the Midwood Day School — both Jewish institutions.

The center’s “long and happy history” with the Jewish schools was punctuated by fiscal failures, EMJC President Michael Schwartz said Monday. Both failed to make rent, and the more recent of the two, the Midwood Day School, took the center to court for not renewing its lease when it couldn’t pay the bills.

“We were left holding the bag,” Schwartz said, stressing that the center was left with no other option than to consider other offers — no matter their affiliation. “Our synagogue is a diverse place. At all times in this process, our only motivation was to find the best possible tenant for our space.”

Urban Dove was the only school to submit a proposal and provide fiscal transparency, including a downpayment, the president said. The transfer school — which exclusively admits 15- and 16-year-olds who have failed the ninth grade — plans to leave its Bedford-Stuyvesant campus and open in the Midwood space in September 2020.

The Bed-Stuy school currently enrolls about 300 students.

“My main concern is the security of my children, of my block. The minute your children walk out of that building, what security do I have?” one audience member said to applause.

“How is that any different than the children in Murrow or Midwood?” Schwartz contended. Boos rang out in response. Answers from the audience varied from, “They don’t come over here” to, “They don’t fail out.”

The school’s mission, Schwartz said, is in line with the center’s.

“Urban Dove was created to try and help these children who did not make the grade in their first year of high school,” he said.

“If you fail ninth grade in the New York City public school system, the only option is to redo it and, as you can guess, that doesn’t always work out,” Urban Dove Founder and Executive Director Jai Nanda told the room. Statistically, students who fail their first year of high school are more likely to drop out than push through, he said.

A former educator and basketball coach, Nanda started Urban Dove in 2012 to give struggling students a second chance. He addressed the standing-room-only crowd Monday night eager to dispel misinformation within the community.

“To get into Urban Dove, you have to have failed the ninth grade. That’s it,” he said. “You don’t have to be expelled for violence or formally incarcerated. None of those things apply to our students.”

“In the end, their offer — which included renovations to our ancient school building — was the best,” Schwartz said, noting also that members of EMJC have already done a site visit at Urban Dove, have spoken with its local police precinct and found its students to be “good citizens and neighbors.”

At one point in the meeting, an exchange between Nanda and a mother in the crowd laid bare simmering racial and ethnic fears — not to mention a dose of gigantasophobia.

“I’m a little unclear why your son would be afraid,” Nanda, of Urban Dove, replied to one mother. The woman maintained that her issue “isn’t about race,” but more about the heights of the prospective students, who might “intimidate” local children. Audience members further noted that neighborhood kids in Jewish garb might be bullied by students who don’t understand the religion or the area.

“We would never put a tenant in possession of our school who we thought would be disruptive to our community,” Schwartz said. He asked audience members for their peace, understanding and a “harmonious transition.”

The meeting, however, ended on a far from harmonious note.

“It’s all well and good to say we should ignore our financial reality but who’s going to pay for our rabbi? Who’s going to pay for our facility?” Schwartz asked.

“What’s the number?” one EMJC member asked. “Tell us, and maybe we can help.”

Hoping to outbid the school, one audience member asked the crowd, “How many of you are willing to pay for membership today?” (According to the center’s website, membership fees range from $1,200 to $50,000 a year.)

A sea of hands went up as chants of “membership now” echoed through the room and Schwartz walked out. Nanda followed, ending the meeting 15 minutes early.

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  1. Solemn Solace

    This is why I dont like Jews. They are quick to call someone an anti Semite but when they are in their enclaves they are the most racist people I have seen. They are money hungry and think they are better than everyone else they are snobs and entitled and invasive like roaches and mold.

  2. Carmen Sammarco

    I have myriad of Jewish friends, non-Orthodox ones. Lately, reading City-Data, and seeing how the Orthodox ones use their religion and voting rights to circumvent politics, makes me uneasy. Most of them are on the City of New York Welfare System. Have six kids or more, lie about any income they may come across, and try any way possible they may be able to fleece the City. Most of them never work. I have see them in New Jersey going from one corner to the next, with their fancy telephones, making calls all day long. They have many so called politicians under their armpits. The police are subjugated to them. Upstate New York, Monsey, Kiryas Joel have signs in Hebrew on the streets for traffic. Both look like slums because they are untidy. The City of New York and State bends over at whatever they want. And the middle-class are fleeing because they can no longer keep their homes or condos, due to the increase in taxes to pay for all the demands of the Orthodox Community, while the City/State bends over to make room for new housing for them.

    In New Jersey, the Lakewood town, and most of Ocean County have been taken over, by them. However, NJ residents fight them in court a lot. In Lakewood, they are looking to have over 300 new one family homes built with State money. They are use their religion to pilferage the state……..and getting away with it. If I sound resentful, yes, indeed I am because I have worked all my life since age 14 to be able to become middle-class, and see how their demands along with others, are starting to make me poor. I am not against their religion, to each its own, I am not against the way they dress or have their hair, I am angry at their deceitfulness, and ways of stealing from us all, while laughing behind our backs…….

  3. Zev Stern

    The “tons of other buildings” are not designed as schools. East Midwood’s building is. I should know; I am a proud alumnus of East Midwood Day School and I attended the meeting. It saddens me that my alma mater is no longer financially viable. As an Orthodox Jew I am ashamed but not surprised that an Orthodox school that contracted to rent the building did not pay its bills.
    Someone in the audience complained that urban kids, but presumably not OUR urban kids, know how to fight, as if knowing how to fight was a bad thing. Another suggested that Urban Dove kids are inordinately tall (last time I checked we all want our children to be tall) and that our children would be intimidated by taller kids who know how to fight. The Holocaust should have implanted into our consciousness the impossibility of living post-messianic lives in a pre-messianic world, and if our children don’t know how to fight and are intimidated by taller kids who do then we have neglected a necessary part of their education.
    East Midwood severely underestimated the number of people who would attend the meeting, and too many people were left standing in the corridor. I was inside and witnessed the meeting degenerate into a raucous unruly mob. The organizers tried to have people in the audience line up and present their remarks in orderly fashion, but people in the seats were talking, or rather shouting, out of turn so that nobody could be heard. The organizers had to give up and end the meeting early. We were at our worst and our bad behavior was fully on display and recorded for posterity. I fear that we members of the community who attended the meeting will have to answer for the hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) that some of us created.

  4. Brandi Thompson Ullian

    Disgusting. Thank you, EMJC, for honoring the most basic tenant of ALL religions: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. Shame on these “neighbors” that refuse to give a do-good organization with a history of success and these at-risk teens – with no criminal records and no histories of violence – a chance.

  5. An absolutely disgusting display of both racism and small-mindedness! I graduated from the day school many years ago and was saddened by it’s closing, but the area can no longer support a Conservative Jewish Day School. That’s a fact. The synagogue reached out across Brooklyn to no avail and took the best deal for themselves. Having worked with “at-risk” teens, they are no more a risk to the community as any other. Showing them a welcoming face can do more for these kids than anything else. What the community has shown is abject racism and exclusion. Shame on them!! That is NOT Judaism!