Let’s call the opposition to Urban Dove what it is: racism | Opinion

December 2, 2019 Jessica Mokhiber, Jill Shahen and Andrea Rogers Barry
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As we read the Brooklyn Eagle’s article on the community opposition to the new proposed location for Urban Dove Charter School, we were horrified.

The behavior reported is jaw-droppingly awful. The headline, “New Midwood charter school sparks racial and religious tensions,” couldn’t quite encapsulate the horrifying things adults were saying about children.

It is hard to describe the community opposition as anything other than racism at its ugliest.

Urban Dove’s student body is comprised mostly of children of color. The vast majority live below the poverty line, and all have struggled in school.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

Urban Dove is a school that serves as a lifeline for kids who are at the precipice of falling through the cracks. For whatever reason, traditional schools couldn’t or didn’t reach them in time. Now these children are considered “over-age and under-credited” meaning they are not on track to graduate. Urban Dove quite literally is a place where magic happens: it turns students’ lives around. Don’t take our word for it. A quick search easily returns well-deserved accolades, including this wonderful piece from CBS News’ Jeff Glor a few years ago.

Urban Dove seeks to continue this life-changing work at a new location in Brooklyn. If you follow charter schools at all, you probably understand that finding suitable space in New York City is almost always the biggest hurdle to operating, since charters don’t receive the same types or amounts of funding for their buildings.

But Urban Dove’s founder, Jai Nanda, identified the right space for the school at the East Midwood Jewish Center, which had been struggling itself to find a suitable tenant who could pay the bills. As the article points out, Urban Dove’s founder and others from the school attended a community night to get to know the folks who live in the neighborhood. We can only imagine how Jai felt when that meeting went so terribly off the rails.

But another nagging and more disturbing thought crept in: Can you imagine how awful it would be for Urban Dove’s students to hear what these so-called adults were saying about them?

Here are just a few of the accusations, reported in the Eagle and other various media outlets, hurled around the room:

“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.

“We have a very safe neighborhood. For instance, yeshiva schools don’t need metal detectors. We just don’t live that way around here, and they’re bringing that element,” said Steven Nermelstein.

One audience member shouted, “they’re urban kids who know how to fight.” Another loudly compared the EMJC to Adolf Hitler.

“How is that any different than the children in Murrow or Midwood?” EMJC President Michael 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.”

“I’m a little unclear why your son would be afraid,” Jai 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.

Let us say it again: This appears to be blatant racism and fear-mongering. And it’s being leveled at some of the neediest children in the city.

In this day and age, in a time of political turmoil not just at home but across the globe, we’re fighting against the fear of “the other” all the time — anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia, homophobia, etc. are rearing their ugly heads much more often than any of us should accept.

And so we, as adults, must do better. And the single best way to do better is through education.

That is exactly what Jai Nanda and Urban Dove are doing. Rather than shun the school and make students feel unwelcome, community members should be applauding their efforts. Through education, Urban Dove is pulling kids out of poverty, giving them role models, providing social workers and counselors to listen and guide those living with trauma, and helping them find and forge a path for success after high school.

We know racism and other forms of prejudice still exist. It’s just jarring to see it on full public display in one of the most diverse cities in the world at the close of 2019. To be clear, there were some supporters in the room, and for that we are thankful. But their voices were drowned out by the detractors who called the Urban Dove children “dangerous”.

We wonder today: Do these adults feel any shame in seeing their words — and their deepest prejudices — in print?

We are confident that Urban Dove will continue to help New York City’s students get the education they deserve. And in time, perhaps the opponents of the school, in seeing the students thrive, will get the education that they so sorely need.

Jessica Mokhiber, Jill Shahen and Andrea Rogers Barry are the founders of Empire Charter Consultants, a charter school consulting firm that works with schools in New York State and nationwide. 

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  1. Mary-Beth Shine

    I’m anti-charter school as a rule as they pull funding away from public schools, and their staff and faculty aren’t held up to the same scrutiny as public school teachers. That being said, is anyone surprised that a tight knit Orthodox community would be opposed? These neighborhoods have been allowed to thrive and exist, especially in Brooklyn, for decades, they are extremely conservative, yet because of their religious beliefs are exempt from so much accountability. Everyone turns a blind eye until something like this happens. Tight knit neighborhoods based on religion and ethnicity always are suspicious and fearful. I grew up close enough to Boston in the 60’s – 80’s and know this to be true. You can’t go into a neighborhood like Midwood and especially that building and not expect a fight. Is it right? No. But it just is and it will be a fight to make it work.

  2. Esther Greenwald

    I’m horrified at this article’s attack on the Orthodox community with labels of racism, xenophobia and everything else that’s dumped on us without any effort to understand the issues.

    By cherry picking statements from a few members of an audience at a meeting called for the community after the Jewish center, without discussion with the community, signed on with a charter school after historically supporting Jewish education, you missed the point. And took an easy shot at Orthodox Jews, the new easy whipping boy, with no consequences to you. This reporting is frankly inflammatory and disgusting.

    • Of course, the authors of this article are the Charter school company supporters, so I would question their motives for writing a hit piece on the community they have placed their client school in- without any discussions with said community!
      Shame on them for tarring and feathering an entire community (which is actually in danger of increased anti-Semitic attacks due to libel such as this article) rather than placing their school the right way, and respecting the communities housing their charter schools, to further their supposed mission of a community accepting and aiding their students!! This was a botched opportunity.

  3. NYC Catholic

    I recommend a great book, Ethnic Cleansing as Urban Renewal by Dr. E Michael Jones. Integration in America failed and it continues to fail today through instances such as this. There are unique flavors to modern American integration such as through charter schools and certain corporate initiatives. Charter schools are more scrupulous than public schools so any problem causing children are heavily vetted out and not tolerated so this isn’t an issue with charters….their main issue isn’t behavior of students but the behavior of the public. Race in America is such a terrible issue mainly because of the lack of True Christian culture. The protestant nature of America lends itself to a fractured and ultimately apostate christian culture. The lack of human dignity and consequently void of compassion, American culture has harbored fear and hatred of any outside group. To quote a great modern American scholar, “to be an American is an abstract intellectual thing. You either become a philosopher or you are destroyed.” America as the great satan feeds off of human angst and fear and provides no solutions except material ones such as a mortgage and middle class alliances and trappings. In accepting this my constant question of “what is wrong with Americans, why can’t they be normal” is answered by the lack of intellectualism among too many of our citizens coupled with the incessant consumer capitalist culture that has been orchestrated to replace various humble and considerate cultures. My new question now is how quickly can I repatriate to what my recent immigrant family members left behind in the name of materialism and idealism.

  4. Harold Kiplinger

    So sad to see someone twist a community trying to defend their safety into an issue of racism. This is an issue of safety, so far midwood has been spared the rabid acts of anti-semitism that have occured in boro-park and williamsburg. This is not by chance, it is due to a peaceful co-existence between jews and non-jews alike in midwood. This new element is a safety concern, not a race issue. I assure you had it been a school of failing whites from a poor neighborhood the same concerns would have been raised.

    Don’t use liberalism as a disguise for Anti-Semitism. That is an Adolf Hitlermove.

    If you really care about the charter school maybe focus on that fact that many of these students are going to have to endure an hour bus ride each way. That is a good way to use your liberalism.

  5. Saber es poder


    In the above Daily News article (from a couple of years ago) titled “Parents Worried New School for Troubled Teens Willl Bring Danger into Willoughby Street School Building” parents and politicians of varied race and ethnic background worry that the Urban Dove students will usher in a resurgence in gang activity. They express concern that these students might intimidate or bully their children. The article’s title and use of adjectives validates the concerns of that community. Not once is anyone called racist for expressing these fears.
    This article by the New York Post refers to Urban Dove as being comprised of students “in the brink of failure.” These are but two articles that can be easily obtained when looking into Urban Dove’s history. Its amazing how the Post and other “news” venue’s adjectives change when it is the Orthodox community who are voicing their concerns. Brooklyn is the epitome of the melting pot. Its vibrancy enhanced by the rainbow of people who choose to raise their families here. Perhaps, one shortcoming of this gathering is that not enough was done to include the neighbors from outside the Orthodox fold. I have no doubt that should they have been fully aware they would have expressed the same concerns.

  6. Mike Suko

    HS youths have probably ALWAYS put the relatively small number of “adults” using the subways between 2 and 5 PM ill at ease.

    Now that I’m a senior – not a teen – I think I *do* see both sides.

    But having just seen the revival of “Fires in the Mirror” – basically documenting 1991’s Crown Heights riots … and exploring the Orthodox vs. Black dynamic (for many in both camps, “versus” is understating the venom) – I really have to wonder about that school’s opposition – some of them represented in comments right here. The Orthodox have almost never been “good neighbors.” Even more than sects like the Amish, they pretty much see the world in black and white – “We are God’s chosen people and live according to His laws; the goyim do their own thing and we should keep contact with them to a minimum – we should be able to [literally] mark ‘OUR’ territory off and live as our grandparents did in Poland 100 years ago.”

    There’s not all that much exaggeration in the above, believe you me. They rip off the social service system “religiously” – with pols like diBlasio willing to buy their votes in that fashion. AND they leave their kids unable to function [via mis-education] in any way beyond procreation – i.e., “the rebbe SHOULD HAVE 10 children.” [with thousands of “rebbes”]

    And this from a Jewish person, who just wishes that the Orthodox could endorse “live and let live.” That appears to be a bridge too far for most of them.

  7. Jessica Mokhiber, Jill Shahen and Andrea Rogers Barry

    Don’t take my word for it, there’s another kind of magic going on at this school.
    A student was shot as he was leaving the school. https://nypost.com/2021/04/29/shooting-in-front-of-brooklyn-school-for-troubled-teens/

    Is this not exactly what the Jewish people were afraid of?
    Was our fears still “racisim at it’s ugliest?”
    Does this comment your wrote still stand true “Let us say it again: This appears to be blatant racism and fear-mongering.”

    The difference between the Jews who protested and you or anyone that called us racist. Is that we did our research and knew what was coming our way. You on the other hand simplified the situation into Jews are racisits.

    Will you issue an update on this situation? Will you apologize for this article?
    I know you won’t because YOU are the racist ones.