Rabbi’s party draws protesters of charter school for struggling students

The new rabbi supported a school for "troubled teenagers" taking over a Jewish center's lease. The neighbors are pushing back.

December 9, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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As members of the East Midwood Jewish Center celebrated the installation of a new rabbi on Sunday, protesters gathered outside in opposition to the institution’s recent decision to lease space to a charter school for struggling students.

The protest was the second bout of public opposition to the arrival of Urban Dove Charter School, a Bedford-Stuyvesant transfer school that provides additional support and specialized teaching methods for kids who have failed the ninth grade, and which aims to rent out the space attached to EMJC’s synagogue.

A Nov. 25 meeting meant to debunk rumors about the school turned contentious, as concerns from neighbors riled an audience of more than 300 people. There, locals 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. Opponents even went as far as offering to try and outbid the coming charter.

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Some comments from local parents — particularly about security and the safety of their children — sparked allegations of racism. According to Department of Education data, approximately 78 percent of Urban Dove’s student body for the 2016-2017 school year was black. Another 20 percent were Hispanic or Latinx.

Sunday, chants of “do the right thing” echoed at the entrance to EMJC as Rabbi Sam Levine was lauded inside. Though signs in the crowd said things like, “Preserve the Jewish character of your institution” and “Educate Midwood Jewish Children,” protesters who spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle maintained that the issue is neither about race nor religion.

“We came here today with a heavy heart because we didn’t want to protest another Jewish organization,” said one protester, who did not reveal his name. “But the rabbi last night in the [New York] Post called us thinly-veiled racists, and I think that was a shot below the belt. We wish that he would bring every single nationality in the city into our neighborhood but what they’re doing is bringing troubled teenagers.”

Protesters gathered during Rabbi Sam Levine’s installation. Photo: Meaghan McGoldrick/Brooklyn Eagle

Protesters focused largely Sunday on the center’s “end-run” to lease to Urban Dove. “They claim they spoke to one or two yeshivas, but no one knows who they are — it doesn’t make any sense,” a 43-year Midwood resident named Jay told the Eagle. “I think we’re more hurt that we weren’t in on the process and that we only found out after the lease was signed. The least they could have done was give [the community] first dibs on the building, but it was never an open process.”

Toward the end of the Nov. 25 meeting, the bulk of attendees declared they’d be willing to pay for center membership in an attempt to outbid the coming charter.

A protester on Sunday, who said his name was Michael, alleged that the center picks and chooses carefully when it comes to membership. “I’ve lived around the corner for two years and can’t seem to get membership,” he said.

Rabbi Levine fiercely denied those claims Monday morning.

“That’s completely untrue,” he told the Eagle. “This has never been an issue before.”

While EMJC has put a temporary moratorium on membership applications, Levine said that, prior to the contention around Urban Dove, there has never been a limit on membership.

“At the meeting two weeks ago, everybody pulled out their checkbooks and subsequently there were a number of people who submitted membership forms,” the rabbi said. “So we just sort of became concerned about what would happen if there were a glut of people trying to join the synagogue out of protest — what would those implications be?”

The meeting to discuss Urban Dove’s opening was packed. Photo: Meaghan McGoldrick/Brooklyn Eagle

The talks with Urban Dove come after decades of financial back-and-forth with EMJC and former tenants. The building at 1256 E. 21st St. had long housed the East Midwood Hebrew Day School, and later the Midwood Day School — both Jewish institutions.

At the Nov. 25 meeting, EMJC President Michael Schwartz said the center’s “long and happy history” with the two were punctuated by fiscal failures. Both struggled to make rent, he said, 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. He stressed that the center was faced 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 Bed-Stuy campus and open in the Midwood space in September 2020. Its Brooklyn campus currently enrolls about 300 students.

A flyer pedaled by protesters Sunday said that at least one Jewish school was “willing to pay dollar for dollar,” plus a $100,000 deposit. The leaflet, titled “False Vs. Truth” also alleged that Urban Dove does not have any money dedicated to security, nor does it have the funds to renovate the building — something, Schwartz has said, the school has promised to do if it gets the space.

A document being distributed by counter-protesters denies claims made in the pamphlet. The bulletin, titled “The REAL, non-racist fact sheet,” argues that no other Jewish school made such an offer, stating that, “Only after the racist opposition grew, some were willing to scramble together money, sort-of like a ‘racism tax,’ to make sure Urban Dove stays away from Midwood.”

The document adds that the school’s budget as it appears online does not reflect its current fiscal standing and that, while hiring security guards is not a requirement for any school, Urban Dove works closely with their local police precinct to ensure safety.

Male protesters were kept to one side of the entrance and women, to the other. Photo: Meaghan McGoldrick/Brooklyn Eagle

The protesters’ pamphlet further accuses Urban Dove of “not filter[ing] applicants based on past gang affiliation, violence or drug habits.” The counter-protesters’ doc, however, stresses that it is against the law for any public or private school to do background checks. “Students don’t come to Urban Dove because they have drug issues, they come to Urban Dove because they have issues with the Algebra regents. They are academically at-risk, not socially,” it reads.

Supporters of the center further maintain in their handout that the community’s opposition to Urban Dove is “history repeating itself.” The resistance mirrors that which occurred in 1973, when Edward R. Murrow High School (then called North Central) was being established, counter-protesters said.

Levine said Monday that, while some neighbors have expressed genuine concerns, he has been shocked by the outcry of the Midwood community as a whole.

“I think that the residents of East 21st Street between Avenues K and L, where the school is, have natural concerns and fear because some kind of change is coming to the neighborhood — there’s going to be high school kids of different backgrounds there when, before, there were elementary school kids who were uniformly Jewish,” he said. “Change always causes anxiety. It’s natural, and I understand it. But what’s puzzling to me has been the reaction of the larger community.”

Between Midwood, Murrow and Madison high schools, the rabbi said, there are nearly 12,000 students traversing through the neighborhood on any given weekday. “With Urban Dove, we’re talking about 250, maybe 300 kids. I think it’s this nomenclature of ‘at-risk’ that has really been one of the fiery tips that’s caused so much anxiety and risk. But, what people don’t understand is that ‘at-risk’ has a very specific Board of Education-type context. In this capacity, ‘at-risk’ means at risk of failing high school, not at risk of committing crimes, at risk of vandalizing or anything else negative. It makes you wonder what the agenda is here.”

Levine added that the partnership between EMJC and Urban Dove is a “done deal.”

Still, protesters said Sunday that they’ll continue to push back against the center’s decision. One protester told the Eagle that what the center does next can make or break Levine’s legacy.

“I think his tenure is going to begin with this decision of his board that he didn’t stand up against,” the man said. “It’s a sad way to start a career and perhaps, this will mar it. We’ll see.”

Urban Dove appears to have the support of EMJC’s board. On his way out Sunday, one board member who asked for anonymity told the Eagle that leasing to Urban Dove was the right choice. A former teacher himself, he said, “I’ve seen bad kids. These are not bad kids.”

Correction (Tuesday, 9:45 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the first community meeting about Urban Dove was held on Nov. 26. It was held on Nov. 25.

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