Officials try to find common ground as racial tensions simmer over Urban Dove

December 18, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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Less than a week after protesters descended upon the East Midwood Jewish Center in opposition to its decision to lease space to a charter school for struggling students, elected officials and community leaders came together in an attempt to find some common ground as racial and ethnic tensions simmered.

The group — made up of Councilmembers Farah Louis, Kalman Yeger, Robert Cornegy and Justin Brannan, Assemblymembers Simcha Eichenstein and Rodneyse Bichotte, as well as various representatives from EMJC and the charter school, Urban Dove — released a joint statement Friday evening condemning the “disparaging comments” made by some members of the community.

The statement took no direct stand on the coming of Urban Dove itself. Instead the politicians promised they would stand “in unity” with each other throughout the leasing process, despite their individual positions on the matter. (Previously, some of the politicians had pushed back on the school’s arrival.)

The release was distributed to media outlets at around 6:30 p.m. on Friday night, as the neighborhood’s religious Jewish residents observed Shabbat. A spokesperson for Lous’ office said the timing was simply a matter of coordinating logistics with other signees after the meeting, which took place on Tuesday.

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“With a signed lease in place, we understand that the Urban Dove Charter School has the legal right to transition into the East Midwood Jewish Center,” the joint statement began. “In good faith, we met to discuss the concerns that were expressed — both in support and opposition — which included the preservation of the longstanding Jewish Day School and synagogue, racial prejudice, and the addition of charter schools, in a neighborhood scarce for educational space.”

“Children are our utmost priority,” it continued. “Our biggest concern is to preserve their rights to a quality education in a safe environment that is conducive to learning.”

The Dec. 8 protest, held on the eve of the installation of EMJC’s new rabbi, Sam Levine, was the second bout of public opposition to the arrival of Urban Dove, a Bedford-Stuyvesant charter school that provides additional support and specialized teaching methods for kids who have failed the ninth grade.

The school, which currently enrolls about 300 students at its Brooklyn campus, has already signed an agreement for the space attached to EMJC’s synagogue, which it plans to renovate and reopen by the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

A previous 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.

That sentiment — as well as 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.

“The disparaging comments by some regarding the school’s student body do not reflect what we collectively believe and undermine who we are as a community that has a brilliantly diverse population,” the joint statement released Friday continued. “It is a disservice to belittle the very individuals we ought to engage, inspire and empower to achieve.”

Protesters have argued that their opposition has neither to do with race nor religion, and have promised to continue to push back.

“While I agree with their statement that EMJC has the legal right to rent the building to whomever they see fit, the neighbors and the neighborhood have legitimate concerns as well,” Midwood resident Yaakov Kaplan told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The neighborhood in general, he said, is concerned about the use of the school space — which he added “is a commodity today” — and “the ever-rising cost of real estate.”

“A community school that was built with funds provided by the Jewish community should remain a Jewish school,” Kaplan said. “A small private school can’t compete with the prices a charter school can pay.” In New York, charter schools receive a portion of their funding from the state.

News of Urban Dove’s arrival came after decades of financial back-and-forth with EMJC and former tenants — both Jewish institutions. EMJC President Michael Schwartz said at the first public meeting that the center’s “long and happy history” with the two schools were punctuated by fiscal failures, as both struggled to make rent.

When Schwartz asked an audience member at the same meeting what made Urban Dove different from nearby high schools like Midwood and Murrow, answers from the crowd ranged from “They don’t come over here” to, “They don’t fail out.”

However, Kaplan said, residents’ concerns lay largely in the center’s shift from leasing elementary schools to leasing a high school.

“This building was an elementary school for the last 75 years, a high school is [quite] different from an elementary school. The building is also located on a residential side street, unlike other schools in the neighborhood which are located on Avenues,” Kaplan said. “The Jewish Orthodox community is welcoming to anyone that chooses to live in the neighborhood, it’s just disappointing that EMJC puts its core mission below its bottom line.”

As opposition continues to mount, those who represent the area have been called into question — among them, Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom the Daily News criticized in a Dec. 10 editorial for being silent on the issue.

The mayor has since tweeted about the controversy, coming out in what appears to be support of the school and the center. “I was just alerted to this story today and I want to make something 100% clear: making school children feel unwelcome in ANY neighborhood is an insult to our city,” he wrote the same day the Daily News editorial was published, more than two weeks after the first raucous meeting made the news.

“Urban Dove is a fine organization,” he went on. “The vitriol thrown their way is beyond inappropriate.”

At an unrelated press conference last week, de Blasio doubled down on his response to the rhetoric.

“First of all, it’s unacceptable to in any way, shape or form trying to exclude children from a school because they look different,” he said. “And it’s unacceptable to stereotype our children because of their backgrounds … But I don’t want to paint all of Midwood with that brush; that was some individuals.”

This is the second joint statement issued by Bichotte, Eichenstein, Louis and Yeger on the controversy at EMJC. In a public comment provided to and published by The Yeshiva World after the first public meeting, the four politicians — then joined by State Sen. Simcha Felder and Councilmember Chaim Deutsch — said they’d previously asked the center to keep searching for “a suitable religious school to locate in the Jewish Center’s school building.”

“We believe that is the most appropriate solution and the most fitting legacy to the memory of [one of the center’s founding] Rabbi [Harry] Halpern,” the group told The Yeshiva World. “Over the next few weeks, we are committed to working with East Midwood, Urban Dove and our community leaders to try to find a resolution.”

Felder and Deutsch’s names were both noticeably absent from the latest joint statement. While Felder’s office did not respond to requests for comment, a spokesperson for Deutsch told the Eagle that Deutsch was also present for part of last week’s meeting on the issue, and that he echoes the group’s sentiments.

“We had a good discussion last week, and we continue to have an open dialogue between elected officials, Urban Dove, and East Midwood. I join with all parties involved in being committed to ensuring that all NYC children have access to the resources they need to thrive in school,” Deutsch said in a statement. “As two minority communities living side by side, we can all understand the ramifications of hate, and I urge sensitivity on all sides.”

It is unclear why his — or Felder’s — name was omitted from the signees on Friday night’s statement. A spokesperson for Bichotte’s office, who sent out the release, said it was not clear to their office why Deutsch did not sign onto the statement.

Either way, Levine told the Eagle after his installation, Urban Dove’s arrival is a “done deal.”

Update (Wednesday, 1:30 p.m.): This article has been updated to include a response from Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte’s office.

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