Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” From the beginning of my work with Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, I have felt the powerful call to speak out against the injustice being done to the children, their families, and the educators of the East Ramapo Central School District. In speaking out about the constitutionally given right to an education for all children in Rockland County, I have joined my voice to an interfaith coalition of Rockland clergy, to the congregants of the Orangetown Jewish Center, to all Jews who pursue tzedek (righteousness), and to all people of conscience.
Rockland Clergy for Social Justice (RC4SJ) is an interfaith coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders who began working together over a year ago with a single unifying focus: the 9000 public school children of East Ramapo who are not receiving an adequate education that will prepare them to be successful citizens of our country.
Today RC4SJ held a press conference at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley to support the courageous work of State Legislators Ellen Jaffee, David Carlucci, and Ken Zebrowski. Since November, when special monitor Hank Greenberg presented his findings on the dysfunctional school district, they have been working to write legislation to ensure compliance with state and federal law, financial integrity and transparency and functional school governance. Our press conference, planned weeks ago to announce RC4SJ’s upcoming lobbying trip to Albany on March 3, coincidentally happened at the exact time that our county legislators introduced their bill. http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2015/02/8562498/rockland-pols-introduce-east-ramapo-oversight-bill
The bill shows the commitment of Jaffee, Carlucci and Zebrowski to implementing both the spirit and letter of Hank Greenberg’s recommendations. To read the bill as it has been introduced, click here: http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/A5355-2015.
When I spoke at the press conference today, I began by recalling my feeling of dedication to 9000 children when I stood on the very same dais last year. 9000 seemed like a very large number, a compelling reason to stand up and speak up. Today, however, those 9000 children have become personal. Through my volunteer experiences together with fellow OJCers at the Kakiat School Early Childhood Center, I have come to know the children we are fighting for. Kindergarten children who need a full day of education receive instead two hours a day, one half hour of which is taken up with breakfast or lunch. The valiant, dedicated administrators and teachers at the ECC work to provide learning to children, who number thirty in a class without an aide. 9000 is not just a number. 9000 is Kiran, a bright, precocious five year old who would be reading chapter books already if he had more education hours. 9000 is Tyron, a child who has fine motor difficulties. I help him at the learning centers to hold scissors straight and cut paper. I wonder who helps him on the vast majority of days when I am not there. 9000 is Rosie, an imaginative little artist. My heart sinks when I think about Rosie entering grade school without art or music to continue fueling her curiosity. 9000 is not a number. It’s personal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CxColw3FnI
RC4SJ will be traveling once again to Albany on March 3, hoping to build on today’s momentum and seeking support from other legislative leaders and the Executive Chamber in Albany for the bill introduced today by Jaffee, Carlucci.and Zebrowski.
Last Friday, Governor Cuomo came to East Ramapo and bravely announced that he expected to sign legislation before June of this year. He said that he is grateful to special monitor Hank Greenberg for providing us with facts. I agree that having facts gives us with the leverage to create change. But facts are only the beginning. To see this through to a happy ending for the public school students of ERCSD, we will need passion, dedication to justice and clear vision of a moral high ground.
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you will pursue.”
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
At 6:00 am this morning, Ariella Rosen, our Rabbinic Intern, and I boarded a bus together with thirty interfaith clergy bound for Albany. The Rockland Clergy for Social Justice fulfilled our pledge to call on Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to initiate immediate fiscal and administrative oversight in the East Ramapo Central School District and to revise the structure, governance and financing of that school district. On the two hour ride up the Thruway we were briefed about our mission and the many advocacy meetings that we would have. Just after a stop for coffee, I davenned the prayers of Rosh Hodesh, the New Month. When I reached Hallel, I sang softly to myself: Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek – Open for me the Gates of Justice. “How perfect,” I thought to myself, “the Jewish calendar can be so in sync with the world.
The day was a big success. I will be sharing information with everyone about the ways in which each one of us can become involved in this issue that is of concern to so many of our congregants in the days ahead. Today we met with Larry Schwartz, Secretary to Governor Cuomo, Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate leaders Dean Skelos, Jeffrey Klein and John Flanagan, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Throughout the day we were accompanied by Senator David Carlucci, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffe and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski; all three are champions of our cause and deserve our thanks.
For tonight, I would like to share with you the words that I spoke at the Prayer Vigil/Press Conference, to give you a sense of the impact felt in Albany when a unified band of rabbis, ministers, pastors and imams raised our voices together for justice.
I am proud to stand before you this afternoon representing the Orangetown Jewish Center, a congregation of more than 500 families who are concerned about the issue of fair and meaningful access to education for all young people in our county.
On the Jewish calendar, today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new month. It is appropriate to be here today because Rosh Hodesh is a day of introspection and renewal. It is a day of optimism. Interestingly, it is also a day set apart for women and today as the sole woman clergy in attendance, I raise my voice for all of the mothers who send their children to school in the East Ramapo Central School District and for the teachers in that school district, the vast majority of whom are women.
Rosh Hodesh is a day of witnessing. In history, a new month was not declared until witnesses saw a new moon in the sky. Now this witnessing was by necessity subtle because what was being seen in the sky was actually the absence of the moon. Today, we stand before you as witnesses to important things that are absent from the lives of the families in the East Ramapo Central School District. Absent is protection for the children. Absent is fair governance of their schools. Absent is the education that is the Constitutional right of every child in the State of New York.
I stand today as a witness.
Consider the student in Spring Valley High School who has no Child Psychology and Day Care class to take because it was eliminated from the budget. Her dream to begin a career in Day Care will not be fulfilled. I am a witness to her dream.
Consider the student in Ramapo High School whose dream of a college scholarship in swimming or wrestling or tennis is crushed because those teams were eliminated from the budget. I am a witness to his dream.
Consider the mother sending her children to school each day who has sidelined her dreams of their succeeding in a competitive world thanks to education. Now she is more concerned that they return from school safely each day. Security guards were eliminated form the budget. I am a witness to her dreams for her children.
Consider the father who is a mathematician or a musician or … fill in the blank. Like any father, he had dreams of his children’s following in his footsteps. But there are no math electives, not even Advanced Algebra. There are no music programs at all in the Elementary Schools and the award winning marching band no longer exists. All were cut from the budget. I am a witness to his dreams.
Consider the guidance counselor in the high school or the sports coaches in the middle schools or the kindergarten teaching assistant. They were committed to careers in education but their jobs were eliminated. I am a witness to their dreams.
All that I witness leads me to the only possible response: a cry for justice. Here in Albany, I pray that you hear the same call. We clergy of every faith have gathered together as witnesses. We represent our congregations who stand as witnesses. We cannot and will not look away. You are our elected officials. We pray that you join us as witnesses so that we can take action together.