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An Interview with Robert Rhodes and Anita Altman

From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
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PRIOR TO 2013, Robert Rhodes had never voted for a Republican. A nephew of our magazine’s long-time writer and associate Annette T. Rubinstein, Rhodes had been raised amid the Jewish Currents and Monthly Review crowd, and often held his nose while voting even for Democrats. In that year, however, he went out of his way to get Republican Ed Day elected as Rockland County Executive. The only issue that really counted, Rhodes believed, was wresting control of the East Ramapo school district and town board from the Skver, Satmar, and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups who were voting in a solid bloc for Day’s Democratic opponent. Day won the election and, at this writing in early June, is trying to usher a bill through the Albany legislature that would create a state monitor with authority to overrule the East Ramapo board.

Ramapo is the largest town in the county, and East Ramapo is the larger of the town’s two school districts, encompassing numerous villages, and hamlets within fifty miles of New York. Older residents of Ramapo are diverse in their racial, religious, and economic profiles, and there’s a growing Haitian population in town, but newer and younger residents are primarily either khasidim or Hispanics. Khasidic control of the school board has, since 2009, brought severe cuts to the public education system. As documented in many articles, funds have been used to provide transportation for more than 22,000 yeshiva children (two-thirds of the school-age population of the district), and more than a quarter of the district’s $200 million budget has gone to private-school needs. According to the New York Bar Association, which supports Ed Day’s proposed legislation, some 450 public school teaching positions have been cut, along with guidance counselors, other staff, and extra-curricular programming. There has been “clear mismanagement of district funds,” says the Bar Association, “the use of those funds to favor private school students at the expense of public district programs, and… resistance to any financial oversight or assistance…”

Robert Rhodes heads Preserve Ramapo, an activist group that has been working on these issues since 2002. His family owns and manages Deerkill Day Camp in Suffern, New York, which his parents founded in 1958.

 

ANITA ALTMAN has just retired as deputy managing director of government relations at the UJA-Federation of New York. She and her partner Gil have enjoyed a country home in Phillipsport, a hamlet of the Town of Mamakating in Sullivan County, which is also home to the former Homowack Lodge, a classic Borscht Belt hotel. Altman, too, has been involved in a struggle with the Skver khasidim, who acquired the Homowack property with the stated intention of building a new “shtetl,” then turned it into a camp for 300 girls without applying for the requisite state license or securing a zoning permit from the town. Ultimately, the camp was cited for numerous safety, fire, and health code violations by the New York State Department of Health, and the State Attorney General intervened and got a court order to shut it down.

As a long-time progressive activist within the Jewish Federation, Altman was as concerned about preventing an anti-Semitic backlash in her rural community as about a takeover by the khasidim, and so stepped forward as a Jew to oppose any takeover moves. Both she and Robert Rhodes, however, are appalled by the khasidim with whom they’re tussling; they see them as totalitarian, flouting the law to the point of criminality, and heedless of the concerns of people outside their community.

Jewish Currents sat down in May with Rhodes and Altman to discuss their respective struggles.

 

Jewish Currents: What’s behind your opposition to the spread of these khasidic communities in your neighborhoods? These are families with lots of kids and lots of needs. Aren’t they entitled to spread out from Brooklyn?

Robert Rhodes: Our founding fathers were really very wise in making it clear that the state should not be a sponsor of any religion. But in the town of Ramapo, where I live, we’ve had a supervisor for the past fifteen years who is controlled by the khasidic community. There is a degree of corruption that probably hasn’t existed since the days of coal company towns in Kentucky. We have terrible fire traps and terrible overcrowding because zoning laws are not enforced; the zoning board and planning board consist almost entirely of khasidim. And the politicians know that no matter what else they do, if they serve the ultra-Orthodox agenda, they will be reelected.

I was only peripherally involved with Preserve Ramapo before 2004, while New Square goes back to 1957 as a Skver town. Then, in 1995, the village of Kaser was established, and the Satmars there doubled in size over the course of a decade. And they said to us, bluntly, “We don’t care what you do, we’re going to have two thousand more voters by the next election.” It’s true: Their voter turn-out is well above 85 percent, and they vote as a virtually unanimous bloc.

So there are now almost a thousand tax-exempt properties in Ramapo. Slumlords are making a killing, stuffing tenants into dangerous buildings. We’re really lucky that we haven’t yet had massive losses of life; after one fire in New Square, the building inspector from New York State came and called it the most dangerous housing situation he’d ever seen. And the worst is the housing for the non-Jews, the day laborers and families from Central America who are living in the area. Meanwhile, the tax base is threatened, because when a few families live in a single-family home, or it’s converted into an illegal rooming house, it is still carried on the tax roll as a single-family home.

At the same time, with the khasidim in control of the school board, the public schools have been looted: They’ve sold two school buildings for a fraction of what they were worth; as much as $2.5 million worth of textbooks have simply disappeared; the district spends $3 million a year on lawsuits, because when the Department of Education challenges their placement of special-ed students, they go to court.

Anita Altman: In my town of Mamakating, which does not have a very large Jewish population, there was a totally inappropriate proposal for a “new city” in a rural area by the Skver-er community, who are pioneers of going in and buying land and building a self-contained shtetl, a self-governing community. Yes, there’s a need for it: These groups have certainly outgrown Brooklyn, and given the sizes of their families, they’ve outgrown the towns and villages in which Bob is having his battles in Rockland County.

So in 2007 they purchased the Homowack, which was barely limping along as a resort, and they had a major religious convocation, with people coming in from Canada and elsewhere, at which they announced their intention to build a shtetl in Mamakating. The problem is that we have our own master plan, which makes very clear the town’s intent to maintain itself as a rural community, while the Skver were envisioning a city, with not only religious institutions but healthcare facilities and commercial establishments and more. There was no sense of neighborliness, or regard for how you become part of a town and build relations. We were confronted by a proposal that would have entirely transformed our community away from our own vision — and, frankly, given the experience with khasidim coming into rural communities and totally suburbanizing them, our community was not happy.

Since I was concerned about the potential for anti-Semitism (though it’s nothing I’ve experienced in the area, where I’ve been for more than a decade), I decided to get involved and see if we could de-emphasize the religious aspects and focus on the development issues.

JC: Don’t some of the local people want development? Sullivan County is certainly economically depressed, and while city people with weekend homes might want a rural paradise, a lot of full-time residents need jobs, no?

AA: Yes,we need to find a way to develop in Sullivan County and have it become a more thriving community where people can raise their kids, and the kids have expectations of jobs when they finish school, and are able to live here rather than having to move away — but we want to do that with- out killing its rural nature. We actually have good infrastructure: access to Route 17, which is soon to be an interstate highway, and nearby Ellenville used to be a thriving town and has aspirations to grow and develop jobs. The khasidic build-up was not going to add to the economic health or the vitality of the community. It would be simply have been an exploitation of the fact that we are a poor community and land is cheap.

JC: You’re speaking in the past tense.

AA: Yes, for now, the issue is settled: The Homowack is no longer under their ownership. Once they were unable to get tax-exempt status for it — they hadn’t paid taxes for years while taking the case all the way up to the New York State Court of Appeals — they walked away, and the property went into foreclosure.

JC: So if tax-exemption were denied, would the problem go away?

AA: It’s not just a tax issue. The reality on the ground went from bad to worse to horrible to dangerous. In the summer of 2011, a camp was opened in the hotel facilities, which had not been properly closed the prior fall. The building had intense mold, ceilings had collapsed, plumbing and sew- age were not functioning properly, and both building and zoning codes were being violated.

The shonde [shame] in all of this, aside from the fact that they had some three hundred innocent kids living in dangerous conditions, is that government did nothing until well into the summer, despite being warned by the local fire chief that he would not send his people in if there were a fire, because conditions were so dangerous! There is reluctance, fear, and God knows what else when it comes to government dealing with these fundamentalist communities, which subscribe to bloc voting. Elected officials and those who aspire to public office don’t want to cross these communities.

It was not until a call was made to the Department of Environmental Conservation — because the Skvers were transferring oil from one in-ground tank to another, and some of it spilled into the Homowack Kill, a stream that runs through the property, which would then pollute the Rondout River and go up into the Hudson — that’s when state government finally took notice.

RR: I’ll give you another example. There’s a state law that requires every school administration to file an annual report with the Department of Education dealing with fire safety. There are sixty-five private schools in Rockland that do not file these reports. Eighty-eight percent are in Ramapo. All, or virtually all, are khasidic.

Tax exemption is an important issue. There is certainly way too much tax exemption, and too much illegal housing that doesn’t pay a fair share of taxes. But when you have government officials who know that anything they do for or against the khasidim’s leaders will determine the next election, this encourages terrible corruption. We have judges who will not enforce building and zoning codes, and a district attorney with no interest in investigating voter fraud cases. We have a family court in Rockland that will never give custody of a child to someone who leaves the ultra-Orthodox community.

Of course, much of this only serves the interest of the wealthy members of the community, the slumlords and the builders who buy properties and change their zoning and overbuild. But dissenters in New Square are intimidated by a goon squad and face banishment from the community.

Among the khasidim, groups are also often fighting each other. So there’s truly a criminal element to the way life is conducted, and there is no accountability. By the way, I distinguish among these groups. There’s a distinction, for example, between the Satmar in New Square, where it’s very bad, and Lubavitch — there are about a thousand Lubavitchers in Monsey — who tend to be good neighbors, and well-educated, and willing to interact with neighbors, within their limits.

JC: But given that they feel the need to shield themselves and their children from the outside world, given their expanding numbers, what would make them acceptable neighbors?

AA: Unfortunately, for the most part, these are not economically viable communities without extensive public funds. Many of the men are not prepared or willing to go out to work, they spend their days in religious study; and their children’s private schools do not meet the state’s minimal educational requirements for English, for civic education, for math, or for teacher training.

RR: One answer to the problem, I think, is that we need far more affordable, high-density housing in New York City and its suburbs, instead of having overcrowded slums in Rockland or Orange or Sullivan Counties. And we need comprehensive land use requirements instead of a patchwork.

What would make the khasidim good neighbors would be for them to work with their black and white and Hispanic neighbors to create public policy that would support affordable housing for hundreds of thousands. In- stead, they have made the easy choice to work only for their own community — and if this requires the corruption of officials, if this requires hardship in other communities, that’s okay.

I describe this as ‘rejectionism.’ Its main tenet is: We will take advantage of everything provided us by a democratic society, but we will give nothing back to that society. We’ll take Section 8 housing funds. And highway funds. And Medicaid — the entire property-tax base of Rockland County is now going to pay for Medicaid. So this community gets all of the public benefits, but functions like a self-contained religious institution.

JC: Would you admit — as many secular or liberal Jews might if they were being honest — that you do have a recoil reaction to Jewish fundamentalism: the clothes, the obsessiveness, the treatment of women…?

AA: Actually, I have khasidim among my friends, and they’re among the finest people I know.

RR: As individuals, there are some lovely people. I feel for the members of the community — there are many who are unhappy, but they don’t have a way of escaping, they don’t have an education, and they don’t want to leave their families. There’s one young man with whom I’ve become friends, but I have to be very vague about him, and when I visit him, I put on my black pants, my black shoes, my white shirt, my black baseball cap, and I visit him at night. Otherwise, if you go walking through the neighborhood, you’ll be confronted: “What are you doing here? Who are you coming to see? When are you leaving?” There’s a terrible fear of outsiders.

AA: I know from my work in Federation that there is energy for reform coming from within the ultra-Orthodox communities, as young people, especially, realize how inadequate their educations are and how ill-equipped they are for leading a life that has any autonomy whatsoever.

RR: One organization to which I give some support is Footsteps, which helps people leave the ultra-Orthodox world and deal with life on the outside. When you look at the precautions that people in contact with Footsteps have to take, you realize that this is a totalitarian community.

JC: So there’s bound to be an underground.

RR: Some of their isolation may be breaking down now because they all have smartphones…

AA: Like in Iran!

RR: So now they’re having rallies against computers and smartphones!

JC: What can you realistically hope to achieve in your campaigns? You succeeded at the Homowack, Anita, because the tax burden was just too much for the Skver. Are the courts, then, to be your main source of relief?

AA: We need to do what Bob did in Rockland: organize and get out the vote. There are still more of ‘us,’ so to speak, and we need to elect people who are accountable to the public, and not just to one organized segment.

RR: In Ramapo, there are something like 11,000 ultra-Orthodox voters, out of some 56,000 potential voters. Preserve Ramapo delivered 8,000 votes in the last election.

AA: Hats off!

RR: I would say voting is very important, and yes, the courts are very important. So is the FBI, which has been investigating for about four years now, with Preserve Ramapo supplying a lot of leads. As I mentioned, there were two schools sold for a fraction of their value. The appraiser, it turns out, used as the basis for his appraisal an empty lot. He was then convicted of fraud, but they watered it down to the lowest possible charge, even after it was established that someone in New Square had given him a bribe of $3,500. The FBI knows who gave the bribe. The FBI already convicted the corrupt mayor and deputy mayor of Spring Valley. And U.S Attorney Preet Bharara has referred to the “corridor of corruption” going all the way up to Albany. There’s no question that the final indictments will involve a lot of people.

The problem is that the only agency of government that seems to care is the FBI!

AA: The FBI also came to Bloomingburg, which is also in Mamakating, a year and a half ago. Bloomingburg has a population of 400 but its own mayor and zoning board. The scion of a well-known modern Orthodox family purchased a large parcel of land and made a deal, to provide cover, with a local developer, who put forward a vision a development of a gated community of adult housing with a 125 homes, a golf course, and a community center — then lo and behold, it turned into 395 attached townhouses. The Town of Mamakating has filed a RICO complaint in federal court against this developer and others involved, asserting that he is running a racketeering enterprise to subvert, control and victimize the people and institutions of our town and village.

Then there was the rip-off of over $30 million in Pell grants for a nonexistent school in New Square. Four were convicted, and two others fled to Israel. Then President Clinton commuted the sentences — and, by the way, the community voted for Hillary overwhelmingly when she ran for the Senate.

RR: If you look at the Preserve Ramapo website, you’ll find all kinds of evidence of outrageous corruption. Fortunately, the organization has no formal membership, so we cannot be systematically intimidated — though I have had a very large stone thrown through my rear windshield, on the Sabbath, no less…