MIDWOOD – An informational meeting about East Midwood Jewish Center’s (EMJC) plan to rent a former Jewish day school building to a charter-school devoted to educating at-risk kids devolved into a chaotic shouting match last night, pitting the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities in Flatbush against each other.
Urban Dove is a charter school that serves students who have failed the ninth grade. Seventy-eight percent of the three hundred students who currently attend Urban Dove are Black. Another 20 percent are Latino. This move will see Urban Dove in a neighborhood that is predominantly Jewish and increasingly Orthodox. The conservative community in Midwood has been shrinking. EMJC is a conservative organization, so the demographic change has cut into their membership – a fact that makes the need for a reliable tenant even more pressing.
“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 of the Orthodox Jews at the meeting to protest the school. “We hope to be able to convince Urban Dove that they don’t belong here.”
Toby Sanchez, the former president and current archivist of the EMJC, thinks these attacks are rooted in race. “The rumors are that we’re going to get kids that have anger management issues — and of course they’re not white, but they don’t say that part,” said Sanchez.
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Jai Nanda, the founder and executive director of Urban Dove, worked to assuage fears that Urban Dove will release an uncontrollable student body into the neighborhood.
“We have in the lease stipulated that there will be meetings between EMJC and the school on a regular basis,” said Nanda. “We will continually meet with the community to ensure that things are being dealt with properly. We’ve met with the 70th Precinct and are in communication with them.”
Urban Dove will also be paying for five million dollars of renovations that will increase the value of the property for EMJC, and no community approval is required for the ease.
The anger over Urban Dove’s move is compounded by the fact that it will be replacing a Jewish day school.
“Why are they picking this program over what ours are offering?” asked Sharon Leiber, a local Orthodox parent. “They kept them in the dark until it was too late… They weren’t open and honest.”
“The original founders [of EMJC] put millions of dollars in for a Jewish education, and they’re just throwing that in the garbage,” said Nermelstein. “There are many, many local schools that need the building, and, for some reason, they don’t want to rent to them.”
Michael Schwartz, the President of EMJC, said that the change in tenants came after two different Jewish Day Schools stopped paying rent.
East Midwood Hebrew Day School served non-Orthodox Jews in Midwood for decades before changing demographics started to hurt attendance. According to President Schwartz, the school started to fall behind on rent in 2017 and was on the verge of failing in 2018.
The school was bought out by an Orthodox school called Bnos Menachem. The new leadership renamed the school Midwood Jewish Academy and converted it into an Orthodox institution.
But by November, 2018, Midwood Jewish Academy had also stopped paying rent and went on to sue EMJC to extend their lease. The lawsuit failed, but the school left EMJC with $100,000 of unpaid rent before it finally closed down in 2019, President Schwartz said, before listing 10 different Jewish schools that were invited to rent the building. He said they couldn’t reach an agreement with any of them.
“We were in dire need of a tenant to pay our rent, which is essential for our survival,” said President Schwartz.
He also emphasized the steps EMJC has taken to vet Urban Dove. “We spoke to their local police precinct,” he said. “We found them in all respects to be good citizens and neighbors to the people surrounding their school.”
Many in the room did not feel their fears were addressed during the meeting. During the question and answer session, the room devolved into chaos. Those who had lined up for questions fought to be heard over the crowd. The audience cheered all criticism of the school and shouted down any praise.
One audience member shouted, “they’re urban kids who know how to fight.” Another loudly compared the EMJC to Adolf Hitler.
President Schwartz stood up and shouted at the jeering crowd “It’s all well and good for you to sit there and say that we should ignore our financial reality. Who’s going to pay for our rabbi? Who’s going to pay for our facility? Are you? Are you? Are you?”
“You never opened up your doors to us,” responded an Orthodox man who grabbed the microphone.
While New York has become a battleground for the Charter School movement, this particular fight is defined by ethnic and religious divides, instead of the role of private interests in public education.
Despite the hostile crowd, Nanda remains hopeful that Urban Dove can thrive at this location. “We do a very good job of creating wonderful, safe schools, and we have wonderful, great kids. We believe that the fears that ignited this fiery meeting are understandable, but in the end are not justified,” said Nanda. “[Our kids] are not interested in roaming the neighborhood and terrorizing young Jewish kids. That’s just not who they are.”
Jon Gabay, one of Nanda’s staff members who was present to support the school, agrees. “I think once they see the good work that we’re doing they should come around.”