Longstanding tensions between Orthodox Jews and people of color in New York’s Rockland County are now playing out in U.S. District Court in White Plains.
In a case brought by the Spring Valley NAACP, lawyers for the East Ramapo Central School District sought to defend its members from allegations that the district’s voting system unfairly favors Orthodox candidates and the largely white communities they hail from.
As the trial headed into its second week, lawyers for the NAACP argued that an informal “slating” organization run by the Orthodox community plays a role in deciding which candidates should run for the local school board, which is currently led by a majority of Orthodox members and their allies.
Few Orthodox children attend the 14 public schools, which serve approximately 8,472 students, compared with more than 27,000 students attending private yeshivas and Jewish day schools.
The board, which first gained an Orthodox majority in 2005, has voted to cut taxes and budgets, citing fiscal responsibility; the district’s non-Orthodox residents say the board has gutted the public school system and diverted money from public to private schools.
The East Ramapo plaintiffs, led by the local NAACP chapter, argue that East Ramapo’s at-large voting system disenfranchises non-white voters and should be replaced by a ward voting system, which would guarantee a louder voice for black and Latino voters within the highly segregated district.
The slating factor is part of a legal test, created by the U.S. Supreme Court, that helps determine whether or not a district is in violation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The suit alleges that Orthodox politicians and community leaders vetted and hand-selected candidates to run on a slate for the school board, and then rallied support, in the form of petitions, financial contributions, endorsements and votes, for those candidates.
Although quite common, such slate-making practices can violate the Voting Rights Act if the effect is to block minority representation or weed out candidates who don’t represent the organization’s agenda.
Lead lawyer for the district, David Butler, argued that no such slating organization exists, and that Orthodox Jews are being misrepresented as controlling election outcomes in East Ramapo, calling it a familiar anti-Semitic trope. (In his opening remarks last week, Butler said the allegations echoed claims of a “grand conspiracy of a shadowy cabal of Orthodox Jews.”)
The school district asserts that, contrary to the claim of racial bias, minorities are extremely active and successful in district politics, noting that three of the nine current members of the school board are people of color. The district is 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 16 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian, according to StatisticalAtlas.com.
On Monday, a key witness for the school district denied that the Orthodox community had recruited him, an African American, to run for the school board or helped handpick his running mates.
“I’ve been black all my life,” said Bernard Charles Jr., a former member of the East Ramapo school board who grew up in the district. Contesting the suggestion that he needed backing from the Orthodox community to win, he said that during his first election run in 2013, “no black or Latino voter said they wouldn’t vote for me.”
Charles also denied charges, contained in a letter from NAACP officials, saying he supported a “pro-segregation agenda that plunders the public school budget.”
Charles said the statement was itself “racist.”
“No one from the Orthodox community asked me to support a pro-segregation agenda,” he said, adding he was “totally disturbed” by the nature of the accusation.
During cross examination, Judge Cathy Seibel asked Charles if he was aware that members of the Orthodox community have donated to his campaign, vetted the two other members of his slate and collected signatures for his petition to get on the ballot.
Charles said he had no idea that members of the Orthodox community donated to his campaigns in 2013 and 2016, but said he became aware of this fact shortly before the trial. Nor had he known that members of the Orthodox community had collected signatures for his petition until he began preparing for court.
When asked by opposing counsel if support from the Orthodox and chasidic communities was “necessary” to win any election in the district, Charles would not agree. “People of color are able to elect a candidate to the board … if they vote,” he said.
Allegations of cooperation among Orthodox power brokers was at the heart of a tense exchange last week between Judge Seibel and Harry Grossman, president of East Ramapo’s school board and a key witness for the defense. Seibel surprised court observers by accusing Grossman of lying on the stand, after Grossman dodged question after question about written communications, presented in court, among him and Orthodox political and communal players about who should run for seats on the board. Judge Seibel said she was “offended by what I have seen here today. … I cannot tell a lie. I do not think this witness is credible, to say the least.”
Lawyers for the district struggled to steer the trial away from the emotionally and racially charged waters surrounding the fight for money and power that has characterized the East Ramapo Central School district for over a decade.
Ashley Victoria Lebeille, a member of the East Ramapo school board and a young woman of color, testified on Monday to what she perceived as involvement by Orthodox leaders in stacking school board elections. Sworn into office in July 2019, Lebeille said she was discouraged during her campaign from running and recalled her opponent telling her that there was “no point in running” without support from the Orthodox Jews.
Still, Lebeille ran a successful campaign and won a seat on the board with the support of black and Latino voters.
“This is a very, very important trial,” said Spring Valley NAACP President Willie Trotman during a recess on Monday. Trotman, who said he could not comment further while the trial is ongoing, said he had been at the courthouse “every day” since proceedings began last week. Several other members of the local NAACP chapter, who have closely followed the case, accompanied him.
Notably, no members of the Orthodox Jewish community, aside from those called in as witnesses, seemed to be in attendance at the trial.