Borough residents protest yeshiva plans

Roosevelt residents protest plan to bring a private, intensive religious school for Jewish children to the town.

By: Lauren Burgoon
   ROOSEVELT — Plans to bring a yeshiva — a private, intensive religious school for Jewish children — to Roosevelt is drawing the community’s ire.
   Neighbors fear the school could change the small town’s character, while the hosting synagogue is hoping the yeshiva will revive its struggling congregation.
   Fiery accusations of prejudice on the part of residents and the board’s refusal to consider a survival plan more palatable to the community flew at a recent community meeting to discuss the yeshiva, but the night ended without any clear picture of the future.
   Board members of Congregation Anshei Roosevelt on Homestead Lane want to allow a yeshiva at the synagogue for a one-year trial run. The yeshiva would be only for boys and would educate eight to 10 students in its first year. If the school stayed in Roosevelt, the yeshiva would add one grade each year, possibly reaching as many as 50 students in four years. The school would have one head rabbi and a teacher per grade who will likely live in town.
   The prospect of a yeshiva in Roosevelt isn’t sitting well with many impassioned residents, who came out to a July 1 community meeting to learn more about the plans. Residents’ concerns ranged from the yeshiva’s influence on the tiny borough’s character to the impact on Roosevelt’s only nursery school, which is housed in the synagogue and will presumably be evicted if the yeshiva stays past the year trial run.
   Without the yeshiva, congregates fear that Roosevelt’s only synagogue — indeed, its only house of worship — will have to shut its doors forever. The synagogue’s active membership is in steady decline, so much so that the synagogue often cannot gather 10 men together for a minion. Jewish law requires 10 adult men to conduct services, a goal that Roosevelt’s synagogue falls short of even on high holy days. Jewish women are not counted in a minion in Orthodox Judaism, Congregation Anshei Roosevelt’s denomination.
   Opening a yeshiva in Roosevelt will not only provide the necessary men for the minion, board members say, but will help revive the struggling congregation because the yeshiva will provide a rabbi to conduct services. The synagogue does not have the funds to hire a rabbi now and board members said using rabbinical students is only a short-term "patch job" that is doing nothing to rejuvenate the congregation. Board members said that the yeshiva could eventually help revive popular past synagogue events, like Hanukkah parties.
   Some locals don’t buy those arguments. The problem with Congregation Anshei Roosevelt, residents argued, is that it operates as an Orthodox/conservative sect and Roosevelt’s Jewish population wants something more liberal. Many Roosevelt Jews attend synagogue in East Windsor or towns with more progressive temples. A liberal synagogue will not be possible if the yeshiva rabbis oversee services.
   Though synagogue President Elly Shapiro stressed that no deals have been signed and no specifics set in stone, she said the plan is for the yeshiva to start in September, much to the chagrin of some of the 150 people at a community meeting.
   "You scare people you tell them you’re contemplating putting a high school near their properties," Howard Chasan of Homestead Lane said. "If the synagogue is so close to closing, as has been stated, then you might need to close your doors. Churches are closing, synagogues are closing all around. But you don’t take the entire population and irritate it" to prevent closure.
   Similar comments marked the meeting. Vocal yeshiva supporters were in the minority, but no less passionate about their position.
   "This is the only town in the United States that has one house of worship that is a synagogue and we’re talking about whether Jews can come in," Arthur Shapiro retorted. "After we’re done here, I’m going to go to the cemetery to see if our town founders are turning over in their graves."
   Residents denied any prejudice and said their main concern was Roosevelt’s financial security. The yeshiva, which has purchased two houses for teachers in the borough, could apply for tax-exempt status for buildings associated with the school. The board said the school would not do that, but locals fear the homeowners could change their minds in the future.
   "When you’re talking property values and taxes, we know that even one house coming off of the tax rolls in Roosevelt is a major catastrophe," Kirk Rothfuss of Tamara Drive said. "This isn’t about having Orthodox Jews in town. It’s about tax loss and people will be uptight about it."
   Rabbis from Yeshiva of the Telshe in Riverdale, N.Y., who will oversee the Roosevelt yeshiva, were on hand to respond to concerns. They said the students will be under an intense schedule — studies will last from early morning until 9 p.m. — and are a respectful group. They will enhance, not hurt the community, the rabbis said, and will be nearly invisible during school hours. The students will be housed outside of Roosevelt and brought to the yeshiva by van each day. The boys would stay in town during the Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews are forbidden from driving on the day of rest, a weekly occurrence that Ms. Shapiro said is akin to any resident having houseguests for the night.
   Roosevelt’s character would not be impacted because, at most, there would be a handful of teachers moving in, the rabbis said. Parents of students, who could come from all over the world, will not move here because the point of yeshiva is to be separated from family and friends while studying Jewish law. The board has abandoned, for now, plans to create a yeshiva dormitory in town, but refused to specifically rule out the option for the future.
   The rabbis and Ms. Shapiro emphasized that the yeshiva is not permanent yet. Both sides need to see if Roosevelt is a good fit before making any arrangements. But Ms. Shapiro did acknowledge that Roosevelt Community Nursery School, the borough’s only nursery school, will probably be evicted with a year’s notice to make room for the yeshiva. The interim plan calls for the schools to exist side-by-side this coming year.
   "If this is truly a community nursery school, the town will find a place for it," Ms. Shapiro said.
   After several hours of back and forth between synagogue board members and residents, it became clear that no conclusion could be reached on July 1. Attendees urged the board to consider a "Plan B" — creating a more liberal synagogue that will attract residents, save the synagogue and negate the need for a yeshiva. That suggestion and more concerns will be aired at a second yet-to-be scheduled community meeting on the yeshiva this month.