If You Don’t Like It, Get Out: Hasidim and Schooling in Rockland County

“The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

That was the line of William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the conservative Presbyterian leader hoped to purge American public schools of theologically suspect notions, especially evolution and atheism.

Almost a century later, we can see a case in which religious conservatives have put this saying into action.

But William Jennings Bryan would have been surprised.  The conservatives in this case are not Protestants, but Hasidic Jews.

Journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells offers a spellbinding account of the takeover of the public-school system in Rockland County, New York by Hasidic Jews.  Over the past several years, the ultra-orthodox Jewish sect has moved in large numbers into towns such as Ramapo.  Members of the community have used their demographic dominance to win control over the East Ramapo school board.  Since community members send their children to private schools, the school board has shifted funding from those public schools to private yeshivas, most commonly in the forms of special-education services.  Public-school funding has also been cut to the bone and beyond.

Public school students, Wallace-Wells describes, often have a hard time filling their schedules, since so many teachers have been laid off.  When non-Hasidic parents and activists complain, the president of the school board has a simple message: “You don’t like it?  Find another place to live.”

According to Wallace-Wells, the origins of the public-school takeover came from the unlikely field of special education.  Hasidic parents noticed that many of their children needed special-education services.  Yet they could not—for religious reasons—attend the pluralist public schools where such services were provided.  As a result, the Hasidic community won spots on the school board.  That school board then allowed students with special-education needs to receive needed services at private religious schools.

Many of the foes of conservative educational activism and policy worry about a “fundamentalist takeover” of public education.  What would it mean if conservatives won control of public schools?  In this fascinating essay we can see one example of conservative takeover in action.


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  1. Perhaps I have missed something at some point, but I imagine William Jennings Bryan would have been shocked–horrified even–to discover that he was a “conservative.” A fundamentalist, sure… but not a conservative. He self-identified as a populist or a progressive, never–to my knowledge–as a conservative. To sum him up as a “conservative Presbyterian leader” is somewhere between distortion and simplification.

    • Porter, you raise a great point. But I’ve got to disagree. Bryan was a complicated political figure, for sure. He had complicated relationships with both “populism” and “fundamentalism.” As a consummate politician, Bryan hated to throw in his lot with any one movement or campaign. I think the best parallel for today’s politicians would be the relationship between some Republican politicians and the Tea Party. Many GOP leaders recognize the power of the Tea Party and even want to benefit from it, but they do not want to be associated with its radical implications.
      In the case of Bryan, however, the label “conservative Presbyterian leader” is entirely apt, especially in the 1920s. Bryan ran for moderator of the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in the early 1920s. His campaign for that post presented him unmistakably as the “conservative” choice. Beyond denominational politics, by the 1920s Bryan had become well known for his weekly syndicated Bible columns, which took a definitively conservative tone on issues of inerrancy and cultural relevance.
      You are right, of course, that in his early career Bryan was best known for his populist politics. And those were too complex to be characterized as “conservative,” though cultural conservatism played a large role in 19th-century populism. Even in the 1920s, I think it’s too simple to say Bryan “switched” to conservatism. Rather, Bryan combined deeply conservative notions with profoundly progressive ones throughout his career. In 1925, for instance, Bryan made this comment to a Chicago newspaper reporter: “People often ask me why I can be a progressive in politics and a fundamentalist in religion. The answer is easy. Government is man made and therefore imperfect. It can always be improved. But religion is not a man made affair.” But at the time Bryan said this, his public face became most closely associated with his religious campaigns. In the context of the 1920s, it is entirely apt to refer to him as a “conservative.”

      • Perhaps part of my problem here has to do with bifurcation. If we had to put WJB in either the progressive or the conservative camp theologically, of course we’d put him in the latter. And that makes lots of sense in either/or polls or, per your example, elections.

        But outside of inherently dualistic contexts like that, I think that’s a false choice. I think it forces a conflation and leveling of difference that makes the two labels all but meaningless.

        I’ll take your Tea Party example in a slightly different direction. While I suspect that many Tea Partiers would be far more comfortable self-identifying as “conservative” than anyone in the 1920s (and far less likely to self-identify as “fundamentalist,” for that matter), I’m not sure how accurate it is to call a rabble-rousing populist movement “conservative.”

        And if it *is* accurate to call that movement “conservative,” I’m not sure the word has much meaning or use. I have similar skepticism about just how “conservative” fundamentalism actually was (or is). Sure, Bryan was vehemently opposed to progressive evangelicalism in any form. And perhaps the label “conservative” can have a kind of oppositional meaning (“conservatives” = people who oppose A, B, and C).

        But in terms of positive content, it’s difficult for me to see inerrancy, biblical literalism, and creationism as conservative ideas.

  1. Can a Public University Teach Religion as Science? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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