Where Orthodox Meets Hippie

They don’t agree on much. But on this they do agree: MMR vaccines are not good for their kids. In my great home state of New York, Orthodox Jewish groups and rich hippies are uniting on this one issue (sort of). Why? As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, it’s not really about God or ethics or any of that stuff. It all comes down to Billy Joel.

Here’s what we know: In Rockland County, New York—just northwest of New York City—the government has taken drastic steps to ban unvaccinated children from all public places. A measles outbreak has led to this unusual measure. Traditionally, most states allowed parents pretty wide leeway in religious and moral exemptions to mandatory-vaccination laws. Today’s outbreak is forcing a re-think of those exemptions.

What does it have to do with Orthodox Judaism and hippie culture? In this case, a lot. The unvaccinated children are clustered in private schools, some of them Orthodox Jewish schools and others from a fancy-pants Waldorf school. In general, the cultural worlds of these two schools could not be further apart. In one thing, though, the parents agree, and this one thing is at the root of the measles problem.

From the Orthodox perspective, MMR vaccines have a complicated backstory. Some Orthodox leaders have counseled against vaccinations, but now leaders agree that vaccines are kosher. Parents, though, are still divided. As Forward described, many in the Orthodox community share

a feeling that their worldview is not in keeping with modern secular society, said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor who has authored several books about Orthodox Jews.

“It’s about a view that we have our ways and they have their ways,” he said.

When it comes to measles vaccines, many parents in the Orthodox community simply do not trust the experts, and it is that distrust that brings Orthodox and hippies together.

Just down the street from Rockland’s Orthodox schools, but culturally a million miles away, parents at Green Meadow Waldorf School have also attempted to keep their kids from receiving the MMR vaccine. The lesson about distrusting vaccines is the same, but practically every other aspect of these schools is different. Green Meadow, for example, promises that their school will

create a social, cultural, and learning environment that recognizes the child’s spiritual freedom and growth. . . . Rather than teaching to the test or adhering to Common Core standards, the Waldorf curriculum fosters independent, critical thinking and problem solving, develops ethics and morality, and promotes true joy in learning.

The progressive, child-centered world of Green Meadow may be totally different from that of Orthodox schools, but the parents share one fundamental beef. Just like skeptical Orthodox parents, anxious Waldorf parents share a virulent distrust of the medical establishment. They feel it so strongly they are willing to put their children’s health on the line. They probably wouldn’t agree on much else, but they might agree with Billy Joel that it’s always been a matter of trust.

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.