Rockland Yeshivos’ Coalition Resists ‘Unauthorized’ Inspections

NEW YORK -
Meeting of Yeshiva leaders, representing Jewish schools from across the Town of Ramapo, April 20, in the offices of the Yeshiva Association of Rockland County.
Meeting of Yeshiva leaders, representing Jewish schools from across the Town of Ramapo, April 20, in the offices of the Yeshiva Association of Rockland County.

Yeshivos in Rockland County say they welcome a boosted fire and building inspection regime — but not through Rockland County’s executive, whom they say has proved he will use it as an additional weapon in his arsenal to limit the growth of the county’s Orthodox community.

County Executive Ed Day announced on Thursday that the state Education Department has given him authority to inspect 49 schools. The institutions — the vast majority of which are in the Town of Ramapo — have either not submitted a required fire safety form or have passed inspection under an employee who was suspended for ignoring violations.

“I’m here to say … that Rockland County is up to that challenge,” Day said at a press conference in New City. “…This is a battle we have been fighting for a long time.”

In response, the yeshivos in Ramapo, which includes Torah centers such as Monsey and Spring Valley, organized on Friday into a new School Religious Freedom Coalition to represent them.

The coalition’s attorney, Dennis Lynch, sent a letter to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia informing her that the yeshivos will not be allowing Rockland inspectors into their buildings.

“Our Office notes at the outset that SRFC joins you in your commitment to ensure the safety of each and every school and child attending every school throughout the State of New York,” Lynch wrote in a letter dated Friday.

The letter condemned Day’s rhetoric, in which he referred to inflammatory images of children in “body bags,” threatened fines of thousands of dollars and even “jail” time. Nowhere in state law is there mention of such penalties.

Day even implied, falsely, that yeshivos paid off the inspectors.

“Take this to the bank — our inspectors, I have said, will be much, much better,” said Day, a Republican elected by appealing to the anti-Orthodox Preserve Ramapo group. “They cannot, and will not, be bought off.”

Lynch said that Day’s harsh choice of words shows that he “clearly does not share the goal of making schools safe; instead [he is] politicizing school safety.”

Lynch points out that state education law “does not identify, and instead notably omits, the County as an authorized inspector. Instead, New York State Education Law … only authorizes inspection by the County at the invitation of the school administrator. Please be advised no SRFC school administrator has authorized any such inspections.”

One of Day’s four inspectors paid a visit to a yeshivah in Pomona on Tuesday, the first day of their authorization. The administrator refused him entry, brandishing a letter from Lynch that “any and all communications shall only be through … our attorney.”

“Kindly also note the attached letter where it confirms there is no consent to any inspections at this time. … Any trespass on school property will result in appropriate civil rights legal action being filed immediately. Be guided accordingly.”

“Do you know I can close down the yeshivah?” the inspector threatened before leaving.

Two heads of local yeshivos say that the township’s school buildings are safe. Day, they told Hamodia with the request that their names not be printed, has an ultimate goal of gaining control over the local school system in order to stem the growth of the community.

This, they say, is borne out by his numerous social-media postings and the anti-Semitic comments that he refuses to correct.

“We can’t stop them, but we can and must try to slow their growth down,” Day is on record as saying.

“We have no problem whatsoever with any inspections — we actually welcome it,” one head of a large Monsey yeshivah said. “But not Ed Day. Because Ed Day has a history of hate and animosity targeting the Orthodox community through social media. How can you have a person like that in charge of inspections?”

At the request of Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City), MaryEllen Elia, the education commissioner, deputized Rockland inspectors to ensure conditions at the schools are safe. This comes a month after the suspension of Ramapo Fire Inspector Adam Peltz, who was accused of signing off on shoddy inspections. He was demoted and put on desk duty.

The yeshivah representatives say that Day has blown the issue out of proportion. Most of the 49 schools that were placed under Day’s inspection have safe records. The problem was that they did not sign and return a standard form verifying that they comply with state fire safety law.

The form must be filled out by any fire official and the state has never acknowledged receiving it. Therefore, a significant majority of schools, both public and private, statewide, have grown lax in submitting it.

A state official, according to one of the yeshivah heads, said that “I doubt if 700” schools — out of about 1,200 across the state — sent it in. The official said that schools in the Ramapo zip code have a higher percentage of reports given in than in the state overall.

As for the fire safety violations, most of the citations have been for non-fire related issues — shrubbery around the buildings, for example. Only four schools failed fire inspections, although none of the violations would mandate them to be shut down.

One of the schools is a yeshivah for mentally disabled children, which is located in an old shul building built 46 years ago. There were several exits, one of which was shut with a deadbolt, which is illegal.

The yeshivah head said that the locks had been broken. They had ordered a piece of hardware to fix it but were nervous that in the meantime, leaving it open may allow a child to run out. So they shut it with a deadbolt for the day.

The day of the inspection.

Another school was found with a sprinkler system that wasn’t working. The inspector said that even though they didn’t need it — there was another system operable — the law requires every sprinkler system to be in full operation.

Back in April, the yeshivah coalition issued a statement, distributed through Agudath Israel of America, pledging their “full cooperation” with inspectors from the state.

“We believe that the large majority of our institutions are in fact safe, and in full compliance with applicable fire and safety standards,” the statement said. “However, to the extent that there are any deficiencies in this regard, we will take all necessary steps to work with the Town to address those deficiencies. The physical safety of our precious students and staff are of paramount importance to us, and must never be compromised in any way.”

“Nobody wants to put our children in danger,” the yeshivah head said. … We live for our children.”