Members of the Jewish community within the East Ramapo School District are calling for religious tolerance after clashes over using a school playground as a shortcut to a synagogue on holidays.
"People should ask themselves, how hateful do you need to be to ... go out there in the middle of [the Jewish holy days] and cause a scene?" Yossi Gestetner, a Hasidic Jew who lives in Spring Valley, said of the conflicts that arose between community members and Orthodox Jews in the past several weeks on the playground at Grandview Elementary School in Monsey.
Every tale has at least two sides. In Monsey, there are at least three: that of Orthodox Jews, some of whom assert that racism is behind the recent clashes; that of volunteers who say their only concern is the children's safety; and that of the school superintendent, who says the volunteers themselves were trespassers who had a convicted sex offender among their ranks.
Community activist Cassandra Edwards, who organized the group of volunteer security guards, said the issue isn't one of bias, but safety.
"At the end of the day, there's a law that needs to be abided by, whether it's a Jewish holiday [when Orthodox Jews are prohibited from driving] or not," Edwards said.
"While there is school, there's no trespassing permitted. It just so happens that a large percentage of the traffic is during Jewish holy days, but it's not an attack on them."
Phil Sterzel, 51, dismisses that.
"It's created a lot of frustration," said Sterzel, who has lived near Grandview for 20 years. "It isn't about their kids' safety, it's an agenda. It's about us being Jews. We can't do anything. They're using this as a soapbox for whatever it is they're trying to get done."
Gestetner said that people of other races, including blacks, whites and Hispanics, use the shortcut all through the year.
"Now, it's only a problem on the days we use it," Gestetner said. "Come on, give me a break."
There are four other schools with a similar trespassing problem -- including Lime Klin Elementary School in Suffern, Ramapo High School and Kakiat Middle School in Spring Valley and Elmwood Elementary School in Monsey. East Ramapo School Superintendent Joel Klein said that going forward, the district will assess the situation at each of the schools with input from parents and the community.
"Blanketed policy in trespassing is not the answer," Klein said to the school board at a recent meeting. "Simple answers to complex problems are almost always wrong."
Rabbi M. Warfman, whose congregants at Tefilah L'David often cut through the grounds at Grandview, said the district's request that Orthodox Jews stay off the playground is a question of safety.
"My congregants benefit using the shortcut because there are no sidewalks, no streetlights -- there's traffic, it's not safe," he said.
The anxiety over trespassing calmed a bit when rabbis in the area asked congregants to avoid school property.
"It's kind of sad that they have to pick on our community," Sterzel said. "But we were told not to go there and we won't."
Tension, however, flared up again when a town council member asked for an investigation into allegations that registered sex offender Keith Meyers -- who was convicted in 1999 for attempting to purchase child pornography -- was among the volunteers.
"You want us out, but at the end of the day you bring a convicted sex offender here?," Sterzel asked.
Klein said the district is investigating why Meyers was allowed on school grounds when he was contacted by the district's attorney and banned. At a school board meeting Wednesday night, Klein separated the district from the volunteer group he called "vigilantes."
"The principal did not ask for help. None of these volunteers, so-called, are parents of children in Grandview," Klein remarked. "None had permission to be on school grounds and none have the authority to request other people to leave."
As for the Orthodox community, most plan to abide by the rules, despite their feelings of unfairness.
Said Warfman: "We don't feel that the village is here to protect us or support us in any way."