Crown Heights to The Bronx

It wasn’t the multiculturalism that surprised me in today’s New York Times article about Junior High School 22 in the South Bronx and how its star principal Shimon Waronker, a Lubavitcher and a graduate of Mayor Mike’s NYC Leadership Academy, has helped to radically improve it. This is New York City we’re talking about after all, a town which prides itself on collecting as many cultures, religions, and languages as it can, and stuffing them into tiny apartments. What surprised me was the ignorance. I guess I just have higher expectations from New Yorkers than this:

 In fact, one parent… acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: “Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person, what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?”

and this:

Back in Crown Heights, Mr. Waronker says he occasionally finds himself on the other side of a quizzical look, with his Hasidic neighbors wondering why he is devoting himself to a Bronx public school instead of a Brooklyn yeshiva.

Or maybe I’m just a dreamer, and I’ve been living out-of-town for too long. Either way, it’s a nice feel-good public interest story. It may start with a bit of an absurd attention-getting premise (OMG! A Jew out of water!) but it tells a worthwhile tale about an improving school and its principal, the big-hearted dreamer with military training.
Come to think of it, is there a better guarantee for success than that trifecta of power? There’s few inequities in the world that I imagine can’t be subdued with the ability to dream, a big heart, and a little bit of military training.

8 thoughts on “Crown Heights to The Bronx

  1. nice try, but that parent’s anti-Semitic utterance that you quote has nothing at all to do with this principal’s fellow community members wondering why he doesn’t devote his energies to his own community.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “nice try”, but the reason Mr. Waronker’s neighbors’ reaction to his job is surprising is because in the Orthodox community in Brooklyn that I grew up in, there were plenty of public school teachers and administrators. In fact they had their own Association. There was never any sense or comment made that working in a public school was an unworthy profession for a religious Jew. Sometimes you’d hear someone ask if it might be safer or more lucrative to work in a Jewish school, but that was it. The attitude expressed by some of Waronker’s neighbors *is* reflective of ignorance and of a disdainful attitude towards those outside his community.

  3. I’m just saying the way you set it up was pretty suspect, like here’s an ignorant statement by a non-Jew, and here’s one by a Jew! Really the former statement was patently racist. The latter, while unfortunate, has a certain logic.
    Men in his community are expected to contribute to the livelihood of the community, or else to devote their energies to the spiritual health of the community (hence people wondering why he doesn’t instead contribute his devotion to a yeshiva). I think this guy would get “quizzical looks” if he worked for any not-for-profit venture that wasn’t somehow aimed at the development of his own community.
    It’s short-sighted for his neighbors to view his job in this way, but it’s in no way on equal footing with the anti-Semitic remark of the parent.
    My apologies if you were not, in fact, suggesting it was.

  4. I’ve actually always been impressed with the worldliness of the Lubavitch. I mean, a simple example is that while most Jewish organizations are still fiddling with 90s-era web sites made by high school students, the Lubavitch had the Tanya, siddur and daily reflections from the Rebbe available for download to my palm. And that was in 2004. That’s just an aftereffect of being more in touch with the wider world. Consider all 2,000 of the shlichim bringing otherworldliness into the Heights. Meanwhile, most institutionally-employed Jews I know professionally rarely ever leave the major cities of the East Coast! They’re far more international than any other Jewish community I can think of.

  5. What ever happened to “tikkun olam’ to make the world better. I read the article and thought it was a good thing Mr. Waronker was doing. Of course, you are going to get the unaware adult who hasn’t a clue of any culture outside their own, but the kids who are in the school do know, and respect that, otherwise they would not work as hard as they do to improve. Maybe the kids can pass along that awareness to the parents.

  6. I’ve actually always been impressed with the worldliness of the Lubavitch…
    Tech-savvy, yes (anybody else remember their 1990’s era website with the audio file that declared upon loading the page “Chabad Lubavitch in CYBERSPACE!!!!” kinda like the title sequence of the Pigs in Space sketches on the Muppet Show?). International, yes. But worldly?
    I spent a fair amount of time with a Chabad shaliach in China. He’s an extraordinarily well-meaning, kind and generous person and he does some very important work there. Yet I was consistently amazed at the degree to which he seemed uninterested in–even hostile to–the country in which he lived. Part of this stems from the Chinese government’s restrictions on his activities–he risks deportation if he is perceived in any way as proselytizing Chinese citizens. But I believe much of it is an inevitable by product of the inherent insularity of today’s hasidic Judaism.
    Here was a man who had an immensely contagious love for Judaism. Yet to create what he felt was an appropriate environment for himself and his family, he effectively shut himself off from anyone–and anything–that wasn’t Jewish. He did not allow Chinese to be spoken in his household–even by his Chinese nannies, and certainly not by his kids. He did not allow Chinese-style food to be served–even if prepared in his strictly kosher kitchen.
    I understand, even if I disagree with, the motivations for these decisions. But his willful ignorance led him and other Chabadniks I met to occasionally say things about the Chinese that sounded just as ignorant and racist as the line in that article about how kids might have to pay for lunch under a Jewish principal.
    It’s short-sighted for his neighbors to view his job in this way, but it’s in no way on equal footing with the anti-Semitic remark of the parent.
    I’m not so sure the parallelism (if intentional) is unfair. In fact, one might even argue that the SoBro parent’s cheap-Jew stereotype is more excusable, since it simply stems from ignorance (and the parent appears to admit the stereotype was wrong), while the Crown Heights quizzical look stems from exactly the kind of willful selfishness and insularity that produces those SoBro stereotypes about Jews in the first place.

  7. This was a great article. As a Lubavitcher in a non-traditional profession, I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people what I do for a living. When you ask most men from the Hassidic world what they do for a living they will tell you that they are “in business” or “learning”. I’ve always hated these vauge responses. Kol HaKavod to Mr. Waronker.

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