One of the great strengths of our democracy is that people of various beliefs and opinions have a right and an obligation to actively participate in community affairs. We therefore enjoy the privilege of both running for office and challenging the views of those who do so. In this spirit, there are candidates running for school board, about whom there is legitimate concern over their support for the public school system and its budget. I do not know these candidates personally, but I am sure that they are outstanding people, who are exercising their legitimate right to run for the school board. As a citizen, however, I maintain a right to question their motives; and I believe the media has an obligation to do likewise.
When one candidate refuses to even share his views about the budget and bond, it is legitimate to question his support for the public schools. When a second candidate is supported by advocates for increased public funding to private schools; there is also legitimate concern for the future of our public school system. I express my concern both as a rabbi and as a citizen of the community; but want to dispel the perception that the upcoming election is a battle between various religions or ethnic groups.
First of all, as with most religions, Judaism is not monolithic. There are many elements of Jewish belief and practice in which the various Jewish ‘sects’ not only disagree vehemently, but often find themselves as representing distinct or conflicting forms of our religion. We do not think or vote therefore as a block.
That said, I am a rabbi who has served various communities for more than 30 years. Two of my children attended private school through high school; my other two children transitioned from private school to public school during their elementary school years. Despite my passionate commitment to Jewish private schools, I always supported the public school budgets and gladly paid taxes to support public school education. I have opposed vouchers for private schools because of my unequivocal support for the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Whatever my private beliefs and financial obligations to private school, I regard myself as a citizen of the community. Consequently, I have a global responsibility to the institutions of that community. No matter how I embrace private, day school education as a commandment from the Torah; it is still a personal decision and must never negate my obligations to the town in which I live.
I would agree that some of the fears and rumors expressed about the election over the past months are exaggerated and unfair. In the future, I suggest that our various religious and ethnic groups make a much stronger effort to dialogue with one another. I can say with great frustration, that attempts to bring all clergy together in a Clergy Association—over decades—has often led to frustration and failure. If we as clergy cannot reach out to one another, how can we expect the general community to do so?
However, the concerns about blurring the separation between church and state are real. The fears about Great Neck duplicating what occurred in Lawrence (undermining the public schools and turning our town into a religious enclave) is a fair concern despite some protestations to the contrary. The desire for school board representatives from the Asian-American segment of Great Neck is a genuine and welcomed concern. Yet, I offer my support for the public schools precisely because I am an observant Jew; who takes seriously the Torah’s numerous references to educating our children. I support the public schools because, as a student of Jewish history, I appreciate too well how religion-based governments persecuted Jews for espousing the wrong religion. I support the public schools because, as a serious Jew, I cherish our church-state separation as a means of protecting the civil and religious rights of all citizens within the community. I support the public school because I live not only as a Jew, but as a proud citizen of this country.
This upcoming election may truly determine the future course of Great Neck. As a rabbi and community leader, I totally reject the perception of this election being a struggle between religions or ethnicities. Rather, I regard this election as an ideological matter between people who focus primarily on their individual interests as opposed to those among us who take the more global view of supporting the greater need of our town and its children. I strongly opt for the latter.
—Rabbi Michael Klayman
Lake Success Jewish Center