Monsey, NY – Yeshiva Coalition, Rockland County Agree To Wednesday Fire Safety Inspections

Administrators at several Rockland County religious schools agreed Monday to allow fire inspections, defusing a standoff between the local government and the Orthodox Jewish community there.

The schools last week turned away inspectors planning to conduct routine fire-safety checks. Dennis Lynch, an attorney who represents many of the schools, said they were concerned they wouldn’t receive fair treatment from an administration they believed was biased against them.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day denied the allegation and said the inspections were to ensure the safety of children. Further, he said, if inspectors were turned away, the county would obtain warrants to enter the school facilities.

On Monday, Mr. Lynch reversed course, saying the inspectors would be allowed later this week to avoid going to court.

“My sole goal now and that of my clients is to have inspections arranged beginning this Wednesday,” he said in an email to Rockland County officials. “Please join with me in this effort now if the county is truly concerned about school safety and not politics and publicity.”

Mr. Day, a Republican, said Monday he was happy that the county could avoid going to court over the matter.

“Our goal has always been to ensure these schools are safe,” he said.

The quarrel over the fire inspections is the latest flashpoint between the growing Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, located about 15 miles northwest of Manhattan, and its neighbors.

Tensions have previously focused on East Ramapo schools, located in the county, where the school board is controlled by Orthodox Jewish men who send their children to private religious schools, even though most of the public-school students there are black or Latino. The state in 2015 installed a monitor to oversee the school district, following criticism that it was mismanaged and excessively cut public-school services.

The New York State Education Department asked Rockland County authorities in May to make fire inspections at 26 private schools that hadn’t filed their annual fire-safety reports with the state and to reinspect another 23 private schools. Most of those schools are religious Jewish schools, many of them very small, located in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the town of Ramapo.

A spokeswoman for the department said it expects all schools, public and private, to comply with fire inspections for health and safety reasons. “We will assess the appropriate next steps if schools fail to comply over the next several weeks,” she said.

Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Rockland County, said his office became involved in this issue about a year ago, following a fire at a private school where firefighters found dangerous conditions.

Mr. Zebrowski’s office later contacted the education department to discuss inspections, he said. “We are risking a tragedy and can prevent one by ensuring their safety.”

The religious schools, however, were apprehensive about the county’s role in the inspections, said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group.

“The incumbent administration in the county is perceived by the community to be hostile in many ways to the growth of the community,” he said.

Mr. Lynch, the attorney representing the schools, complained in a May 27 letter to the education department about Mr. Day’s announcement that inspections would soon occur. Mr. Day was using the religious differences in the community to politicize the issue of school safety, Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Day denied the claim and said that Mr. Lynch’s advice to his clients was “putting children at risk.” Mr. Lynch said he was never opposed to fire inspections, but questioned whether the county had the authority to lead them.

After the exchange of sharp words, it seems that inspections will move forward on Wednesday.

“Hopefully today’s announcement brings us a step closer to ensuring the safety of Rockland students,” Mr. Zebrowski said.

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