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Brooklyn Paper: Lawsuit aims to bar school for at-risk teens from operating at Midwood Jewish center

Just days away from the scheduled start of the school year, a group of Midwood residents have gone to court seeking an injunction to keep a charter school from operating at the East Midwood Jewish Center — leaving faculty and students fretting the potentially “catastrophic” consequences as they wait in limbo for the judge’s ruling. 

“It’s really put us on pins and needles,” said Jai Nanda, the director of Urban Dove school, which is looking to welcome students into the Ocean Avenue religious center. “If the injunction is granted, all of our students get kicked out of their school building until further notice, after the start of the school year — which is frankly so catastrophic it’s hard to even get my mind around.” 

The preliminary injunction request, which was filed in Kings County Supreme Court on Sept. 4 by a pair of local Midwood residents, seeks to invalidate Urban Dove’s lease with the Jewish center — which has long been a source of controversy, with predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighbors and members of the center bemoaning the arrival of a predominantly-Black school of at-risk teens. 

In letters, court filings, and public meetings, opponents have labeled the students as “urban kids who know how to fight” that will bring “guns, violence, sexual activity, and strewn condoms” to the neighborhood, and will “wolf whistle or hassle” female yeshiva students due to their “raging hormones and immature neocortex.”

The school — which services almost entirely students of color that have failed the ninth grade, and are at risk of dropping out — announced the deal to take over the space in 2019, and the racially-tinged backlash has led to numerous heated public meetings and outcries from locals. 

Members of the center have also pushed for the organization to pull out of the lease, and instead find a Jewish school to occupy the space, just as it had previously, when two different Jewish day schools operated at the facility — until they both stopped paying rent, according to Bklyner.

Midwood resident and high school teacher Ellen Levitt, who filed this week’s injunction request along with neighbor Laurie Mermelstein, has campaigned against the Urban Dove’s arrival in the neighborhood since the plans were first announced — including in a January opinion piece for the Brooklyn Eagle, in which she denied charges of racism, insisting she was only concerned with public safety threats posed by the “at-risk” nature of Urban Dove’s students. 

“While they do deserve a school,” Levitt wrote, “they would not be a good fit at all on a sleepy, residential side street in Midwood, in a building that was designed for about 200 elementary students.”

Urban Dove administrators, who filed a counter maneuver challenging the injunction petition for lacking standing, say they’re baffled by the fierce opposition to the school and the accusations of ruckus behavior — pointing out that the students haven’t even arrived in the neighborhood yet. 

“I don’t understand what these folks want from us,” he said. “How they’re going about it seems to be particularly deaf in terms of impacting these students and their families — who have done nothing wrong. All they want is to go to school.” 

And the timing of the injunction push is particularly bad, according to the school’s director, who agonized over the potential for being barred from operations after the Sept. 14 start date for classes. If the injunction is granted even after class has started, the school will be forced to vacate approximately 300 students and turn to an all remote-learning model. 

“By the time this injunction is heard by the court, school will be up and running,” said Nanda. “I don’t know how you evict students from a school.”

The injunction has not yet been assigned a court date.

Brooklyn Paper