Lawsuit aims to shut down school for at-risk teens in Midwood Jewish center

The East 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 out of the East Midwood Jewish Center — leaving faculty and students worried about the potentially “catastrophic” consequences as they wait for the judge’s ruling. 

“It’s really put us on pins and needles,” said Jai Nanda, the director of Urban Dove Charter School, which is looking to welcome students into its new Ocean Avenue location on Sept 14. “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 Midwood residents, seeks to invalidate Urban Dove’s lease with the Jewish center. The lease has long been a source of controversy, with predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighbors bemoaning the arrival of the school’s predominantly Black, at-risk teens, despite members and the Center’s board voting overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the school to take over the lease. 

In letters 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 have pushed the center to pull out of the lease and find a Jewish school to occupy the space instead. Before the Urban Dove, two different Jewish day schools operated in 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 Urban Dove’s arrival since the plans were first announced. In a January opinion piece for the Brooklyn Eagle, 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, 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,” Levitt wrote.

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,” Nanda 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.” 

The timing of the injunction push is particularly bad, according to the school’s director, who agonized over the potential that the school will be barred from operating after classes start on Monday. If the injunction is granted even after classes start, 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, the 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.