Teaneck Pursues Unity in Diversity

By Sandra Gardner
From: The New York Times, Sunday, March 1, 1981, Section 11, p. 1

 'Teaneck is more urban, broadly based and dynamic than most suburban communities," says Leslie McKeon, a sculptor who spent years in Israel and Sierra Leone. "It really a majority of minorities."

One set of statistics seems to bear out Mr. McKeon's assessment:

--There are 23 languages spoken here, including Urdo (an Indian language), Korean and Arabic.

--There is a Baha'i center made of logs, and there is a Roman Catholic church that has been used by a Moslem congregation waiting for its mosque to be finished.

Beneath the easy amalgam, however, there are -- as in any community -- points of friction, not the least of which is the one between young people and the police.  The young people say the police are "hassling" them; the policy deny this contending they are just trying to stem a rising tide of burglaries.

Teaneck was not always a melting pot.  Before World War II, it was, like many suburban communities, mostly white Protestant, with a small number of Catholics.  After the war, Jews began moving in and, in the 50's, blacks.

Now the minorities are the majority here.  For example:

--Twenty to 25 percent of Teaneck's 39,000 residents are Jewish, and there are seven synagogues with a combines membership of about 8,000.

--There are about 10,000 Roman Catholics, half of them affiliated with Teaneck's only Catholic church, St. Anastasia's.

--The black population, which made up 23.7 percent of Teaneck's public-school students in 1971, now constitutes 36.4 percent, according to the 1980 Bergen County Planning Board.  Also, there is a goodly smattering of Orientals, Indians, Arabs and Hispanics.

"Teaneck seems to do a pretty good job of integrating all of these groups into the community," said Rabbi Louis Sigel of Temple Emeth, the larger of the town's two Reform synagogues. "Of course, there are enragements once in a while."

One of the more recent "enragements" was the "Battle of the Mikvah." When an Orthodox group began to build a mikvah -- ritual bath used primarily by the Orthodox -- there was a loud outcry, much of them from other jews.

"It was problem," Rabbi Sigel said. "Non-Orthodox Jews felt that they had put a lot of investment into accommodating their Jewishness to the American scene. They resented a group of people, also Jewish, who, in their more-visible religious expression, were 'rocking the boat.' "

Rabbi Macy Gordon of B'nai Yeshurun, the oldest and largest of the three Orthodox synagogues, said:

"We have often been maligned as being separatists, isolationists. But, except in education, where we find it religiously necessary, I don't feel we are."

Most children of Orthodox Jewish families attend all-day private Jewish schools because, says Rabbi Gordon, "We feel that an intensive Jewish education is of highest value," ,

The student body at the Catholic school in Teaneck - it is at St. Anastasia's Church - reflects the town's ethnicity. It includes black, Hispanic and Oriental children, many from non-church families. Some are not Catholic.

In some ways, St. Anastasia's resembles a Catholic church in any suburb. Ten years ago, there were 600 students; five years ago, fewer than 500; today, there are only 350.

Two major factors have played a role in the decline: the decreasing birth rate and the economy's effect on parents' ability to meet tuition, which ranges from $400 to $800.

The parents' concerns are those of most Catholic parents.

"They want to transmit their own values to their children, who are living in today's society, which does not reflect traditional values," said the pastor ,the Rev. Cecil Pickert. 

On Saturdays, and in the evenings, St. Anastasia becomes catholic in the wider, lower-case sense.

While members of Congregation Dar-UI-Islah, a Moslem group, have been building their mosque, which should be completed by the end of the year, they have been holding services during Ramadan at St. Anastasia's. For regular prayers, they have been meeting in one another's homes.

And a Chinese cultural school has been housed in the church for seven years. Every Saturday morning, about 35 children of American-born Chinese parents learn the language, culture and traditions of their grandparents.

Since 1974, St. Anatasia's also has been home to the Afro-American Educational Center, which teaches African and Afro-American culture, history and arts to young children on Saturday mornings..

The Afro-American center was developed by Joan Waite, a former assistant professor of black studies at Sarah Lawrence College, because, she says, "At that time, almost nothing was happening in our classrooms in terms of the heritage and culture of the black student."

However, Dr. Phoebe Slade, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Jersey City State College and a member of Teaneck's black community, feels that "if black culture is to be taught in the schools, it should be taught along with other cultures - Jewish, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese - especially in view of the makeup of this town."

One way in which Teaneck tries to integrate its culturally diverse student population is through the Magnet Arts School, which has been housed in the high school since 1978. The school is financed by a grant from the Federal Emergency School Assistance Act; the grant this year totals $350,000.

The school, according to Richard, Cabezas, its director, meant "to promote integration utilizing the creative and performing arts because they are basic to all cultures."

During and after school hours, junior and senior high-school students take Magnet School classes in jazz, modern and jazz dance, visual arts, theater and creative writing.

Another way of integrating the 5,600- student school system is by racially balancing the classrooms. This is done by busing students from various areas of town into each elementary school.

According to Richard Holzman, the Superintendent of Schools, "The school system copes with the multi-ethnic community through sensitivity in virtually all aspects of the curriculum.

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