Thursday, July 27, 2017
Amid an increasingly ugly battle that has prompted accusations of anti-Semitism, an Orthodox Jewish group seeking to expand a religious boundary into northwest Bergen County has hired a Manhattan law firm to defend itself against threatened legal action.
A leader of the South Monsey Eruv Fund, which wants to extend a boundary known as an eruv into Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale, said Wednesday that the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges has agreed to represent them on a pro bono basis.
The firm has a successful history of defending the Jewish ritual boundaries in Bergen County. The firm guided a Tenafly Orthodox Jewish group to a decisive victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2002, after the local government banned the group from marking its eruv with lechis – thin pieces of wire – attached to utility poles.
"It's a service for the Jewish community living there," the head of the Monsey eruv, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, said. "It's not that the area will be taken over."
But that is precisely what some residents fear will happen if the eruv, which allows Orthodox Jews to perform prohibited tasks such as pushing strollers on the Sabbath, is allowed to extend into Bergen County.
As news of the proposed boundary has spread in the last week, social media groups of concerned residents have swelled with thousands of new members. On Monday, more than 200 people gathered at a Mahwah park to voice concerns over out-of-state residents traveling into Mahwah and overcrowding local parks and public facilities.
The organizer of an online petition opposing the eruv said he decided to shut it down after posters left "inappropriate" comments.
One read, "I don't want these rude, nasty, dirty people who think they can do what they want in our nice town." Another stated: "I don't want my town to be gross and infested with these nasty people."
The response, says the head of Teaneck's eruv, Joey Bodner, "smacks terribly of anti-Semitism."
In Teaneck, which has a large Jewish community, the boundaries of an eruv have been marked on township utility poles with pieces of wood, metal and plastic since the early 1970s. As the township's Jewish population grew, the eruv expanded to include parts of neighboring Bogota, Bergenfield and New Milford.
"They have all been cooperative," said Bodner, who is also the chairman of Teaneck's Planning Board. "This has literally been a non-issue in Teaneck for more than 40 years."
Eruvs currently exist all over the world, in New York City, Washington D.C,. and 22 locations across New Jersey, including Paramus, Fair Lawn and Passaic.
An eruv creates an enclosure for Orthodox Jews that extends the perimeter of the home into the street. The expanded border allows them to perform tasks – such as pushing strollers or carrying books – from the home to the outside world, which is prohibited on the Sabbath.
"The same way people want to have Verizon, Jewish people want an eruv," Steinmetz said.
Much of Rockland County is enclosed in an eruv, serving the area's massive Hasidic population, said Steinmetz.
The Monsey eruv circles most of the communities in Ramapo, N.Y., where Hasidic residents have frequently clashed with the rest of the community.
Steinmetz said his group undertook an expansion into Bergen County to accommodate Hasidic families living near the New Jersey border along Route 59.
The latest eruv extension is about 75 percent finished, said Steinmetz, but has been interrupted by an opposition movement in Mahwah and surrounding towns, where residents have expressed concern about the spread of Rockland's Hasidic community into the area.
Officials in Mahwah, Montvale and Upper Saddle River have all called for the eruv's removal, citing zoning regulations that prohibit signs on utility poles.
Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali said he ordered the group weeks ago not to build the eruv, which is marked by white PVC pipes on utility poles. Mahwah gave the group an Aug. 4 deadline to strip down the pipes or face summonses. Upper Saddle River said the borough would remove the eruv itself if the Monsey group failed to do so by noon Wednesday. The eruv, however, remained untouched hours after the deadline.
Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet disputed accusations of anti-Semitism. He maintains that the township's response is strictly about the enforcement of its ordinance restricting signs on poles.
It's an argument that was used by Tenafly in 2000, when it sought to ban eruvs in its community.
The Tenafly litigation waged for six years, beginning with a lawsuit filed by an eruv association in response to the borough's action.
The U.S. District Court sided with the borough, ruling that it had the right to restrict access to utility poles because they are not a public forum.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, however, finding that Tenafly officials engaged in selective enforcement, allowing signs on utility poles for local churches and lost pets.
In 2006, the town settled with the association, agreeing to keep the eruv intact and pay the association $325,000 in legal fees.
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