The negative e-mails started soon after word spread that the Hampton Synagogue was asking the tony Village of Westhampton Beach for a proclamation permitting it to erect an eruv, or symbolic boundary, around the synagogue.
It would, one e-mail said, “allow the Jewish people to pass through people’s property on their way to temple. … It is the beginning of a ‘push’ by the rabbi to create another Tenafly or Lawrence [both have large concentrations of Orthodox Jews]. Shopkeepers have already been asked rather strongly to please close their stores on Saturday.”
Another claimed that the “natural outcome of a designated area would alter the real estate complexion and property values within the area. … What is to stop the Orthodox from demanding that Christians, within the eruv, not put up say Christmas ornamentation on their properties within the eruv?”
There were also those who insisted that “people would not be able to drive cars in the eruv … and that [Jews] don’t like to walk on sidewalks within the eruv because of the cracks in the sidewalk,” said Clint Greenbaum, a member of the synagogue’s eruv committee.
The village mayor, Conrad Teller, said all of the complaints “boil down to [the claim] that it would make the area too Jewish.”
The battle over the Westhampton Beach eruv mirrors similar struggles waged by municipalities in Long Island, northern New Jersey and Rockland County against what they perceive to be a growing Orthodox Jewish population. Some of these battles have pitted Jew against Jew. A Chabad synagogue in Southampton met with strong neighborhood opposition, as did the huge estate built by Orthodox financier Ira Rennert in Sagaponack, which neighbors feared would be used as an Orthodox retreat center.
Westhampton Beach, located on the South Shore of Long Island about 78 miles from Midtown Manhattan, has 2,200 residents in nearly three square miles. The proposed eruv would encompass about one-third of that.
The village held three public hearings on the issue in March, April and May that attracted more and more public interest. But another hearing May 28 — which was to have been moved from Village Hall to a large school auditorium to accommodate the expected crowd — was cancelled after the synagogue temporarily withdrew its request.
“I have elected in consultation with the leadership of the synagogue to take the high road and use the summer to create further understanding in our community” about the nature of an eruv, explained Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the 500-family congregation.
He said that in the 18 years since the congregation was founded, after what the rabbi described as a “nasty, ugly battle” with village officials who tried to stop it, there has “been a growing traditional element in the synagogue and a growing number of young families.”
In a May 23 letter to village officials and the “Westhampton Beach community,” Rabbi Schneier wrote that the eruv would allow families to push strollers when they go to Sabbath services. It would not, he insisted, “be invasive to private property interests of any individual or entity …. The eruv is not intended, in any way, to communicate that Westhampton Beach is not the diverse community it truly is.”
“Since I am a rabbi who believes in promoting tolerance,” he continued, “I choose not to attribute untoward or foul motives to those who have circulated clearly offensive e-mails or remarks. … Parenthetically, however, it is hard to understand the true meaning of one expression that has been used: ‘Just what we need, more Jews.’”
Rabbi Schneier said he plans to speak with community groups, religious leaders and others over the coming weeks “to promote greater understanding” so that when he renews the eruv request in September “it will be erected shortly thereafter.”
The synagogue’s lawyer, Richard Haefeli, pointed out that the only reason the synagogue requested a village proclamation for the eruv was because “Orthodox Jewish tradition” requires approval of the local political body.
“There is no law in this country that requires approval for the establishment of an eruv,” he said. “It is really a question of working with the utility company” whose poles are used to establish the boundary.
Joel Cohen, a member of the synagogue’s eruv committee, said he agrees that withdrawing the request was a prudent step.
“When a segment of a greater community feels threatened by an ethnic or racial group, the best way to gain acceptance is to explain it so there is no fear,” he said. “Shoving it down one’s throat leads to enmity. … There is no intention by the rabbi to create a shtetl or another Lawrence.”
In Lawrence, a heavily Orthodox community in the Five Towns, many stores close on Saturday and open on Sunday to cater to the needs of their observant customers.
One of those opposed to the eruv, Els Rentmeester, said village action on this matter would violate “the separation of church and state.”
“People who are against it are said to be anti-Semitic,” she said. “That’s a lot of crap. … This is a religious thing. I’m very open-minded and I can sympathize [with the request], but if we all want to live together in one happy world, let’s become more tolerant of one another. I don’t want this controversy. Let it go away. The rabbi made a big mistake” in requesting village action.
Haefeli, the synagogue’s lawyer, pointed out that “in a number of cases the courts have ruled” that an eruv is not a religious symbol.
“It simply allows Orthodox Jews to engage in nonsectarian activities on the Sabbath, like pushing a baby carriage and carrying things,” he added. “We are not creating a new wheel out here. … People are afraid of the unknown. Most of the local people who followed this in the local press said to me it’s no big deal. The people who don’t live here year ‘round hear something and the rumors start. This is still a summer community.”
John Roland, the former Channel 5 news anchor who has had a home in Westhampton Beach for the last 40 years, said he is seeking election June 20 to the village board in part because of the way the trustees have handled this issue.
“I am running as much to win as to make a statement,” he said. “Instead of trying to put the vicious fires out, the mayor sent a uniformed police officer up and down Main Street asking if they had been bothered by Jews. … You don’t have to be Jewish to resent that.”
One Jewish merchant, Elyse Richman, the owner of Shock stores in the village and a write-in candidate for village trustee, said the officer “asked if anyone had ever asked me to close my store on Saturday. I said I am open 365 days of the year. I said I am offended that you are here; this is not a police issue. He said he was just doing what he was told.”
Teller, who is seeking re-election as mayor, defended his action, saying he requested that the police send “somebody down to investigate the e-mail allegations that store owners were threatened into closing on Saturdays.”
“One store owner was highly insulted that I didn’t come down personally,” he said. “I said, ‘What was I going to do, walk into every store?’”
In the end, he said, there was “never any evidence” to support the e-mail claim.
Asked if he supported the eruv, Teller replied: “I have no objection if the public isn’t 100 percent against it. I mean I work for the public, but right now I still don’t see any major fault with it. I probably won’t get elected for saying that. I don’t see any fault with it.”
He pointed out that he called the mayor of Tenafly, N.J., which lost a six-year battle to prevent the erection of an eruv. Teller said the mayor told him, “It is invisible and has made no change [in the community] in the three years it has been up.”
Teller didn’t rule out placing the matter before the voters in the form of a referendum, saying: “This village is made up of a unique group of people and most are pretty savvy.”