The controversy over a proposed eruv for observant Jews in Westhampton Beach, L.I., heated up this week when eruv opponents sent a letter to residents that the American Jewish Congress labeled “racist.”
“It’s pretty close to sheer bigotry,” said Marc Stern, the AJC’s acting co-executive director.
The opponents, members of a group calling itself the Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv (JPOE), said in their letter that they were seeking to “preserve and protect this secular community.”
“We are concerned that the erection of an eruv, a symbolic Orthodox Jewish barrier enclosing more than one-third of Westhampton Beach, will forever alter the character of our village, change its economy and challenge the religious tolerance that has long been integral to Westhampton Beach,” the letter said.
It was unsigned.
“You can imagine if this was said about blacks, what an uproar there would be,” Stern said. “This reads like a racist letter about some group you want to keep out of the community to preserve it. … That is the sort of language of bigots. What are they preserving it from?”
The letter was sent despite the fact that the Hampton Synagogue withdrew in May its application to the trustees of the Village of Westhampton Beach seeking their approval to erect the eruv. A decision on how next to proceed was postponed this week, but synagogue leaders made it clear that they still planned to erect the eruv.
“In the face of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, religious intolerance, walking away is not an option,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “The opponents of the eruv are desperate people who will say desperate things, but we are moving ahead.”
Along with the JPOE letter residents were asked to sign a petition to the Long Island Power Authority and Verizon asking that they not permit the eruv to use their utility poles.
Rabbi Schneier said he was “saddened by the tone [the opposition] has taken. … The anti-Semitism and anti-Orthodox rhetoric and diatribe has gone to a different level; it has crossed the line.”
His synagogue withdrew its eruv application when opposition surfaced and it was believed time was needed to explain to the community the historic importance of an eruv. An eruv allows observant congregants to push baby carriages and carry necessities on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.
The congregation’s president, Morris Tuchman, said it is now “clear that there is no need to educate anyone” any longer about the purpose of an eruv. The only question being raised by opponents, he said, is: “How we can avoid another Lawrence and avoid more Orthodox Jews [moving in]?”
“They don’t want this to be another Orthodox Jewish enclave,” he said.
“I’m Orthodox and I don’t have a beard or a shtreimel and I’m being told we don’t want your kind. … A non-Jew said to me that he would have thought that at this stage of the world those kind of comments would be so repugnant that they would not be repeated.”
Asked about the group that claims to represent 300 Jews opposed to the eruv, Tuchman said he had not heard any Jewish opposition until after an Aug. 13 community meeting about the eruv attracted about 500 opponents.
“The Jews who were there and those who had not attended the meeting had the heebie-jeebies scared out of them,” he said. “Someone wrote a letter to the editor in the Southhampton Press in which he said the Jews [against the eruv] are afraid of the non-Jews being anti-Semitic, and the non-Jews [opposed to the eruv] are anti-Semitic. He said it so well.”
Tuchman pointed out that the synagogue leadership has “made efforts to reach out to people [opposed to the eruv] and we didn’t get a hand back. … They will not meet. That is sad.”
Arnold Sheiffer, founder of Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv, said he didn’t “understand how we could be racists. We’re Jewish people. … I’ve lived here over 30 years and nobody’s going to call me a bigot just because I’m Jewish.”
Sheiffer insisted that his organization is “not trying to keep anybody out. We’re the people who let everybody in. We just don’t want to segregate it [the village].”
He contended that “this is a tiny village” of 2.9 square miles and that the proposed eruv would cover 1.1 square miles and benefit only six families. Village officials have told him, Sheiffer said, that 85 percent of the residents oppose the eruv.
“You don’t tear the village asunder for a few people,” he added. “You should honor the customs of those in the area in which you live. Some guy says this is racist. Nonsense.”
Tuchman, the shul’s president, met Monday with Rabbi Schneier and the shul’s lawyer, Robert Sugarman, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League’s Religion Anti-Bias Task Force. He said that by late January they would decide their next step.
As they consider their options, two newspapers in the community have written editorials supportive of the eruv and one has come out squarely against. In its Oct. 22 edition, The Independent, a free paper, wrote that the debate over the issue “has turned ugly, and those opposed aren’t just anti-Semites — there are a growing number of Jews who oppose Rabbi Marc Schneier’s plan.”
The paper said that although an eruv “seems harmless enough,” the rabbi’s “ferocity” in answering those who questioned him “revealed a much darker side. … Is he empire building? Does he have a financial stake in making an eruv happen? From where we sit, only a handful of local people would benefit from the eruv, Schneier among them. That pales to the scores who feel it is intrusive. … Westhampton Beach, because of its sparsity [sic] of Orthodox Jews, isn’t the right place for an eruv.”
An editorial the next day in the Southampton Press also pointed out how a “simple disagreement” over whether the village should accommodate its request had turned into a “truly venomous spectacle.”
It put the blame squarely on the village trustees and the mayor, saying that by allowing the issue to fester without resolution “they have permitted the ugliness to continue to rise, filling the vacuum left by lack of leadership.”
The paper noted that at a recent meeting of Jews to discuss the eruv, “the specter of Orthodox Jews overrunning and destroying the `secular community’” was raised. But instead of saying “Orthodox Jews,” the editorial said “they” and “them” and “other dehumanizing and xenophobic terms were deployed to cement the image of an invading enemy. … The eruv debate has peeled the veneer of civility off Westhampton Beach and exposed an ugliness beneath.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for the Alliance for the Separation of Church and State for the Greater Westhampton Area have sent three letters to the village attorney and its trustees spelling out their concerns that the sanctioning of an eruv would be unconstitutional.
The attorneys, Bruce Rosen and Marci Hamilton, argued that by issuing a proclamation to create an eruv, “the government is being asked to publicly and officially recognize a boundary line solely according to religious identity.”
“The reasonable observer who is not part of that religious community would reasonably believe that the government has endorsed encouraging a particular religious group to occupy a certain portion of the village,” they wrote. “It would also be an impermissible advancement of religion….”
They pointed out that there are “active controversies between sects of Orthodox Jews over whether eruvim are permitted by Jewish law. Some believe that an eruv does not alleviate the burdens imposed by Jewish law, but rather leads believers to violate Jewish law. The government has no business taking a position on either side of the eruv controversy….”
Noting that other municipalities have granted approval for eruvs, the lawyers argued that such acts “offer no assurance of constitutionality.”
The lawyers warned that should the village endorse the eruv, it “would be liable for attorneys’ fees and damages. The only means of avoiding such fees is to obey the Constitution’s dictates.”
In his response letter to the village, Sugarman said he was dismayed that the lawyers for the Alliance devoted “a significant portion of their letter to what appears to be a transparent appeal to fear and prejudice…”
He wrote that it is “crystal clear” that the issuance of a ceremonial proclamation to validate an eruv is not unconstitutional. In fact, Sugarman wrote, the denial of such a proclamation would be unconstitutional and violate the civil rights laws.
He also enclosed an affidavit from Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University saying that the Jewish people have used eruvs for more than 2,000 years.
He also enclosed proclamations sanctioning eruvs from the mayors of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Cincinnati, as well as a letter of greeting from then-President George H.W. Bush on the occasion of the erection of the eruv in the nation’s capital.
Sugarman pointed out that there are more than 30 eruvim in the tri-state area. He said that for an eruv to be valid the physical construction must comply with the Jewish law. In addition, there needs to be a proclamation from a public official — including a county executive or the governor of the state — delineating and “renting” the area for use as an eruv.
During a visit to the Hamptons Synagogue this summer, Gov. David Paterson spoke out in favor of the eruv.