Bloomingburg Tensions Now Affecting Gov’t
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Bloomingburg Tensions Now Affecting Gov’t

Mounting legal war over housing for chasidim seen harming governance in sleepy Sullivan County town.

Bloomingburg, N.Y. — In the view of a Jewish developer, two Sullivan County municipalities are hotbeds of anti-Semitism whose governments have waged a concerted effort to derail his partially built housing development because it is being marketed to chasidic Jews.

The two municipalities, in a federal lawsuit filed last month against the developer and his associates, alleged that they used “fraud, bribery and intimidation” to corruptly influence public officials to push through the 396-unit project “for the benefit of the racketeering enterprise they head.”

In the meantime, the stranglehold this conflict has on the two governments in the Catskills — the Village of Bloomingburg and the Town of Mamakating — has left them with mounting legal fees. And because the developer, Shalom Lamm, has sued the town and some public officials personally, many public officials have resigned.

“They are quitting on us in droves,” said William Herrmann, Mamakating’s town supervisor. “We have pretty much lost half of our boards over the last year — the planning board, town board, zoning board and ethics board — and we are having trouble filling those seats because of the constant threat of personal lawsuits.”

Lamm sued the town and village late last year seeking federal court intervention to “stop pervasive, government-sponsored religious discrimination.” The complaint said the municipalities, “acting on behalf of an aggressive and hateful group of their residents, are engaged in a conspiracy to prevent chasidic Jews from buying houses, establishing a private religious school, establishing a mikveh [ritual bath] and operating businesses in their community.”

The municipalities, the complaint continued, “are engaged in a series of patently illegal actions to block lawful, approved, and long-planned developments in Bloomingburg and Mamakating.”

“We didn’t sleep too well with this hanging over us,” Herrmann confided. “But I’m sleeping a lot better since [our] suit was filed [last month] because I want this in front of a federal judge and maybe a jury where they will hear all the facts and see who is right and wrong.”

Town and village officials along with community residents interviewed uniformly insisted that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with their attempts to stop the development. Instead, they said, they are trying to block its completion because Lamm and his associates played a bait-and-switch game abetted by corrupt public officials.

As they see it, the developers applied in 2006 to build a 125-unit gated community for retired second homeowners that would have no impact on the schools. But in 2012, after the mile-long village approved the project and annexed land from the town for it, residents discovered the project had became a 396-unit development that was being heavily marketed to chasidic Jews.

Lamm, a Modern Orthodox Jew who is the son of Rabbi Norman Lamm, a former chancellor of Yeshiva University, insisted that his project was always 396 units and challenged opponents to produce one document saying otherwise. They have not.

But the 396-unit project, the municipalities argued in their suit, would “bring thousands of residents to overrun the tiny Village of Bloomingburg, a village of just over 400 residents, which is committed to preserving its rural character and natural beauty by limited development and strictly enforced zoning.”

Standing atop a mountain overlooking the village, Bloomingburg Mayor Frank Gerardi pointed to the development, below that was carved out of the greenery surrounding it.

“It’s going to blight the landscape,” he said, shaking his head. “It stands out like a sore thumb. … This was all farmland.”

Fifty-one of the townhouses have already been built, including three model homes. Some units are selling for $334,000 and others for $299,000, Lamm said.

The village only began inspecting each unit last week at the rate of two per day. Based upon the inspections that have been completed, Gerardi said, changes would be required before they are deemed up to code and could be granted a certificate of occupancy.

Lamm showed a reporter and photographer one of the models last week. It was a three-bedroom home with a 9-foot ceiling in the entrance, wood floors and marble bathrooms. Hanging on a wall by the front entrance were two photographs of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the late founder of Satmar chasidim.

Those photos would not come as a surprise to Teek Persaud, co-owner for the past 28 years of the Quickway Diner located on the outskirts of the village, who said that a 16-page color brochure touting the development in Yiddish had been inserted into a chasidic newspaper, Der Yid, which is published by Satmar chasidim in Williamsburg and read throughout the chasidic community.

Lamm said the brochure was not his, that he does not speak Yiddish, and that “the Satmars sent it out to encourage friends and family to move here.”

He stressed that he had no hidden agenda to bring in Satmar chasidim.

“If blacks, Chinese, Indians, gays or other groups wants to move here, come on in,” Lamm said.

The brochure proclaimed in large letters: “A new Jewish settlement in Bloomingburg, N.Y., for Satmar chasidim.” The development is officially called Chestnut Ridge, but on the brochure it was called Kiryas Yetev Lev. Yetev Lev was the acronym for one of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s ancestors. The name is similar to that of another Satmar chasidic village 30 minutes south in Orange County, Kiryas Joel, which has a population of 21,000.

Asked if he believed this area might one day become another Kiryas Joel, Persaud replied: “It crosses our minds.”

Herrmann agreed that the homes “look nice and pretty — but for the city and Long Island, not here. This is a small community. There are no sidewalks and there is no traffic. … My school tax is 65 percent of my total tax bill and it costs the school $17,000 per child. A large-scale development kills the taxes for everyone else.”

He noted that the cost increases for special needs students and for students who are taught English as a second language; Yiddish is the primary language of Satmar chasidim.

Herrmann said the fear is that Lamm and his associates have only begun to change the rural landscape.

“There is a concept in municipal law that speaks of segmentation,” he said. “You have to explain [to the municipality] that this isn’t just a project for 100 homes or 1,000 homes” but rather is part of a larger project in the future.

In that way, the board could consider the total project and its impact on the water supply, sewers and roads to see if the community “could support” it all, he said. Herrmann added that a check of town records found that Lamm has bought a total of 2,000 acres in Mamakating near Bloomingburg.

“Why accumulate 2,000 acres?” he asked.

Lamm said he has bought “a lot” of land but denied it totals 2,000 acres. And he insisted that he has no grand, overarching development plan.

Before word spread that chasidim were moving to the community, Lamm said, “I was the most popular guy around.”

But since then, the hostility in the community has become palpable. The windows of the pizza shop and the kosher bakery he owns were broken on five separate occasions. One man has been convicted in connection with the incidents and is awaiting sentencing. And when walking to synagogue with his children and a group of chasidim one Friday night, they were confronted by a group of about 15 protestors with a bullhorn.

“Go back to where you came from,” they screamed. “This is illegal.”

And a neighbor who erected a 20-foot tall cross just feet from Chestnut Ridge last Christmas has kept it there. Lamm said it informs “new chasidic residents that they are unwelcome.”

“The cross is a symbol of peace, but when used as a tool of violence and fear, it is very troubling,” he said.

Holly Roche, who is Jewish and leader of the largest community group opposed to the development, Rural Community Coalition, insisted: “Anti-Semitism is not rampant in this community.”

The problem, she maintained, is that residents are “watching their civil rights being ripped asunder. Criminal activity is occurring and it is changing our quality of life.”

She said a 65-man team from the FBI’s public corruption squad descended on Bloomingburg last year and raided Lamm’s offices. Lamm confirmed the probe, but nothing has come of it so far.

Aaron Rabiner, a chasidic Jew who was recently elected to one of two trustee positions in Bloomingburg, pointed out that many of the project’s critics live outside the village — including Roche — and that they “are trying to disrupt the peace.”

Rabiner is part of an influx of about 40 chasidic families that have moved to Bloomingburg over the past few years. “People in the village want to unite, have peace and want our little village to prosper and grow in a positive way,” he said.

Rabiner added that the village’s failure to expeditiously grant certificates of occupancy to the new development means that they are not paying taxes while the village amasses “a tremendous amount in legal fees — $50,000 while our whole budget is $300,000.”

Bloomingburg is also the community that serves the Pine Bush School District, which in 2012 was sued by the parents of five Jewish students for permitting “rampant anti-Semitic discrimination and harassment” and “deliberate indifference” by administrators. A federal judge has declined to dismiss the case and ordered a trial.

Evan Bernstein, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization began working in the school district last year to address anti-Semitism. And this past winter he said the ADL held a community-wide training session with members of the community on how to confront anti-Semitism.

He said he found that secular Jews did not understand the “different styles of Judaism, and people said they have never interacted with someone who looks that religious.”

“Our hope is to build bridges between the secular Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox population because so much of it is misunderstanding. We are going to develop lines of communication between them,” he said, adding, “We can’t make progress in the general community when the internal Jewish community is so polarized.”

Herrmann drove a reporter around his town last week. He stopped at a Jewish cemetery and said: “We have a 24 or 25 percent Jewish population. As you can see, no stones are broken or toppled over and there is no graffiti.”

He then stopped in front of a synagogue.

“You see, no graffiti or broken windows. You can’t say this is an anti-Semitic community. … He [Lamm] keeps saying these things hoping someone will believe him.”

Earlier, Herrmann said: “This community has been lied to and deceived; it is unbelievable what they have done to my community. And when people learned of the betrayal and deceit, they said you can’t do this in America.”

Persaud, the diner owner, said he normally does not get involved in local disputes, preferring to befriend everyone. But he said he could not remain on the sidelines in this matter because of the blatant “corruption and bribery” that took place.

Persaud noted that his father moved the family to the United States from British Guiana when he was 14 “because of the corruption there — but this is worse.”

Although wrongdoing by former village and town officials has been alleged for the past three years — and the town and village lawsuit reads like a federal racketeering indictment — no arrests or charges have been filed against anyone.

stewart@jewishweek.org

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