There are observant Jews in the Village of Westhampton Beach who have had to hire gentiles to push their baby carriages, strollers and wheelchairs alongside them so they could attend synagogue on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.
But a federal lawsuit filed last week — which is leading to renewed tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in the East End resort area — is designed to put an end to that. If successful, it would allow congregants to erect an eruv, or symbolic boundary, that would permit them to perform such actions, as well as the carrying of such things as house keys, reading glasses, books and identification outside of the home without violating Jewish law.
The suit, which was filed against the Villages of Westhampton Beach and Quogue and the Town of Southampton, claims that all three have impeded efforts to erect an eruv. Although no specific monetary figure is sought, their success could produce a “multimillion-dollar award,” according to Marvin Tenzer, president of the group that filed the suit, the East End Eruv Association.
The suit comes nearly two years after an eruv was formally proposed to the Village of Westhampton Beach by Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, only to be withdrawn by the rabbi two months later amid much community acrimony.
Asked if such divisiveness might again surface with the filing of the suit, Arnold Sheiffer, chairman of Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv, insisted that there had been “no antagonism.”
But Rabbi Schneier said he has a different recollection of the events that preceded his decision to pull the petition in May 2008.
“There was a very raucous response that led to very divisive rhetoric and diatribe,” he said. “I know that the people leading this effort are very capable and very competent. … God’s on their side.”
Rabbi Schneier observed that the suit was filed just days before America commemorated the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “and the civil liberties that govern our country; the possibility of having an eruv is a civil right.”
In withdrawing the eruv petition, the suit said, Rabbi Schneier cited the controversy the application had elicited, including comments such as, “Just what we need: more Jews.” But he promised to use that summer “extending the hands of friendship across the faiths and educate all segments of the Westhampton Beach community to precisely what the eruv is.”
The rabbi’s attempt “was met largely with further appeals to fear and prejudice expressed by village officials, members of the community, and groups such as Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv,” according to the suit. “Negative sentiment grew so strong throughout the community that former Westhampton Beach Deputy Mayor Tim Laube … moved out of the village in 2008, citing ‘threatening phone calls’ he had received … from village residents who ‘accused [him] of being a Jew-lover’ a ‘kike-lover’ and that he would ‘burn in hell.’”
Because such sentiment has continued, the suit said, the East End Eruv Association (EEEA) researched the subject and learned that municipal approval was not necessary as long as the eruv received approval from the utility companies whose poles and wires would be used. The eruv is created by, among other things, attaching smooth wooden strips known as lechis to the sides of existing Verizon and Long Island Power Authority utility poles and wires. The wires then form the border within which objects may be carried and pushed.
Last summer the EEEA entered into license agreements with both utilities for an eruv that would encompass Westhampton Village and parts of the Village of Quogue and the Town of Southampton.
“Beginning shortly after, and in some cases even before, the execution of the agreements, opposition in the villages and town mounted, and officials in the municipalities sought actively to interfere with and obstruct EEEA’s ability to construct an eruv,” the suit said.
It then detailed how each municipality contacted the two utilities and asserted that their approval was necessary for the eruv to be erected.
Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller told The Jewish Week that he would be meeting with his lawyer this week and had been instructed to decline comment until then.
A spokeswoman for the Town of Southampton provided a letter the town attorney sent the utilities telling them that an application for the eruv was never submitted to the town and that the town’s sign ordinance bars “temporary or permanent signs resting on, attached to or inside any vehicles, buildings, fences, telephone poles or any other structures …”
Quogue Mayor Peter Sartorius declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
Robert Sugarman, the pro bono lawyer for the EEEA, said the case has been sent to Judge Leonard Wexler in Central Islip Federal Court and that he would be asking the judge for a preliminary injunction barring the municipalities from interfering in the licensing of the utility poles.
Sugarman said he previously represented proponents of an eruv in Tenafly, N.J., who went to court because Tenafly similarly said its ordinance prohibited anything on utility poles.
“We won there, because they had never before enforced the ordinance — there were all kinds of things on the poles,” Sugarman said. “Here we are on even stronger grounds because the sign laws on their face don’t apply to one-inch wide wooden strips. And if it did, the ordinance has never before been enforced.”
Tenzer said the suit included a picture of a large sign on a utility pole that advertised a pancake breakfast at a firehouse in Quogue. Another picture taken during Christmas in the Village of Southampton shows a Santa and sleigh on wires strung from utility poles above Main Street. And a picture taken in the Village of Westhampton Beach shows a sign hung between utility poles over Main Street advertising a local high school play.
“What’s good for them is good for us,” Tenzer added, noting that his group waited until after Christmas to file the suit because “we did not want it to look like we were interfering with their season.”
“As a resident and taxpayer of Westhampton Beach, I would hope that the council realizes it needs to follow the law and not interfere with our contract with Verizon and LIPA,” he said.
The EEEA has already paid the utilities between $5,000 and $10,000 for their licensing fees, a one-time pole walk fee to lay out the eruv’s boundary, and has bought a required $5,000 in insurance, Tenzer noted.
Sugarman said there are thousands of eruvim in the United States and that virtually all have withstood municipal challenges. This is believed to be the first, however, that seeks to prevent municipalities from interfering in licensing contracts with utility companies.
Sheiffer, who is Jewish, said that at least 300 other Jews have joined his group’s opposition to the eruv, and that “there are very few people who are pro this. …” He also questioned how many people in the village require an eruv.
“There is no population in the village to use the eruv,” he maintained. “Maybe we’re talking about two or three people? The whole area of the eruv is 11.6 miles. … The real Jewish people in the village oppose it.”
Tenzer said he does not know the number of Jews who would need the eruv but that it would be needed “even if it’s for one” person. He said the eruv had been expanded since it was first proposed because some in the community had complained that an eruv only in the Village of Westhampton Beach would turn the area into a virtual ghetto.
Sheiffer pointed out that some Jewish merchants in the village are opposed for purely economic reasons.
“We’re a resort community,” he said. “We have a 13-week season and the biggest nights here are Friday and Saturday. You have to make hay while the sun shines, so some of the business people are vociferously against it.”
Most residents fear that an eruv would result in an influx of Orthodox Jews into Westhampton Beach, who might then pressure Jewish merchants to close on the Sabbath, Sheiffer explained. He said that although that happened in the Five Towns, that area had had a “very large concentration of Jewish people” before the Orthodox moved in.
“That is not true here, and they are attempting to socially engineer” this community, insisted Sheiffer, who guessed that perhaps 1,000 of the 20,000 summer residents are Jewish. “We had people at our meetings from Lawrence who testified that the eruv depressed real estate values because you then have only one [type of] buyer. … [But] people are not worried so much about property values as the character of the community. We’re not against Orthodox Jews; it’s just that an eruv is not appropriate for an area like this.”
Sheiffer, a 34-year resident of Westhampton Beach who said he had been an officer of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, a Reform congregation, said his organization is limited to Jews in response to those “who were saying that anybody opposed to the eruv is anti-Semitic. That is blatantly false. … I’m Jewish and I don’t want it.”
He added that he is also concerned about how the non-Jews in the area will react to the suit.
“I’ve been told by rabbis that when the opposition is that high, you have to ask the village for permission,” Sheiffer said. “They asked for some indication of approval and they did not get it. … In the Jewish religion, you are supposed to be accepted by the community. The mayor of the Village of Westhampton Beach says 90 percent of the people are against it, and the same is true in Quogue.”
Asked what would happen if the courts uphold the ban on the eruv, Sheiffer said he and others — both Jews and non-Jews — have “offered to push their baby carriages — for free.”