Towns fight ‘hate crime,’ lawsuits over Jewish boundary — but it’s common in NJ
MAHWAH — While a plan to put up a religious boundary known as an eruv around the town has resulted in a federal lawsuit and acts of vandalism, life seems to be going on in the other communities where an eruv has been established.
The disputes in Bergen County come after an Orthodox Jewish organization based in Rockland County on the New York side of the state border got permission from a utility company to expand the Monsey eruv into Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale.
Residents and elected officials in Mahwah and Upper Saddle River reacted with outrage and concern after seeing the eruv markings. The religious group has threatened to sue Upper Saddle River if the town tries to remove the markers. A federal lawsuit, meanwhile, was filed against Mahwah after the Township Council threatened the group with fines if the markings are not removed.
Eruvim are used by the Orthodox community as a way to allow them to do things required in everyday modern life like carrying keys and pushing strollers outdoors on the sabbath or Yom Kippur.
While the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association got approval from the local utility company to use its poles for the eruv, Mahwah says the materials violate township ordinances against posting on utility poles. At a meeting on Aug. 18 the council voted to issue summonses if the eruv was not removed. The association says the order violates their constitutional and civil rights.
The threat of fines comes after public meetings where residents openly worried about their township being inundated with Orthodox Jews.
The same municipality this year made it a crime for people from out of the state to use municipal parks, a reaction to the large number of people driving into the community in cars with New York plates. The county prosecutor, however, asked police not to enforce that law because it could be considered discriminatory against Jewish people.
Tensions have continued to flare, with several vandalism attacks on the eruv in Mahwah and Upper Saddle River. The state Attorney General's Office this week announced a reward for information leading to arrests of those responsible for the vandalism, which Attorney General Christopher Porrino called a hate crime.
Deborah Kostroun, a spokeswoman for the group Mahwah Strong, which was founded to stop the building of the eruv said that while they do not want it in the town they also do not condone vandalism.
Kostrun said the group, which has more than 1,300 likes on Facebook, was started after residents were surprised to see PVC piping used for the eruv put on utility poles.
"We do have an ordinance, which has been around for 20 years, that says no signs on any poles," she said. "I can't put a garage sale sign or balloons on a utility pole."
Kostrun said the issues raised by Mahwah Strong are not related to religion, and she says the group has Jewish members.
"We have so many cultures here. We embrace every culture," she said.
But Kostrun and others in the township look to communities in Rockland County, which has a large population of Orthodox Jews, and worry about the future of their own hometown.
Kostrun says school districts are struggling in in places where Orthodox Jewish residents are sending children to private schools.
"We are concerned about what's going on with our neighbors," she said. "We're not interested in having our taxes double."
On Sunday, Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli issued a statement about eruv vandalism in the area of East Crescent Avenue and that the eruvim were hit with "some type of blunt object" that damaged the piping. The incidents, according to the chief, likely happened on Friday evening. He also said despite a search by officers, there were no reports of anyone seeing or hearing the vandalism occur.
Saying it "appears that the eruvs were specifically targeted," Batelli said the department is already investigating similar incidents that happened in July as a hate crime.
While he could not comment on the lawsuit, Mayor Bill Laforet said he is offering a $1,000 reward for information about the vandalism.
"This criminal mischief act is not representative of our community," the mayor said.
Porrino announced on Tuesday an additional $25,000 reward for information.
Andrea Jaffe, a spokeswoman for the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association, called the vandalism "distressing" and said she was glad the town and the attorney general were taking the matter seriously.
"It's regretful that it has gotten to this point," she said. "It's an egregious act, it's not humane, it's not what we think good neighbors would do."
Batelli encouraged anyone with information about the vandalism to contact Detective Sgt. Kevin Herbert at 201-529-1000 ext. 220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Information can also be submitted to Porrino's office by calling 1-800-277-BIAS.
Eruvs not uncommon in NJ
Not every town with an eruv has had a problem, and many residents probably have no idea they live in a town with one.
A notable exception was Tenafly, also in Bergen County, which had to pay $300,000 to a Jewish group after losing a court battle over an eruv.
According to Eruv.org there are or have been close to two dozen throughout the state, including:
- Bradley Beach
- Cherry Hill
- East Brunswick
- Fair Lawn
- Fort Lee
- Jersey City
- Teaneck /Bergenfield
Israel Rivkin, chairman of the Eruv Committee in Edison and Highland Park, said "we have never had an iota of a problem."
Rivkin said the Edison/Highland Park eruv was one of the first in the state, dating back to the 1970s.
Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik says there was considerable discussion about the issue before a resolution was passed in 2010 supporting the construction of an eruv. He has not seen any problems.
"I can say without hesitation that there's been no issues in Marlboro Township," he said. "For us it was a quality of life issue for a certain segment of our residents."
Hornik said after testimony by members of the religious population about the importance of the eruv, he was "pleased" that they approved the plan.
"Towns that have issues, it's a little bit of a lack of education," he said. "It's a little bit of ignorance, a little bit of fear. You're certainly not going to change the makeup of your town by putting in an eruv. There's a misnomer out there than you put one up and all of a sudden you become a different town. It's just not what happens."
Englewood Councilman Michael D. Cohen, who also serves as the eastern director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York, supports the right of the community to construct eruvim.
"We fully appreciate the municipalities of Mahwah and Upper Saddle River desire to protect their way of life, and we also understand that ordinances and codes already on the statue books can accomplish that generically for all people equally," he said.
"However, when the rhetoric becomes one of trying to protect a way of life through fighting a specific and reasonable religious accommodation, when protecting a way of life specifically excludes a particular grouping of people from being a part of that way of life while simultaneously properly adhering to their religious beliefs — therein lies a serious problem of discrimination."
Kostrun says her group of concerned Mahwah residents has reached out to the South Monsey Eruv Fund to learn more about the project. She said they asked for a meeting with the leaders of the organization and the leaders of the town but that the group declined that meeting.
Jaffe said there had been a plan to have a meeting on Tuesday night but that in light of the litigation, it was determined it was best to wait until the lawsuit is resolved. She said the group hoped that by having that meeting they would be able to address any concerns the council or other town residents had about the eruv.
"The town council kind of made a preemptive strike on the previous Thursday night where they, in a closed session, decided to issue summonses and created the legal framework for issuing summonses, which basically started the clock on the legal response we had to make," she said. "At that point it was made clear to us that they don't really want to have a dialogue."
Jaffe said she believes the summonses could start to be issued as soon as Friday.
"We don't know exactly how this is all going to shake out," she said. "We're trying to go about our business as usual and let the legal process run its course."
The fact that the eruv holds special religious meaning, Kostrun said, does not change the fact that there are ordinances in place that need to be followed.
"We won't make exceptions," she said. "Everyone has to follow our ordinances."
One town's losing battle
Tenafly was faced with a lawsuit almost 20 years ago after the Borough Council denied an application for the construction of an eruv. The court was left to decide whether utility poles could be used as a public forum for expression, which would automatically allow the eruv to be built.
The federal district court initially determined that the poles were not open forums and that the denial of the eruv was not based on religious reasons. In 2002, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because the town had not enforced a ban on the use of the poles, it could not deny the eruv. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
The six-year court case ultimately cost the borough more than $300,000, according to NorthJersey.com.
The story quotes former Councilman Joseph Salvatore as saying, "A lot of fears never materialized. ... It was much ado about nothing."
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com