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Home > Religion > Eruv controversy divides N.J. community

Eruv controversy divides N.J. community
Jewish community boundary point of contention

The New Jersey Jewish News
December 29, 2000

WHIPPANY, N.J.—Small plastic strips attached to telephone and utility poles have become the subject of a recent lawsuit filed by a group of observant Jews against the borough of Tenafly.

The strips help make up an eruv, a boundary around a community, which creates a symbolic home, allowing religious Jews to carry items or push objects such as baby strollers.

Without an eruv, such activities are prohibited outside the home, leaving women with young children and those in wheelchairs essentially homebound on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays.

The strips designate the poles whose wires form the eruv. Where there is a gap, additional wires are strung.

While many communities around New Jersey and the country-including the nation's capital-have permitted the establishment of eruvim, their symbolism has threatened to divide other municipalities-those whose residents are, in some cases, fearful of an Orthodox influx into town.

In this affluent Bergen County town, home to a Jewish community center, three synagogues and a Jewish mayor-but with a relatively small Orthodox population-the eruv, erected by the Orthodox community with the permission of local telephone and utility companies, has become a highly contested issue. It has been the subject of public town council meetings as well as letters to the editor of The Record in Hackensack. On Dec. 12 the town council voted 5-0 to have the eruv taken down.

Following that vote, the Tenafly Eruv Association filed a civil lawsuit against the borough and its elected officials in Newark's United States District Court. They demanded a jury trial to resolve the issue and are also seeking monetary damages. The members say that their constitutional rights to practice their religion are being denied; that the eruv presents no aesthetic, safety, traffic or other problem to the borough; and that the council's action was designed to prevent Orthodox Jews from purchasing homes in Tenafly, which they have the right to do under the Federal Fair Housing Act.

"We didn't want it to come to this, but unfortunately it has," Chaim Book, the association's spokesperson, told The Record in a Dec. 16 article. "We were hoping that through negotiations, we could work this out." Book told New Jersey Jewish News that he was unable to comment since the suit had been filed. His attorney, Richard Shapiro, also would not comment directly on the case.

Tenafly Mayor Ann Moscovitz, who is named in the lawsuit as a defendant, told NJJN that she had "no comment" about the issue while litigation was pending. But in a Dec. 14 letter to The Record, Moscovitz wrote that "the construction of an eruv has good arguments on both sides."

"Tenafly is a wonderful town that welcomes people of all religions, races, and ethnic backgrounds," she wrote. "Orthodox Jews are no exception."

The borough's attorney, Walter Lesnevich, did not return several phone calls to NJJN. But in the same Dec. 16 article, he said, "There's no case law that says you have to grant an eruv if they want it," despite the fact that federal and state law permit the establishment of one. "There's never been a case that says they have a right to put up an eruv whenever they want to on town property."

But that argument appeared to fall short with Judge William Bassler of the U.S. District Court. In his Dec.15 opinion that issued a temporary restraining order on any removal of the eruv materials, Bassler said, "The Borough of Tenafly apparently does not understand that the allegations, if true, raise very serious First Amendment issues." He added, "It would appear on its face that the use of the ordinance is being done irrationally, applied unreasonably with the direct effect of preventing Orthodox Jews from observing their religion."

The dispute surrounding the eruv first began after several observant Jews living in Tenafly sought to establish one in June 1999, according to the complaint that was filed by the Tenafly Eruv Association Inc. in the U.S. District Court. The association, in an effort to fulfill the Jewish requirement to obtain permission from secular authorities to establish an eruv, had two representatives meet with Moscovitz and discuss the prospect of having her issue a proclamation establishing the eruv. In July 1999 Moscovitz met with the council for a regularly scheduled work session, where several members, in agreement with the borough attorney, said they did not have to issue a proclamation to establish the eruv; the association, they decided, could get permission directly from the utility authorities to use their telephone and utility poles.

The association then approached Bergen County executive William Schuber, who issued the eruv proclamation in December. Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) then agreed to a license agreement with the association to affix rubber strips (known as lehis) to the telephone company's poles in order to complete the eruv. The complaint said that the association also received assistance from Cablevision in affixing the materials.

After the eruv was completed in September, the mayor, according to the complaint, told Rabbi Mordechai Shain of Chabad Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly that the association had no right to set up the eruv, and she would make it sure it came down. The complaint states that she asked Bell Atlantic to revoke its license agreement with the association. A meeting was held attended by Moscovitz; Joy Kurland, director of the UJA Federation of Bergen and North Hudson's Jewish Community Relations Council; Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood's Congregation Ahavath Torah; and borough council member Charles Lipson.

Despite these efforts to resolve the issue, according to the complaint, the council ordered the borough administrator to threaten not to renew Cablevision's franchise agreement unless the company removed the eruv materials from the telephone poles.

A compromise was then reached, allowing the association to file an application with the council to retain the eruv. Another council work session was held, along with what The Record characterized as two "acrimonious public hearings" on Nov. 28 and Dec. 12. The 5-0 vote took place during the last hearing, during which the mayor did not vote, and one council member was absent.

At the two public hearings, local residents made known their hostility to the eruv. According to articles in the Dec. 11 and 16 editions of The Record, some residents said they feared an influx of Orthodox Jews would weaken the public school system, since their children almost exclusively attend day schools and yeshivot. According to the reports, some Jews even brought Jewish law into their arguments, stating that the eruv was a way for Orthodox Jews to avoid Sabbath restrictions, thus honoring the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

At the Dec. 12 meeting, according to The Record, Tenafly resident David Wysocki, who described himself as a "proud, practicing Jew," told the council that the debate over the eruv was "not at all about religious freedom. This is about politics and property rights."

Wysocki called the eruv the "antithesis of inclusion." He added, "It creates a separation in Tenafly, us from them, the tribe from the rest of the community."

Although the council directed Cablevision to remove the eruv materials, on Dec. 15 Judge Bassler issued a temporary restraining order that allowed the eruv to remain up. He also set a hearing for Jan. 2 to consider a further injunction that would keep the eruv up throughout the legal proceedings.

The eruv issue has attracted interest and support from Jewish organizations outside of Tenafly. "The courts have made it clear that an eruv does not violate the First Amendment," said the Anti-Defamation League's NJ region executive director, Shai Goldstein, who attended the Dec. 12 meeting. "It's settled law" that eruvim are constitutional, said Goldstein, citing the 1987 case of ACLU v. City of Long Branch.

The activities that Jews would engage in by having an eruv in place are not religious in nature but secular, Goldstein said. The eruv, he added, is "something that can't even be seen by the naked eye. It's an accommodation."

This is not the first eruv dispute in which NJ ADL has been involved; a problem arose in the Twin Rivers section of East Windsor a couple of years ago, when a planned apartment development refused to let Jews erect an eruv, Goldstein said. The town eventually allowed it, he said, calling for the eruv to be built around the development and not on it directly.

Further, he said, "there is a new federal statute which may arguably cover this situation"-or at least the spirit of it, Goldstein said. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 says that "no government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person"-including a religious association or institution-unless the government demonstrates a "compelling governmental interest" in the matter, Goldstein said.

"There's no reason for opposition also from a civil rights perspective." Whether aimed at blacks or black hats, Goldstein said, "bigotry is bigotry."

"Clearly there are misunderstandings and misperceptions out there," the JCRC's Kurland told NJJN. "I think what I see is people who don't really have an understanding of the issues at hand."

"Education is the best antidote for that," continued Kurland. "It's for the betterment of the community at large." She also added that discussion within the "intragroup arena"-that is, the larger Jewish community-is needed.

"I think there needs to be continued dialogue," agreed Goldstein, noting that key leaders of the interfaith community in Bergen County supported the eruv. "We think that the overwhelming number of people who oppose the eruv oppose it not based on bigotry and not based on a 'Jew vs. Jew' issue," he said, but on incorrect interpretations of the law. "It creates a separation in Tenafly, us from them, the tribe from the rest of the community."

© New Jersey Jewish News, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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