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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The law offices of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, LLP, have been retained by the not-for-profit corporation known as the South Monsey Eruv Association, that seeks to expand an eruv, a Jewish ritual enclosure, that includes the Township of Mahwah in New Jersey. The Jewish Link and monsey.com have obtained a letter dated Wednesday, July 26, to Mahwah Mayor William Laforet from the law firm, signed by Weil attorney Yehuda Buchweitz, which states that the Township threatens to impede his clients’ constitutional and contractual rights by demanding the removal of certain lechis—which are improperly deemed to be “signs” in the face of settled law to the contrary—by August 4, 2017. Weil Gotshal is a Manhattan-based, white-shoe law firm that has represented virtually all municipal cases, pro-bono, that have established the legality and First Amendment protection of individual eruvin nationwide.

“For your reference, an eruv is a virtually invisible unbroken demarcation of an area which may be established by the attachment of wooden or plastic strips, called ‘lechis,’ to telephone or utility poles. Jewish law prohibits the carrying or pushing of objects from a private domain, such as a home, to the public domain on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur,” he wrote.

“Based on the sincerely-held religious belief of certain observant Jews, without an eruv they are unable to leave their homes on these days to attend services at synagogue or be with family and friends if they are, for example, pushing a baby stroller or wheelchair, or carrying things such as prayer books, keys, or medications. Thus, absent an eruv, certain observant Jews are deprived of the opportunity to participate in mandatory communal prayers and observances. Accordingly, a multitude of eruvin (the plural of ‘eruv’) have been established statewide and nationwide,” Buchweitz wrote.

This letter was not referenced in any way during a public town council meeting in Mahwah on Thursday evening, July 27. Instead, over 500 people, mostly Township residents, attended the meeting that overflowed council chambers into a second large room that was outfitted with a live video feed. The tenor of the public comments was veiled, and both a Mahwah Township attorney and Council President Robert Hermansen repeatedly rebuked public speakers who sought to make comments about the eruv, so they instead focused almost entirely on the incursion of Jewish individuals into their public parks, with some other references to the concerns regarding keeping Mahwah public schools vibrant. “But we all know why we’re here,” said a Mahwah resident, to raucous applause.

Mahwah resident Suzanne Ross told the assembled group that she lives across the street from Winter’s Park, and when she recently brought her children there, “It was just so packed, they couldn’t even go down the slides. I just never experienced that before. I never had that. And I just don’t know what to really do about it.” Noted suggestions from the public included various ways of preventing non-residents from parking or using the park system, or preventing non-state residents from coming into the parks at all.

While a zoning ordinance has recently taken effect to attempt to prevent non-local residents from using the parks, the township manager noted his understanding that Mahwah is a Green Acres community, which means it has taken public funds to improve and maintain its parks. “There are some rules with regard to whether you took state money or federal money to develop your park system. We have to be mindful of that. That’s getting into a more legal area, that I should stay out of, but we are doing our due diligence there,” said Township Manager Quentin Wiest, who explained the township was looking into what other towns nearby did to prevent this incursion into their parks by non-residents. County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal had written a letter to the township on this topic earlier on July 27, also directing the police not to enforce township ordinances restricting park usage, and reminded the public that a person’s race or ethnicity cannot be considered when considering whether he or she might have violated the law. Grewal expressed the illegality of police officers targeting Jewish park users and demanding proof of their residence status. This conceivably could be a crime as well, the prosecutor wrote.

However, Lisa DiGiulio, a 40-year Mahwah resident, complained that people from outside the township were not adhering to local laws. “When people come in to break...one of the things our community agrees on, no matter who they are, and I am not picking out any group, but we have laws and structures in this town. This community has never allowed threats or bullying. I don’t think we should do it now, we shouldn’t allow it, we should adhere to our laws and our structures.

“We welcome everybody, but they have to abide by our laws. They are not going to change our laws, they have to abide by our laws,” she said. As DiGiulio stepped down, her comments were met by loud, sustained cheers.

Because the council leaders refused to discuss the eruv specifically, or allow non-Mahwah residents to speak in the first of two periods of public comments, the residents had no choice but to complain, for more than an hour, using veiled questions that were alternately applauded or cheered, about how the lechis even appeared on the utility poles in the first place. Joe Rodriguez, a 30-year Mahwah resident who stated he was a general contractor, said, “What I am seeing, I don’t like, because the law is the law. It should be obeyed.”

Rodriguez also expressed disbelief that the “community members” could have placed the lechis themselves, as he saw it as a very difficult process. “How did they even get up there?” he asked. This question was met with loud, sustained laughter, presumably at the very idea of a Chasidic Jew climbing a ladder in Mahwah to install a length of piping.

Township Manager Wiest, under pressure to disclose how the lechis even got there, explained that the requisite permits had been acquired by the South Monsey Eruv Fund and that the Mahwah Township Police had actually assisted them with their installation work. Independent confirmation had indicated that the police department billed the South Monsey Eruv Fund for their work and a township document notes the bill was paid in full, which a resident also prompted Wiest to confirm. Earlier reports also indicated that the South Monsey Eruv Fund is paying rent for the use of the utility poles owned by Orange and Rockland (O&R) utility company, which also rents out its poles to Verizon and Optimum for the purpose of providing television and computer wires to homes in the region.

The Mahwah Township Council, with the advice of their retained counsel, appears to be aware that anything that is said publicly about eruvin and the reasoning behind such comments can be seen as discriminatory. They are likely now fully aware, as Buchweitz noted in his July 26 letter, that “Any legal question regarding eruvin has been conclusively settled, as every court to have considered the matter, including the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (governing New Jersey), has determined that the creation of an eruv, including through the utilization of public utility poles for the attachment of lechis, is a reasonable accommodation of religious practice under the Free Exercise Clause.”

Buchweitz also noted the following: “It is distressingly clear to us that the Township’s take-down demand stems from opposition from a vocal minority of the community that is clearly based on rank religious animus. As you are likely aware, a vicious discriminatory campaign against the eruv expansion has been launched by residents in both Mahwah and adjacent towns, including the ‘Petition to Protect the Quality of Our Community in Mahwah.’ Illustrative examples of the public comments posted on this ‘Petition’ unfortunately speak for themselves: ‘Get those scum out of here,’ ‘They are clearly trying to annex land like they’ve been doing in Occupied Palestine. Look up the satanic verses of the Talmud and tell me what you see,’ ‘Our town is such a great place and if these things move in they will ruin it. They think they can do whatever the hell they want and we’ll be known as a dirty town if they move in. Please keep them out…,’ ‘I don’t want these rude, nasty, dirty people who think they can do what they want in our nice town,’ ‘I don’t want my town to be gross and infested with these nasty people,’ ‘I do not want these things coming into my town and ruining it.’ These ignorant and wildly anti-Semitic public comments are, of course, extremely troubling, and have no place in civilized society. We are also aware of, and deeply concerned about, news reports that certain lechis in Mahwah have been vandalized.”

The Mahwah Police Department has informed the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office that the eruv had been vandalized at four separate points in Mahwah between July 24 and July 25 and that it is investigating it as a bias crime.

According to Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council (OJPAC), the eruv was vandalized at 28 locations in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey overnight Wednesday, July 26, into July 27, days after the eruv was vandalized at four locations in Mahwah. The municipalities border each other as well as Rockland County. Both municipalities have also ordered the eruv association to remove the white PVC pipes that form the base of the eruv.

In a letter to Mayor Laforet, dated July 27, Agudath Israel of America expressed its “deep concern about Mahwah’s order to remove the ‘Eruv’...” This letter referenced the law firm’s letter and noted that “statements by opponents of the Eruv reek of anti-Semitism and anti-Orthodox animus...Clearly, what opponents of the Eruv are troubled by is...the continued growth of the Orthodox Jewish community of Mahwah. The fact that so many of those opponents make no effort to hide their hatred is shocking and should not be tolerated.” The letter concluded with the following statement: “We therefore urge you to reconsider Mahwah’s opposition to the Eruv and plead with you to allow the Eruv to continue to exist. Mahwah should respect and accommodate the needs of its observant Jewish community, not give in to the haters.”

M.C. Millman, Ronn Yaish and Ovadya Yaish contributed to this report.

By Elizabeth Kratz