The town of Upper Saddle River is the latest hotspot in the South Monsey eruv debate, which, over the course of the last several weeks, has begun to enrage residents of towns in parts of Bergen County that border Rockland County. On social media in particular, personal attacks and hate speech against those who are attempting to build or maintain the eruv, has risen to the point of daily newspaper and television coverage, and sent residents to town council meetings by the hundreds. The issue of the eruv is muddied with concerns regarding the Chasidim who sit on the school board in East Ramapo, Chasidim who visit local parks in Bergen County, and reports of real estate agents knocking on doors and asking residents to sell their homes for cash.
Upper Saddle River Mayor Joanne Minichetti told an engaged, alert and at times angry crowd of over 200 on Thursday evening, that they needed to be careful with their words, as their comments were likely being monitored by the plaintiffs, who had just sued the town the previous Friday to allow for the repair and upkeep of its installed PVC piping for the eruv. It had been vandalized the previous week in multiple places by Edmund Zelhof, an 80-year-old Upper Saddle River resident who was charged with criminal mischief, a disorderly persons offense, according to a police department press release. While the investigation is continuing, police did not say whether it was investigating the incident as a bias crime, though other vandalizations in other nearby municipalities have investigated as such.
The eruv, which is part of the South Monsey Eruv Fund’s attempt to extend a 26-mile stretch of land inside an eruv to enclose the towns with Jewish residents in Airmont and Chestnut Ridge, has met with heavy opposition in the towns of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale, which are the only nearby towns with utility poles, which the eruv fund legally rented from the Orange & Rockland utility company in June. All three towns have indicated plans to fight the eruv’s installation.
After listening to multiple remarks by individuals complaining about the eruv’s unattractiveness, and the concern that the town will not be overrun by “them” and “non-residents,” the mayor cautioned the assembled repeatedly that anti-Semitic speech would not be allowed or tolerated.
Michael Cohen, Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was shouted down and interrupted by town residents repeatedly, who did not allow him to complete his statement, after having stood, for over an hour, waiting to be heard. At least a dozen people purposely got up and went to the microphone to speak in front of him after he had already waited an hour to speak, as they had been told by the council that residents of Upper Saddle River would be heard before non-residents. All of the speakers before Cohen expressed opposition to the eruv.
Finally, Cohen said: “I hope that this experience here tonight is not an indication of your unwillingness to hear other perspectives. And I hope we can work together to figure out how this town and other towns and the Jewish world together, can work to make sure that our communal aspirations are realized and that you can hear other perspectives,” he said.
Lawrence Gorga, an Upper Saddle River resident who followed Cohen in speaking, addressed him directly and accused him of building the eruv without the town’s permission, clearly unaware that the Simon Wiesenthal Center is a human rights organization, which was there not to speak about the eruv but in an attempt to prevent hate speech from being perpetrated. “If you wanted to have an open dialogue, why didn’t you tell us what you were going to do before you did it?” He was interrupted by sustained applause before continuing. “Why didn’t you approach us and say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this, what are your ideas?’ But no.”
Gorga then called for the mayor’s resignation, to sustained applause and catcalls, saying she had lost the support of the town. “I feel even stronger tonight than I felt in November: Joanne, you’re not fit for this job. You’re not qualified. We’re fighting for the soul of our town, and the town has no confidence in you. He then addressed Roger DeBerardine, the council president, saying, ‘your expiration date was 15 years ago.’” Gorga was, according to public records, convicted in 2016 of third-degree aggravated assault and third-degree terroristic threats, stemming from an incident described in public records as punching his 70-year-old neighbor with a disability in the face, breaking his nose. He was noted by the following speaker as a person with extreme views who was in the minority. The new speaker noted he had not personally lost confidence in the mayor or the council.
Upper Saddle River Retains Counsel
Bruce Rosen, a partner in the firm of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, P.C., was retained last Monday as special counsel to the town of Upper Saddle River. An experienced federal litigator who represented Tenafly in its case against the Tenafly Eruv Association 15 years ago, told the group that a difficult process lay ahead.
“The average federal case takes a year to two years to go through channels and be heard. A lot of the law is out there already. And a lot of the law out there is contrary to what you say and think about this issue. I implore you to read it because it is the law, and there is very little we can do.
“This is not an easy road to hoe, but the town is going to try to aggressively defend its ordinances. You have a sign ordinance but the Third Circuit has already said this is not a sign. That is not within this council’s power to undo.
“I handled the case of the Tenafly Eruv many years ago, which we won in the district court and lost in the Third Circuit. And I implore you all to read that Third Circuit case which you can Google in two seconds, because it sets forth a community that was hostile, and said a lot of things that should not have been said. I am not saying those things were said tonight, but it clearly evidenced some discriminatory behavior, that the courts took upon themselves—the court said in the Tenafly case—they were residents unlike the plaintiffs here—but they said that those residents were treated differently when it came to putting things on the poles. Those poles are different that the poles here, I believe. The poles there were used for Christmas decorations, for lost dogs. The law of the land is that the poles have to be treated equally for secular purposes and religious purposes, and that may be one of the tests here. I have been assured by the zoning officer and others here that the poles here are guarded a little more zealously than they were in Tenafly.
“But the truth is this case is about equal treatment. Is there equal treatment or is there not equal treatment? And we’ll get to that. But the courts are hostile to towns that try to stop eruvs. If you don’t believe me, just google it. Recently in Westhampton, there was another case, it went up to the Second Circuit. This is something that is well beyond this town. You now have the court for New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and you have the court for New York and Connecticut, federal courts have said these are first amendment rights to be treated equally,” said Rosen.
Resident Thomas Brophy said the following: There are some tenets in Jewish law, to form an eruv, and the town is divided on ‘should we have an eruv, or should we have an appropriate eruv?’ An appropriate eruv blends into the neighborhood. I personally went to Tenafly, I took pictures of the telephone poles. It’s the same cable jacketing that Verizon used and frankly, it took me awhile to find it. It’s on a street called Hudson Avenue, you can see it. The second tenet in Jewish law, which seems to always be changing, because there’s no PVC pipe in the Torah (Brophy had to pause for the sustained laughter and applause this comment created), is agreement with the community, and the group that installed this eruv, their agreement with the community is a letter from 1999 with Pat Schuber, which doesn’t quantify to any reasonable standard as agreement from a community. They didn’t meet with the leadership of the town. Quite honestly, they don’t deserve to let that eruv stand.”
Rosen indicated that the court does not care about Jewish law regarding the eruv, that the law only is concerned with free practice of religion. “There are a lot of settled principles and unsettled principles,” said Rosen. “Doing this in the strongest way possibly, not stupidly, not blinding but carefully, and not running into court to try to just declare a victory. Suffice it to say the issues are complex, and must be done carefully, and we have a lot of studying to do, some interviewing to do, to find out what happened, before we file an answer,” he said.
Cohen, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in an interview after the meeting, said that he hoped elected officials can come together and change the tenor of the conversation, which right now is extraordinarily negative and filled with hate speech. "Elected leaders in the affected municipalities have conveyed to me that the anti-Semitic tone surrounding the eruv issue do not represent the views of their overall communities but only the views of a few of their loudest residents. My answer has been simple: in a vacuum, the loudest views prevail. It rests on the backs of the leadership, elected and otherwise to step in and emphatically change the narrative."
By Elizabeth Kratz