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Monday, February 24, 2020

 New Jersey’s Jewish residents, as well as all residents in favor of reasonable free practice of religion, breathed a sigh of relief when a three-pronged state-brought federal lawsuit involving the Township of Mahwah's fight against the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association was settled out of court this week.

An eruv is a complete, circuitous series of unobtrusive wire markers, sometimes called lechis, placed on trees or utility poles that establish a religious border around a community, allowing observant Jews to move, carry items and push strollers or wheelchairs on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.

Eleven months ago, in a decisive show of support for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals established precedent of eruv legality, New Jersey’s Attorney General, along with the directors of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Civil Rights, brought suit to the Township of Mahwah, a 25,000-resident town in northwest Bergen County, on the New York border. The Bergen Rockland Association was represented pro-bono in all legal proceedings by the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, which successfully argued the precedent-granting case involving another New Jersey town; “The Tenafly Eruv Association vs. The Borough of Tenafly,” decided in 2002 and upheld several times since.

Last October, then-Attorney General Chris Porrino said he considered what he witnessed in Mahwah as a civil rights violation the attempt to ban Orthodox Jews from the township’s public parks. This, combined with a resident outcry against the recently, and legally erected, eruv, on utility company-owned poles, and subsequent anti-Orthodox Jewish public statements by both town council members and residents, were seen as anti-Semitic, and illegal. The Department of Environmental Protection was included in the suit because Mahwah’s parks are beneficiaries of state-sponsored Green Acres funds, and the town would have to forfeit those funds if they were to ban certain groups or out-of-state residents from entering or using its parks. One of two state-alleged unlawful ordinances involved Mahwah's parks ban. The second banned the eruv. 

The summer of 2017 was characterized by residents, advocates and elected officials from nearby Bergen County towns attending and speaking out at Mahwah (and two other towns who opposed the eruv's encroachment in their towns, Montvale and Upper Saddle River) council meetings, with many making heartfelt pleas against bigotry, xenophobia and the eruv ban. Holocaust survivors as well as representatives of the NAACP and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as several other Jewish and anti-hate advocacy groups, who decried the inflammatory language of the meetings and pleaded for civility.

The settlement, reached with now-Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, who was Bergen County’s prosecutor during the summer of 2017 and was part of the original complaint’s drafting, made the following points:

Mahwah agreed to 1) Not violate NJ’s Law Against Discrimination in any future decisions, 2) Notify the AG before introducing any new laws affecting access to township parks, 3) Notify the AG before introducing any new laws affecting posting on utility poles, 4) Modify township code to make it clear that devices on utility poles other than signs are unregulated, 5) Make a public statement against discrimination and harassment of others in township parks, 6) Keep records of complaints related to existing ordinances governing township park use and present a quarterly report on their enforcement to the AG, 7) Allow lechis to be installed on utility poles in the township and investigate any damage to them as a criminal offense and 8), Make a suspended payment of $350k to the AG for legal fees and penalties. The payment will be cancelled after four years if no evidence of further discrimination is found, at which point notifications and quarterly reports will no longer be required.

“The results of the settlement was a major rebuke to the Mahwah council with potential financial penalties, the need for major record keeping and limitations on future actions,” said Dr. Lisa Wisotsky, an Englewood community leader who was active in the eruv advocacy efforts. “Mahwah Council President Robert Hermansen and the rest of the council have been put on a very short leash. Those of us who opposed the actions of the Mahwah council will continue to remain vigilant as will the Attorney General,” added Wisotsky.

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Eastern Director Michael Cohen attended every Mahwah council meeting. “This unambiguous and comprehensive settlement is a clear victory for all of those who remained steadfast in opposition to discrimination, bias and anti-Semitism. Both myself, my colleagues at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the incredibly dedicated group of individuals with whom we stood at every Mahwah Town Council meeting for months have demonstrated that when we fight against intolerance we can be successful and that good people such as the Attorney General, the Governor and others will stand by our side for what is right and just,” he said in a statement to The Jewish Link.

Keith Kaplan, a Teaneck community leader who was elected to his township council this past June, was one of the most visible, vocal Jewish speakers in Mahwah council meetings, as well as council meetings in neighboring towns. He quoted the Constitution in op-eds and Mahwah’s council chamber and sparred online with Mahwah residents. He explained that in previous years, neighboring municipalities passed similar rules to place limits on mobility of those they deemed “undesirable.”

“Mahwah's council very nearly got away with the same practices, stoking flames of resentment and anger with discriminatory ordinances. This goes to underscore the reason I and others took time to attend Mahwah's meetings and call out this insidious behavior. Those that called out the actions of Mahwah forged the path for this victory against hatred and intolerance,” he told The Jewish Link.

“It's my hope, as the Township settles with the state and promises to treat everyone with equality, that this very dark chapter in our county's history will never be repeated. There were many chances to avoid such a stain on Mahwah's reputation.  Instead, council members joined angry mobs, engaged in anti-Semitic taunts, mocked a Holocaust survivor and worse.

“The settlement will restrain certain actions, but it can't heal the wounds ripped open by these elected representatives. They must find that path on their own and I hope they will,” added Kaplan.