Thursday, January 24, 2019

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I applaud you for printing a couple of minority viewpoints concerning the recent “South Monsey” eruv controversy. Quite frankly, I’m shocked that most of the articles and editorials were of the identical tone to one another. The assumption by most journalists has been that the vocal residents of Mahwah who oppose the South Monsey Eruv Association’s expansion are motivated by a spirit of anti-Semitism and their angry words are further evidence of this anti-Semitism. Before these town residents are quickly dismissed as being ignorant and anti-Semitic, we should ask two questions:

1. Is the South Monsey’s Eruv Association’s planned expansion into Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale akin to the prior eruv controversies in Tenafly and Westhampton Beach?

2. Do the town residents of Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale have any legitimate cause for concern?

Before I address both of those questions, I must preface my comments as follows: I have over 100 cousins whom I adore and respect who live in the largely ultra-Orthodox towns of Lakewood and Monsey. My mother in-law lives in Monsey and I lived in Monsey before moving to Teaneck. I am very comfortable visiting both towns. That said, I know those communities well enough to speak objectively about them without being afraid that someone will brand me a “self-hating Jew.”

1. Before the eruv controversies began in Westhampton Beach and Tenafly, there were residents of those towns who identified as Modern Orthodox and who were members of Modern Orthodox shuls that were also located in those same towns. The simple fact is there are no Orthodox Jews who now live in Mahwah, Upper Saddle River or Montvale. There is not even a Chabad house in any of those three towns. That is a major and important distinction to make, and is simply being ignored in this whole controversy. Why build an eruv in a town when there are no town residents who are requesting it or requiring it? The only answer I have heard is that the residents of Chestnut Ridge, New York, require the expanded eruv so that they can walk freely on Shabbat. That explanation is entirely implausible because there is an existing eruv that covers their community and enables them to walk freely to shul and to Shabbat lunches. If those Chestnut Ridge residents are afraid they will venture on a late Shabbat afternoon walk and accidentally stumble across the eruv boundaries, my answer is: “get the eruv map and study it.” That rationale for expansion is as ludicrous as the Teaneck eruv expanding into Bogota or Ridgefield Park.

2. The reality is that both Monsey and Lakewood have become large ultra-Orthodox enclaves over the past 30 years. Many view the number of full-time learners at BMG in Lakewood to be a source of pride and blessing for all Jews. The other side of the coin is that both towns have grown rapidly in total population and that growth has brought problems. When small ranch homes have been replaced by large multi-family homes in Monsey, that has led to major traffic delays on Main Street as cars are forced to wait for yeshiva school buses to make stops at each of the different multi-family complexes on that street. If long-term residents had only traffic issues to resent, I might be inclined to dismiss those concerns as trivial. The fact remains that in both Monsey and Lakewood, the ultra-Orthodox residents are now most of the population and have been able to easily get elected onto the local school boards even though they do not send their children to the local public schools. Since these school boards have been taken over by ultra-Orthodox Jews, public school funding has decreased, the schools have dropped in state rankings, and the public school children have suffered. Much to the dismay of the public school parents and teachers, they are unable to elect new school board members because the ultra-Orthodox represent most of the eligible voters. By contrast, both Tenafly and Teaneck public schools are ranked high in state rankings. The concern among Mahwah residents is that the ultra-Orthodox Jews from Monsey will attempt to secure seats on the Mahwah school board and institute similar policies that are not in the best interests of public school children. There are now over 100 ultra-Orthodox shuls in the greater Monsey area. Most of these “shuls” are in private residences. Because families allow davening in their homes on Shabbat, they are exempt from paying real estate taxes. Although these tax breaks are entirely legal, town residents are resentful that such tax breaks will hurt the local school system.

Are the concerns of Mahwah residents unfounded? Do Monsey residents have no need or intention of ever purchasing a home in Mahwah? I do not know the answer to that question. But, history speaks for itself. The Monsey metropolitan community is now bursting at its seams. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have moved into Pomona, Suffern, Chestnut Ridge and Pearl River. Twenty years ago, ultra-Orthodox Jews did not live in those communities. The same scenario has occurred in Lakewood with ultra-Orthodox Jews moving from Lakewood into the nearby communities of Jackson and Toms River. If the rapid population growth in both Lakewood and Monsey has warranted expansion into nearby communities, there is no reason to think that any nearby community would not be an attractive target for future expansion.

A smarter strategy would have been to have set a historical precedent of being a good neighbor, contributing in a positive way to the local public schools and community organizations. Because the track record of the ultra-Orthodox in both Lakewood and Monsey has been the opposite of this, it should not be surprising that nearby towns are not welcoming the ultra-Orthodox with open arms. The sentiment of “don’t do to my town what you did to your own” should not be classified as anti-Semitic rhetoric when the facts speak for themselves. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Lakewood and Monsey should use this controversy as a wake-up call to take stock of themselves and examine how they might enhance their local public schools and communities rather than prioritizing the expansion of their eruv into communities where they do not reside.

Penny Sarina