The Orthodox community in Monsey, which is in New York State’s Rockland County, would like to extend its eruv south to enclose parts of three Bergen County towns, Mahwah, Upper Saddle River, and Montvale.
Last month, Mahwah’s township council passed a law that would have barred non-New Jersey residents from using the town’s recreational facilities.
But that law raises Constitutional concerns and should not be enforced. That’s the message Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal sent Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli last week, on the day the law was set to take effect.
The letter agreed with Mr. Batelli, who had raised concerns in a letter he sent to the prosecutor last week. The county prosecutor oversees all county law enforcement, including local municipal police forces.
New Jersey police officers are barred from considering “a person’s race or ethnicity” when considering whether they might have violated the law. The Mahwah Police Department, however, has reported many calls by residents asking that the ordinance be used against “individuals perceived by the callers to be out-of-state members of the chasidic Jewish community,” as the prosecutor’s letter back to the police chief put it.
A police officer targeting Jews when questioning park users about their home addresses conceivably could be committing a crime, the prosecutor wrote.
Meanwhile, portions of the eruv in Mahwah were damaged, in what his department is investigating as a bias crime.
Joshua Cohen, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional director, issued a statement about the eruv. “We are deeply disturbed by the apparent targeting of this symbolic religious boundary of importance to observant Jews,” the statement said. “We are concerned that the township’s decision to order removal of the eruv has reinforced and stoked misunderstanding, fears and even hatred towards Mahwah’s Orthodox Jewish community.
“We are pleased that the Mahwah Police Department is investigating this incident as a potential hate crime. Community leaders and elected officials should come together to condemn this incident and commit to making strides to foster an inclusive and welcoming community.”
On Tuesday, Mahwah Mayor William Laforet said his town’s letter to the eruv committee, demanding that the eruv be taken down by Friday, still stood.
Last week, however, the town received a letter from a Manhattan law firm, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which represents the eruv committee.
The letter noted that the firm had successfully represented, pro bono, eruv associations in Tenafly and the Hamptons. Federal appeals courts in two districts, the letter noted, had ruled that lechis — the strips attached to utility poles that demarcate the eruv — are not considered signs within the meaning of municipal ordinances, and that municipalities have a First Amendment obligation to allow them as protected religious practice.
The letter noted that the eruv committee would have legal grounds against the town, including a claim of legal fees.
The law firm also attached a 1990 letter from President George H. W. Bush, congratulating Congregation Kesher Israel and Washington’s Orthodox community on the inauguration of the District of Columbia’s first eruv. Kesher Israel’s rabbi at the time, Barry Freundel, was consulted as a national expert on eruvim, until his arrest in 2014 on voyeurism charges.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who runs the Rockland eruv and oversaw its expansion into Bergen County, said the expansion should not be seen as an attempt to claim the area for the Jewish community. “There’s no connection between the place you put the eruv to where people use it,” he said.
Rabbi Steinmetz said the Rockland eruv was being expanded into Bergen County to accommodate hundreds of families living in Airmont and other Rockland towns whose homes were outside the eruv. The eruv ran along some families’ sidewalks, keeping them outside it — but making clear that it was tantalizingly close.
“For a long time those people were asking to be in the eruv,” Rabbi Steinmetz said.
But no road cuts straight across the southern part of Rockland. Eruv designers want to set the eruv up along straight stretches of road, because that would make it far shorter than it would be if it had to wind through cul de sacs. And the more direct the eruv, the less maintenance it requires.
Rabbi Steinmetz said he first approached Saddle River two years ago. “At the time they said, no, we don’t want to have it,” he said. Unlike the situation in Tenafly and the Hamptons, there was no local community within the town to advocate for the eruv expansion.
More recently, Rabbi Steinmetz’s attorneys told him that the eruv needed permission only from the utility company, which owns the poles and wires the eruv is based on, and from the police officials whose job it is to oversee utility work.
The committee obtained those permissions in Upper Saddle River and Mahwah. It is still waiting on Montvale.
While Upper Saddle River also has issued a takedown notice on the eruv — which the eruv lawyers also pushed back against — last week it allowed the eruv committee to repair damage to the eruv.
“This is now going to be the fifth Shabbos the eruv is up” in Upper Saddle River,” Rabbi Steinmetz said.