The eruv battle in Mahwah is not getting better.
At the township’s meeting last week, council members and residents complained about being portrayed as haters. As they did so, they proposed changes to their park ordinances that appear to be in response to Orthodox Jews from Rockland County using their parks. Those changes explicitly would bar hanging string in the park. And that is all about the eruv.
Michael Cohen, the Englewood councilman who heads the East Coast office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, attended the meeting and was the last speaker that evening.
He brought along a friend, who also spoke against prejudice: Anthony Cureton, president of the Bergen County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Cureton was greeted with boos when he spoke of witnessing “hate” in the council meeting.
Mr. Cohen said that Mr. Cureton’s appearance at the meeting began when his friend approached him after he read about the eruv controversy. Mr. Cohen explained the situation, and Mr. Cureton reacted to it. “This is disgusting what’s going on,” Mr. Cureton told Mr. Cohen. “We have an opportunity to work together to fight discrimination here.”
Mr. Cureton got the go-ahead from his board to get involved on the issue. “This is the culmination of so much work we’ve done together over the years,” Mr. Cohen said.
But Mr. Cureton’s remarks were greeted less positively by Mahwah residents. “He played the race card,” someone can be heard saying on video as Mr. Cureton spoke.
“It gives me great pride to have that relationship with Mr. Cureton,” Mr. Cohen said later. “For him to reach out and do what he did — that exemplifies the way our communities should be working together.”
Mr. Cohen has attended every Mahwah township meeting since residents began protesting the extension of the Monsey eruv into the town, which borders Rockland. Mahwah is facing off in court against the organization that built the eruv. Mahwah says the plastic tubing on utility poles constitutes illegal signs; the eruv association says the threat to issue summons for the tubing on the poles constitutes unconstitutional religious discrimination.
“Being there at the meeting is very difficult,” Mr. Cohen said. “You feel the tension in the air. Some of the things you hear are things that can make you cringe.”
Take, for example, the claim that Mr. Cohen and other outsiders who have shown up at the meeting are there not because they believe in what they are saying but because they are paid to say it.
The video shows a council member asking Mr. Cohen: “Do you have any first-hand knowledge that people who come here aren’t being paid by certain people to come here and say what they’re saying?”
The council members resent being branded as anti-Semitic for opposing the eruv. “The things that are being said about this town and me, you know are garbage,” Councilman Rob Hermansen said at the meeting.
“People are sitting here in this town that never asked for this to happen,” he said. “There was no permission” requested for the eruv. “This happened in the dark of night, with no one telling anyone who was doing what. We did not give our permission to this.
“People came into our town and put things on our poles without permission. When people come into your town and start putting things up, without permission from the town, do you think you might question what’s going on?
“If I walk into Teaneck or Englewood and say we can break your rules, just so it’s convenient?”
He said that anti-Semitism did not fuel the town’s opposition to the eruv. “It’s not about trying to attack anyone,” he said. “It’s rules and regulations. If you follow them, you’ll get along great with us. If not, you end up where you are now.”
But Mr. Cohen wasn’t convinced.
“They claim they’re just trying to prevent their public sites from having anything they don’t want without approval,” he said. “But if you’re in the middle of an eruv battle, and you’re now legislating not to have string, it’s kind of clear what’s going on.”
Mr. Cohen urged the town to consider why Jews perceive that Mahwah residents react to the eruv because they are driven by anti-Semitism.
The townspeople didn’t want to listen. “We don’t want to hear you,” someone told Mr. Cohen before he spoke. “Get back to where you came from.”
One resident, Mr. Cohen said, “opened his comments saying that the Holocaust survivor who had spoken at another of these meetings was nothing but a fraud, that everyone coming to speak is just paid actors. There was an insinuation that Jewish activism is all about the stereotypical financial trail.
“He said we’re going to figure out what the money trail is and expose you.”
The Holocaust survivor, Sami Steigmann, frequently talks about his experiences and he is a volunteer at the Wiesenthal Center.
Meanwhile, Mahwah Strong, a Facebook group rallying opposition to the eruv, expressed optimism that the town will win its legal battle against the eruv, for which it has allocated $50,000. “MahwahStrong would like to commend the Mahwah Town Council on the law firms it has retained to fight the illegal pole attachments in Mahwah,” the group posted.
“Holwell, Shuster & Goldberg is an impressive legal firm comprised of former federal judges. Mahwah residents should feel confident based on their extraordinary record of high profile litigation wins. They certainly don’t take cases they plan on loosing.” [sic]
“They have also hired Nelson Madden Black to advise on the case. They are a law firm that specializes in First Amendment religion issues and are well regarded as knowledgeable and passionate in advocating for the rights of ALL people to practice their own faith, or not to practice.
“Thanks to the council, Mahwah is in a position that no one has ever been in before in this fight. Mahwah will prevail and this case will establish precedents that will help every municipality facing these issues across our state and across the country.”
Eruv advocates, on the other hand, point to a string of court victories when eruv cases are litigated in federal courts. That list includes the eruv in Tenafly, which was litigated a decade ago. It still stands today.