‘A scary time for us’
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‘A scary time for us’

Rockland’s Jewish community reacts as insults fly over yeshiva and shul zoning proposals

The proposed sale of the Grace Baptist Church building in Nanuet, above, to Atetes Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland has provoked opposition from a group called Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods of Greater Nanuet.
The proposed sale of the Grace Baptist Church building in Nanuet, above, to Atetes Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland has provoked opposition from a group called Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods of Greater Nanuet.

Rockland Jewish leaders fear that increased citizen activism on zoning issues may be bleeding into anti-Semitism.

“Citizens have the right and duty to get together and organize themselves to respond to developments they’re not comfortable with,” Gary Siepser said. “That’s America. That’s a good thing. Where it becomes problematic is where the conversation doesn’t have a good factual basis, or is motivated by bigotry or gross misconceptions about people. Frequently at these meetings there are statements made that are hate-filled and don’t reflect the facts of the situation.”

Mr. Siepser is the chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County in West Nyack.

He was responding to the initial meeting of Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods of Greater Nanuet. The meeting was on January 10, the group has raised more than $11,000 in an online crowdfunding campaign. The meeting drew more than 500 people to Nanuet High School’s auditorium and was called in response to the proposed sale of Grace Baptist Church’s building to Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland. The school, housed in trailers seven miles away in New Hempstead, now educates 300 girls. If it were to move to Nanuet, the yeshiva would be able to enroll 450. The school, which goes from preschool through high school, offers a full secular curriculum, including Advanced Placement courses.

Rabbi Aaron Fink, the school’s dean, had been the principal of Ashar, Rockland’s modern Orthodox elementary school. In 2014, the Forward hailed him as an inspiring rabbi for the warmth he showed to a couple who had left the chasidic community of Kiryas Joel and wanted to enroll their daughter in his school.

“Rabbi Fink’s degree of tolerance comes at a price in this community of mostly chasidic and ultra-Orthodox families, where the liberal Orthodox population is nearly extinct,” the writer Frimet Goldberger, who was the mother in this anecdote, wrote. “He is religiously suspected by other rabbis and people in Monsey.”

In Nanuet, Rabbi Fink found himself under suspicion by potential neighbors, who were not Jewish.

“We don’t want you,” one resident shouted at a meeting about the sale of the property last year.

After the CUPON meeting in Nanuet, the Rockland County Republican Party’s Facebook page reported that the meeting was “focused on how the community can protect themselves from a hostile invasion.”

That’s the kind of language that Mr. Siepser finds disturbing.

The day after the meeting, the Clarkstown building inspector denied the yeshiva a permit to operate in the church, the Journal News reported this week. To open, the yeshiva would have to get a zoning variance from the town.

Of course, for the opponents of the yeshiva, the issue isn’t simply the changes to traffic patterns or occupancy plans that were the subjects of complaints and the grounds for the denial. It’s a fear that permitting a yeshiva would herald a change in the nature of Nanuet — and ultimately, of the entire town of Clarkstown, which encompasses it. Clarkstown borders on Ramapo, which includes the growing Orthodox communities centered on Monsey, and Clarkstown residents are mindful of the conflicts in the East Ramapo school board, where control rests in the hands of Orthodox Jews who do not send their own children to the public schools.

Garry Siepser

In Chestnut Ridge, next to Nanuet, activists have organized CUPON Chestnut Ridge to fight efforts by village officials to change the zoning codes to legalize shtibels — the in-house congregations common in the ultra-Orthodox community. The proposed revised zoning ordinance would allow the village to authorize residential houses of worship that could hold up to 49 people, as well as larger neighborhood congregations that would require extra parking but would be smaller than the full-sized congregations that require five acres of property.

CUPON Chestnut Ridge says it has brought in hundreds of complaints against the proposed change, which the village may pass next month; there already have been several hearings. On the CUPON Chestnut Ridge’s Facebook page, the group complained that while village officials gave them a chance to speak at a hearing earlier this month, their objections seemed to have been noted but ignored.

On the other side, a group of the village’s self-described ultra-Orthodox synagogues filed suit against the village last week. They claim the village’s zoning ordinances discriminate against religious institutions by requiring they be located on five acres of land, infringing on the First Amendment rights of Orthodox Jews and violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Some of the language being used, particularly in comments on Facebook pages, disturbs Steve Gold, the chairman of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

He compares the uproar over the effort to bring a yeshiva to Nanuet to “growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the ‘60s. When the first black person moved in, everybody was freaking out and saying it’s going to ruin the neighborhood. Of course it didn’t.

“CUPON talks about keeping the community in the spirit it was. I don’t know what that way was. I don’t know what makes one group of people or one religious group change that. People are reacting unfairly because of what happened in one community.

“There are issues in the ultra-Orthodox community. That doesn’t mean every religious school echoes what every other religious school is doing. They hear the word yeshiva and one of the leaders of the Republican party says it’s like a hostile invasion. These are the words that you hear.

“Even with the outbreak of the measles — some of the posts on Facebook are absolutely disgusting. Calling them” — ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t vaccinate their children — “animals and pigs. One person said they should just lock them in their homes and bomb them.

“A lot of these Facebook groups are causing this agitation. They post these outrageous statements and stories just so people can react to them. It’s horrible.”

Mr. Gold says he feels embarrassed to say he lives in Rockland County.

“The division and the hate that has arisen over the past couple of years is disgusting. My concern is that as the November election comes closer, the rhetoric is going to get worse. ‘We’re going to make sure we don’t become East Ramapo’ is going to be the slogan for everybody.

“A lot of the politicians and party leaders are talking to their bases. That’s sad. The base is not what Rockland County is about. Rockland County is about diversity, which we’ve always had and always enjoyed, without the hatred that is so public now.”

Mr. Gold’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and what he sees on Rockland’s anti-development and anti-Orthodox Facebook pages bothers him.

“It’s scary,” he said. “Some posts said that Hitler didn’t do his job. When we tell these Facebook pages that there’s a horrible post, they’ll say they can’t monitor everything but we’ll take it down.

“I believe if you are going to have a public post, you have a responsibility to monitor what people will write. It’s a scary time for us.”

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