Blogging the eruv

Blogging the eruv

Teaneck man’s website chronicles litigation

Keith Kaplan
Keith Kaplan

Legal cases roll slowly.

There are motions and countermotions. Pleadings and replies. Stipulations and deadlines.

Each legal finding matters. Each carefully, expensively drafted legal document provides some clues about the case’s ultimate outcome.

But until the day comes when a verdict is issued or a settlement agreed to, it’s hard to say which of the moves on the legal chessboard constitute news.

Which is to say: a weekly paper can’t always provide up-to-the-minute reporting on the three lawsuits filed by the Rockland County eruv organization against three northwest Bergen County towns who want to keep the eruv out.

Luckily, for those readers who want to follow the day-by-day unspooling of the controversy, there is

Keith Kaplan is the man behind the website. He also maintains a Facebook page, Eruv Litigation, which features, among other things, a livestream of relevant Mahwah council meetings.

Mr. Kaplan is not a lawyer. He lives in Teaneck, where he is on the township planning board.

His entry into the world of eruv controversy came in July.

“One of my friends asked me, ‘Have you been following what’s going on with the eruv?,’” he said. “I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. I looked into it and I was shocked at some of the things that were going on.”

Among those things were an online petition calling on Mahwah to reject the eruv, along with open comments on the petition. “I saw the things they were saying about Jews,” he said. “Calling them disgusting and dirty. It blew my mind.”

So he decided to see what was going on.

“I asked a couple of friends if anyone was interested in seeing what was happening at the Mahwah council meeting. In late July, we went up and were floored by the hate and vitriol that were in that room.

“The following week we went to Upper Saddle River,” the town next to Mahwah that is battling against the eruv separately. “The crowd and administration had a very different stance. The attorney for the eruv litigation was there at the council, tamping down expectations. He explained that it was an uphill climb,” given that no court has yet ruled against an eruv. “It sort of tamped down the craziness in the room.”

A PVC pipe attached to a telephone pole in Upper Saddle River, helps form the eruv. (Ben Sales)

By contrast, he said, “In Mahwah we saw the same fear being amplified by the people in power.”

But while Kaplan and his friends from Teaneck — among them Councilman Mark Schwartz — were greeted with hostility by some Mahwah residents, others brought curiosity to the conversation. They wanted to know more about what an eruv is, and why their efforts to keep it out of their town were meeting so much resistance.

So EruvLitigation has a FAQ page, answering questions such as: What is an eruv? Who pays for the eruv? If you put up an eruv, can you put up crosses or other religious symbols? How much can eruv lawsuits cost? Who pays for them?

Then Mr. Kaplan started compiling copies of the court filings in all the litigation — the suits by the eruv committee against the towns of Upper Saddle River, Mahwah, and Montvale; the lawsuit by the state attorney general against Mahwah, and even the geographically distant but conceptually related lawsuit by the Orthodox Agudath Israel organization against Jackson Township in Ocean County.

And then he started filing his own Open Public Records Act requests. That got him hundreds of pages of township emails. “It was a way to let people see the information,” he said. “From the hits I’ve gotten on the website, thousands each week, clearly people are looking at it.”

He has friends who monitor the court filings on their Bloomberg terminals and keep him updated. He’s comfortable reading legal documents, though he is not a lawyer. He’s not as comfortable writing about the Jewish laws concerning an eruv. “I don’t know much about the halachot of eruvin. I use one. I certainly would not be able to tell you where it was if my life depended on it.

Keith Kaplan livestreams Mahwah council meetings on his Eruv Litigation Facebook page.

“When I went to create the FAQ, I went to my brother, who is an Orthodox rabbi in Oregon, and the rabbi of my shul.”

So what motivates him? Why run the website? Why go to Mahwah for council meetings, only to be booed when he tries to speak?

The answer, he said, comes in two parts.

“One part is that my family came here in the 1940s, in the middle of World War II, and then immediately started giving back. My grandfather was in the navy and army. He fought Nazis toward the end of the war.

“One of the first things my grandmother did when she had enough money was to get framed paintings of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence being signed. They hang in the office and my home.

“When I saw people being denied the right to move and the right to associate guaranteed in the Constitution, that got to me,” he said.

That’s the first part.

The second part came from Mahwah’s defense of its anti-eruv ordinance. “One of the reasons they gave as to why these ordinances are okay is that no one complained when the neighboring towns passed almost the same ordinance,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Mahwah wanted to pass the ordinance that Upper Saddle River passed.

“Why wasn’t it discrimination in Upper Saddle River? It probably was, but no one saw it. The Mahwah council president said it’s okay because other people did it before. If it’s okay in Mahwah, it will be okay in the next town and the next town and maybe my town.

“That’s why I had to show up. It’s not okay to exclude people. It was not okay in the 1800s when it was done to the Chinese, it was not okay in the 1970s when blacks and Hispanics were excluded in Mahwah by zoning.

“It’s not okay, and someone needs to say so. I’m very glad there’s a core group of people who have been showing up with me and have my back in that regard,” Mr. Kaplan said.

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