Featuring 15 water slides, cabanas, and an enormous wave pool, the largest indoor water park in the United States is open to all customers almost every day of the year.
The calendar for the DreamWorks Water Park at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford features blackout dates Monday, October 2, and Wednesday, October 4. Those are two days in chol hamoed Sukkot this year.
But while the park’s website says “No Tickets available,” that isn’t actually the case.
Patrons can head over to an Instagram page affiliated with the mall and aimed at Jewish visitors, called “L’chaim American Dream,” where they will see water park tickets being sold at $79 a pop for those days.
But there’s a twist: The tickets are technically for a private event at the water park, hosted by a separate company that will segregate attendees by gender. On October 2, the park is open to women only. Two days later, is it open only to men.
The gender-segregated hours are meant to serve charedi Jews who abide by strict modesty laws prohibiting men and women from wearing revealing clothing — such as bathing suits — in public. Having separate times for men and women would allow customers to use the waterpark while remaining tsniusdik — that is to say, appropriately modest.
It’s one of the many ways the mall, which opened in 2020, caters to an Orthodox clientele — along with a food court that boasts 13 kosher restaurants and a department store that stocks clothing that adheres to strict religious standards for modest dress. The American Dream mall, which is accessible to Orthodox communities in New Jersey, Brooklyn, and upstate New York and houses a host of activities appropriate for young children, has made itself into a top destination for Orthodox families.
Families are expected to flood to its attractions — including miniature golf courses, ice skating, a theme park and more — during the middle days of Sukkot, when charedi yeshivas generally are closed and outings are de rigueur.
In its outdoor spaces, the mall will house many sukkot. But the water park’s gender-segregated hours represent the most substantive change planned for the holiday.
“Most women to the right of left-wing modern Orthodox would seek out this kind of arrangement in order to swim,” said Rifka Wein Harris, a charedi attorney who has advocated for changes in the way Orthodox Jews are portrayed in the media. Otherwise, she said, “I would only swim in a women’s-only environment that was not subject to public view,” such as one that was “gated or enclosed or indoors, around other women.”
Yet for those who advocate for Orthodox women’s inclusion, gender segregation on a weekday afternoon at a large suburban mall has set off alarm bells.
“Individuals can make their own decisions as to how they want to conduct their religious practice,” said Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “But to have a large corporate entity make these kinds of decisions for everyone is problematic.”
The water park has offered men- and women-only hours in the past, geared toward Orthodox customers on Sukkot, as well as on Chanukah and the intermediate days of Passover. On those holidays, as on chol hamoed Sukkot, observant Jews aren’t prohibited from engaging in commerce or swimming, and their children’s schools sometimes are closed for vacation.
But in the past, those opportunities have been offered at night, after the park’s normal business hours.
“This is really the first time we’re doing something during daytime hours, which is usually open for the public,” said a representative of American Dream who responded to an inquiry but declined to give their name or title. “You’re expecting that most of the public or the kids are in school and not coming during that time. We’re able to close it, close up for gender-separated hours, during these specific days.”
The mall is operated by Triple Five Group, a Canadian conglomerate owned by the Ghermezian family, who are Jewish and also own the Mall of America. In this case, the gender-segregated days are being run under the auspices of a private company that rented the water park for those hours, according to the American Dream representative, who declined to disclose the company’s name.
For some charedi customers, the accommodation is welcome. “This is our [only] chance to go swimming at all, other than the bungalow colony,” Ms. Wein Harris said, referring to summer vacation complexes in upstate New York that often offer separate swimming hours to accommodate Orthodox guests. “And for people like me who don’t have a bungalow, we never swim.”
But Ms. Lazar Price says the gender-segregated hours are of a piece with “alarming growing trends” she has witnessed — and she isn’t alone. Elana Sztokman, a feminist activist and sociologist, has watched with concern as Orthodox magazines and advertisements have declined to show women’s faces. Now, she says, it seems to her that American Dream is encouraging a communal impulse to separate genders in a way that will abet the exclusion of women.
“Suddenly what it means to be religious for a man means to be in a completely woman-free world,” she said. “You can’t have women on the streets, you can’t have women near you.
“These dynamics tell you that this has nothing to do with protecting women. It has to do with creating women-free zones so that men don’t have to deal with the fact that women exist.”
Gender segregation in public spaces has long been hotly debated in Israel, which has a large charedi community with political representatives who now hold prominent positions in Israel’s right-wing government. Some public buses in Israel have enforced gender separation, and there has been a proposal to have some publicly maintained natural springs do so at times.
Dr. Sztokman, who lives in Israel, sees a common thread between the policy at American Dream mall and the separation of men and women in her country.
“I feel like what’s happening in America is an extension of this because the charedi communities are connected; the religious communities are connected,” she said. “If one practice becomes a norm then in one place, then the other communities have to ‘keep up with the Cohens’ kind of thing.
“You can’t be less religious than your religious cousin across the ocean. You have to keep up.”
In the United States, institutions that attempt to enforce gender segregation in order to appeal to charedi customers have run afoul of the law. In 2018, a federal appeals court ruled that an over-55 condominium complex in the heavily Orthodox city of Lakewood was in violation of the Fair Housing Act because it offered separate swimming hours for men and women. Three non-Orthodox residents, including a married couple, filed a lawsuit against the complex after they were fined for refusing to get out of the pool when coed swimming hours had finished.
But when it comes to public accommodations such as publicly accessible swimming pools, the law appears to be different, said Michael Helfand, a scholar of religious law and religious liberty at Pepperdine University who is also a legal adviser to a branch of the Orthodox Union.
“Generally you can’t do this,” Dr. Helfand said. “But New Jersey has an exception that allows this kind of gender separation, gender exclusion under some circumstances.”
The federal Civil Rights Act does not bar discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sex. The New Jersey law that Dr. Helfand cited permits a number of establishments to restrict entry by sex if they are places that could be “reasonably restricted exclusively to individuals of one sex.” The list includes summer and day camps, resorts, dressing rooms, bathhouses, gyms, schools, and swimming pools.
“There’s strong reason to think that having separate hours at a private New Jersey swimming pool would not subject the swimming pool to liability under New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law,” Dr. Helfand said. “There’s likely intuition that under some circumstances, that kind of gender separation, given a particular clientele, given a particular business might, quote-unquote, make sense.”
Ms. Wein Harris is excited by the prospect of enjoying an environment that accords with her religious requirements at an attraction that bills itself as the “largest indoor water park in North America.”
“I am overwhelmingly happy that our needs are being seen in a world where they’re not otherwise being seen,” she said.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency