Jewish Boundary Markers Stir Tension Even in Diverse New Jersey Town

  • Vandalism of eruv leaps from suburbia to national spotlight
  • Hasidim are over the state line, and some want them to stay

One side says the fight in Mahwah, New Jersey, over plastic pipes clamped to utility poles is rooted in anti-Semitism. The other says it’s merely about enforcing an ordinance that governs outdoor displays.

Either way, it took about a month for the arrival of an eruv, a ritual boundary relied on by Orthodox Jewish communities, to spawn a 3,500-member online opposition group and two federal lawsuits. Then there’s the unknown vandal (or vandals) who’s traveled winding, wooded lanes at night, bashing the markers off the poles.

White plastic piping on a utility pole in Mahwah, N.J,

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Disagreements over eruvim, which ease some Sabbath restrictions, have erupted elsewhere in the U.S., notably in Miami Beach, Florida, and the Hamptons, along New York’s Atlantic Gold Coast. Supporters invoke their existence all over the world, and U.S. case law upholding their constitutional protection. Some foes cite aesthetic arguments or local bans, while others point to towns where ultra-religious Jewish majorities have political influence over land use and education spending.

The New Jersey fight, though, has a twist: the national backdrop of a newly emboldened right-wing hate movement, one that since the election of President Donald Trump has fueled an increase in reported bias incidents against ethnic, racial and religious minorities and gay people. In the past several weeks alone, according to published accounts, police have investigated reports of swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti in Oregon, Michigan and Washington, D.C.; an assault on a Muslim man in Maryland; and nooses on display in Florida and Alabama.

“Those damaged pipes are a hate crime,” Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet said of the eruv markers. “These are serious and dangerous times for all communities across the country. What are we doing?”

Building Fences

Both sides of the town’s schism insist there are no signs of an underlying extremist movement such as that driving white nationalists to march in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. At the same time, they’re learning how the daily travails of a New York City suburb, best known for its mountainous nature reservations, suddenly are the stuff of national significance.

Pedestrians walk along a street in Mahwah, N.J.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

“In the Hamptons, when Obama was president, there was a lot of hatred,” said Yehudah Buchweitz, a Manhattan attorney involved in the eruv cases in Westhampton, New York, and Mahwah. “Here, it’s gotten more press and it’s been more vitriolic. I think maybe there’s more attention on this one.”

Police have charged 80-year-old Edmund Zelhof with criminal mischief and accused him of tampering with part of the eruv that dips into his hometown of Upper Saddle River on the Mahwah border. Zelhof, reached at home, declined to comment.

Religious Ritual

State Attorney General Christopher Porrino has posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever has vandalized eight other utility poles in Mahwah to which the eruv markers were fixed.

“For him to get involved in a case at the local level is significant,” said Mahwah Police Chief James Batelli. Tips have taken investigators “to other counties,” he said.

A pink cross next to an eruv attached to a utility pole in Mahwah, N.J.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Mahwah, 28 miles (45 kilometers) northwest of Manhattan, has few, if any Hasidic Jewish residents. Over the township border in Ramapo, New York, meanwhile, once-sleepy villages have become Hasidic enclaves where a culture of marrying young and raising many children has fueled a population boom. A 26-mile eruv loop delineates areas where it’s permissible to carry personal items or push baby strollers and wheelchairs, activities ordinarily forbidden on the Sabbath.

In July, as half-inch white plastic piping started to appear south of the state line, Mahwah officials ordered the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association to dismantle its work, citing a sign ordinance. The association responded with a lawsuit against Mahwah, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark on Aug. 11, citing an “openly anti-Semitic campaign” by some in town, and township leaders swayed by “fear, xenophobia and religious animus.”

Civil Rights

A similar lawsuit was filed in Upper Saddle River and a third is planned for Montvale, other towns where officials have said eruvs violate local ordinances. In a landmark case elsewhere in Bergen County, a court ended a six-year legal battle by ordering Tenafly borough to leave an eruv intact and pay $325,000 in legal fees.

A cyclist rides past a church in Mahwah, N.J.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Online, the topic can turn ugly. A former councilman who started a petition, Protect the Quality of Our Community in Mahwah, ended it prematurely when some signers, anonymous or identified only by first name, used slurs to describe Hasidic Jews and said they were inhospitable to people of other faiths and manipulated public funds to their benefit. Some objected to busloads of Orthodox families visiting Mahwah parks on Sundays, saying they didn’t want the township to become an extension of Ramapo.

Mahwah Strong, a Facebook-based group that opposes the eruv, says the matter isn’t one of religion, according to spokeswoman Deb Kostroun. The sign ordinance, she says, should outweigh the permission granted by Orange & Rockland Utilities Inc. to allow the markers on its poles.

“It’s such an open, diverse community -- it really hurts what people are saying,” Kostroun said. The vandalism, she said, “is so not who we are.”

Anti-Semitism

Eight percent of Mahwah identifies as Native American, though their tribe, the Ramapough Indians, isn’t federally recognized. The township of nearly 26,000 has some 20 Christian, Hindu and Jewish houses of worship, whose leaders in March were among community members who condemned the painting of swastikas in Mahwah and Ridgewood.

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League, the international civil-rights group, recorded 157 instances of anti-Semitism in New Jersey, a 14 percent increase from the prior year. In July, vandals displayed a banner with a web address for a hate group on a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood, home to one of the world’s largest Hasidic yeshivas.

“We’re seeing individuals and groups that feel empowered and emboldened to speak out and act,” said Joshua Cohen, director of the ADL’s state chapter. “I don’t think you can deny the impact of the 2016 campaign and election.”

Trump built his base on criticism of non-Americans, promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban visitors from Muslim countries. On Aug. 23, a day after Trump at a rally in Phoenix defended his response to Charlottesville violence that left a counter-protester dead, a group of rabbis said they wouldn’t take part in an annual high holy days phone call begun by former President Barack Obama.

“President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year,” the rabbis, representing Jewish Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, said in a statement. They would use the season, they said, “to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism.”

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