IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Battle over religious symbol roils tony town

In a village at the gateway to the Hamptons, the Long Island playground for the ultra-rich, a battle has erupted over a symbol for Orthodox Jews, pitting them against their more secular neighbors.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They are largely invisible, sometimes as simple as a small, plastic marker affixed to a utility pole. There's one around the White House and one in Manhattan that sprawls from the East River to the Hudson.

Now, in a village at the gateway to the Hamptons, the eastern Long Island playground for the ultra-rich, a battle has erupted over this religious symbol for Orthodox Jews, pitting them against their more secular neighbors.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who counts New York Gov. David Paterson among his friends, wants the Westhampton Beach mayor and village board to approve the placement of the religious boundary called an eruv, which would allow observant Jews to perform minor tasks on their Sabbath or on religious holidays like Rosh Hashana, which was observed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

'Creating a division'
The proposal has stirred controversy among the 2,000 full-time residents of Westhampton Beach, a community 75 miles east of Manhattan where the population can grow to 20,000 in the summer. Mayor Conrad Teller says 85 percent of village residents oppose the eruv, and several groups have sprung up to fight it, including Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv.

"The objection to the eruv has nothing to do with religion, per se," group chairman Arnold Sheiffer, a semiretired advertising executive. "What they object to is creating a division in the village where none ever existed."

Formed in late August, the group has collected about $30,000 and enlisted 150 residents to fight the proposal, said Sheiffer, who has lived here for 30 years. Their intention, he says, is to blunt talk that anyone opposed to the eruv is anti-Semitic.

"We've always lived in peace and harmony. The truth is I didn't know if people were Jewish or not. And the truth is I didn't really care. And it was nice," he said. "Now we have this thing, this eruv, that would create divisions."

Not unique
Community opposition to the establishment of an eruv is hardly unique to Westhampton Beach.

A group of Orthodox Jews in Tenafly, N.J., won a six-year battle in 2006 to create one. A federal judge had ruled the borough had the right to ban the eruv, but an appeals court disagreed, saying the borough had selectively enforced the ban on utility pole attachments. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

An eruv was established in a north London suburb in 2002 after a decade-long battle in which opponents claimed it would create a religious ghetto in the leafy, well-heeled neighborhood.

The eruv is considered a necessity for Orthodox Jews, who are forbidden by Jewish law to perform any activity considered work on the Sabbath or religious holidays. Without one, they say, they are unable to perform simple tasks like pushing strollers or carrying packages.

Schneier applied to the village for permission to erect an eruv but withdrew his petition earlier this year as the controversy began to build. He said he intends to refile his request sometime this fall but declined to say when.

The rabbi has political connections beyond the Hamptons, working alongside hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and leading the Democratic National Convention in prayer this summer. His father, Arthur, also a rabbi, met in April with Pope Benedict XVI.

When Paterson visited the younger Schneier's Hamptons Synagogue in August, he called for "tolerance and understanding to the desire of those who want to erect the eruv right here in the Hamptons."

After the governor's visit, Schneier told an acrimonious community meeting at the synagogue — later posted on YouTube — that he has no intention of backing down.

"We believe that Westhampton Beach and this orthodox congregation should now join the ranks of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish communities across this land," he said.

Schneier, who describes his congregation as a mix of Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews, sees that flock expand to as many as 1,000 congregants during Sabbath services in the summer. He estimates about one-third are Orthodox.

Fears of an Orthodox enclave
Opponents worry that if the eruv is established, Westhampton Beach — a wealthy community but one less glitzy than its better known neighbors Southampton and East Hampton — may evolve into an Orthodox enclave.

The mayor, who declined to take a position on the eruv because he may eventually have to vote on it, believes those fears are overblown. He said the village has retained an attorney to research the constitutional issues.

Another opposition group, the Alliance for the Separation of Church and State in the Greater Westhampton Area, also has hired an attorney.

Their lawyer, Mark Williams, says the alliance is concerned that village approval would amount to sanctioning a particular religion — and is unconstitutional.

Charles Gottesman, co-owner of a clothing boutique on Westhampton Beach's Main Street and a member of the Jewish group opposed to the eruv, said that from his perspective, the controversy has actually united the community.

"It has managed to get the majority of Jews on the same side," he said. "This would be giving preferential treatment to one group of people. We have very strong feelings about this and we're not going down without a fight."