Hasidic Development Plans Spark Bitter Feud in Upstate N.Y. Town
One night in January, an Orthodox Jewish real estate developer brought a handgun to a planning board meeting in a small upstate New York town.
The gun was on the waist of one of the two uniformed security guards accompanying Shalom Lamm, who may be the most hated man in the town of Mamakating. The guard’s hat said “Security” on it, and his weapon was in full view.
Over the past decade, Lamm’s firm has bought up a lot of land in Mamakating. It owns an airport, a mountaintop tract slated for luxury homes and, most controversially, a development in the tiny village of Bloomingburg, within Mamakating, that could soon be home to thousands of Hasidic Jews.
The fight over the Bloomingburg development has ballooned into a massive brawl over jobs, Jews and the rural identity of Sullivan County, where the town is located. Voices have been raised. Lawsuits have been filed. Nasty words have been swapped. But until that night in January, no one had brought a gun to a planning board meeting.
“Never in a million years did I think he would bring an armed guard in with him,” said Bill Herrmann, the Mamakating town supervisor. “That’s like inciting a riot.”
Lamm is a middle-aged man with a black yarmulke and a quick, gap-toothed grin. He never wears a coat, even in the depths of the Catskills winter. His father, former Yeshiva University president Norman Lamm, is one of the most respected figures in Modern Orthodoxy. This winter, Shalom Lamm has a crew of 175 people building 396 two-story homes in a field in Bloomingburg, one of two villages within Mamakating’s boundaries.
The Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has taken an interest in the Bloomingburg development, which seems tailored specifically to their needs. The townhouses officially have three bedrooms, but an upstairs “office” and “exercise room” could easily be converted into extra bedrooms, bringing the total to five — perfect for large Hasidic families.
Today, Bloomingburg has a single stoplight and 400 residents. Lamm has bought up much of the village: The three buildings down a cul-de-sac off Main Street belong to his firm, as does the empty hardware store, the closed cupcake cafe, and single-family homes up and down the block. In the window of Happy Dragon City, the Chinese restaurant at the town’s lone intersection, there’s a hand-written sign: “Yes, we own the building. No, we don’t plan to sell it. We’ll be staying in this town for a LONG time.”
Teek Persaud, who owns a diner near the village and a house up on the ridge, is worried about what will happen when Lamm finishes building out the 396 homes in 82 separate buildings on the snowy field on Winterton Road. In the paddock in front of Persaud’s house, a speckled boarder horse stands knee-deep in the snow. “The new development will totally change the way of life as we know life in Bloomingburg,” Persaud said. “I love driving up Winterton Road, you know, the farms, the farmhouses, the fields getting cut in the summertime. That will not be there anymore.”
Yet drive past the village center and toward Lamm’s construction site, just a couple hundred yards down the road, and you see more than just white fields and yellow construction vehicles. There, right on Lamm’s property line, someone has planted a massive wooden cross made out of two telephone poles.
To Lamm, the cross is an anti-Semitic assault. “Right outside of our door, they’ve put up a 30-foot wooden cross,” Lamm said, sitting in the finished dining room of one of his three completed model homes. “There’s no other wooden cross all over town other than the one that’s right outside our front door, and it’s a frightening sight.”
So on January 28, Lamm brought two security guards to the planning board. “The sad fact is that security has become a serious issue,” Lamm wrote in an email to the Forward. “My life and property [have] been threatened in person, and on the Internet.”
When Herrmann saw the gun, he asked Lamm to step outside. Lamm’s security guard agreed to put the gun in his car. In his email to the Forward, Lamm acknowledged that the armed guard should have stayed outside and apologized for bringing him into the meeting.
For Herrmann, the gun was a sign: As bad as things are in Mamakating, they could get worse.
Satmar Williamsburg is full.
In the Brooklyn neighborhood that sprawls from Division Avenue all the way down to Dekalb, members of the highly observant ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic group live bunched together. There are Satmar elementary schools and graduate-level yeshivas, Satmar synagogues and study halls, Satmar-owned groceries and bakeries. Yiddish is the first language on the streets and in the stores. Parking spaces on the side streets are full of minivans.
Increasingly, however, it’s hard for a young Satmar family to find room here. “It’s bursting at its seams,” said one member of the Williamsburg Satmar community, who asked not to be named. “Rent is skyrocketing. There are no apartments available.”
It’s hard for a Satmar family to move out of the neighborhood on their own. Satmar Hasidim need to live near Satmar-owned stores that carry Satmar-certified food, and near Satmar schools that can educate their children. They may need a Satmar kollel, or graduate yeshiva, where adult men can study, and a Satmar synagogue where they can pray. All this is available in Kiryas Joel, the village in Orange County, N.Y., founded by the Satmar in the 1970s. But Kiryas Joel is controlled by the followers of Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the two claimants to the leadership of Satmar, while Williamsburg is dominated by the followers of his brother and rival, Grand Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum. For Williamsburg Satmar families looking for a new home, Kiryas Joel isn’t necessarily an option.
The Williamsburg Satmar have tried previously to create their own Kiryas Joel. About a decade ago, just before the split between Satmar rebbes, the leaders of the Williamsburg community started urging followers to move to Bayswater, a neighborhood in the Rockaways in Queens. That settlement failed after zoning changes allowed Satmar Williamsburg to expand past Flushing Avenue, permitting potential settlers to find new apartments nearby instead. The few Satmars who had already moved to Bayswater were left stranded.
Now Zalman’s followers are trying again. This time, they’re looking farther than Queens — an hour and a half upstate, past Kiryas Joel, to Bloomingburg.
The way Lamm tells it, the deal was a beautiful coincidence: An empty field zoned for agriculture, a broke village that needed a wastewater treatment plant and Lamm himself, a deep-pocketed developer with big plans.
Decades ago, Mamakating was a vacationland for middle-class New York Jews. Situated at the foot of the Catskill Mountains and bisected by the Shawangunk Ridge, Mamakating was at the heart of the old borscht belt, its resort hotels filled with refugees from crowded city apartments. The Shawanga Lodge was a just couple of miles from Bloomingburg, the Nevele and Kutsher’s a town or two over.
By the 1990s, that had all petered out. There are still vacation homes and bungalow colonies in the Catskills, many of them populated by Orthodox Jews, but nothing like the old resorts. Today, unemployment is high, the tax base small and the main streets dying. Yet agricultural land is cheap, and Lamm saw an opportunity to make a big bet.
Bloomingburg has its own village government, despite having just 400 residents. Planning and zoning within Bloomingburg is handled by the village, not by the larger town of Mamakating. In the mid-2000s, according to Lamm, the village needed a new wastewater treatment plant. He decided to offer a deal: Lamm’s firm would build the plant, and in return the village would incorporate within its boundaries an adjoining field that he had purchased, thereby making the field eligible for residential construction.
“The fact is, when we bought this, Orange County was booming,” Lamm said. Bloomingburg, just over the border in Sullivan County, seemed a logical spot for new development. Lamm said that his original plan was to put a golf course community on the land. “This would be inexpensive, really beautiful housing, good schools, etc., etc. That was the business rationale,” he said.
Lamm says that he dropped the golf course idea and clustered the homes into three-, four- and five-unit buildings on the insistence of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Other parts of the plan changed after the economic crisis in 2008 as well. Lamm said that he has been in touch with the Satmar community about the development, but that he is in touch with other groups as well, and he is not marketing it exclusively to Hasidic Jews. Lamm also said that he never filed any document claiming that the development would be smaller than the current 396 units. Some residents remember things differently.
According to a report in the Times Herald-Record, a local paper that has reported extensively on the Bloomingburg controversy, the face of the development in 2006 was a local named Duane Roe. At a Village Board meeting in 2006, Roe told residents that the development would be a 125-home gated community for weekenders, according to the paper.
Lamm and Roe have since split, and Lamm has sued Roe. In an email to the Forward, Lamm insisted that he had not misrepresented the project: “Even if Mr. Roe made such a claim at some very early point in a discussion (I have no evidence of this), the vast, overwhelming documentation, every single public hearing, and all of the numerous public presentations made, all made over probably six years, all referred to the same 396 units that were ultimately granted.”
Yet Holly Roche, who leads an anti-development group called the Rural Community Coalition, said that neighbors were shocked when they saw the first model homes go up. “The community at large was under the impression that a 125 luxury home gated golf-course community with a golf club, restaurant, pool, walking trails — that this is what was being built,” Roche said. The model homes didn’t look like they were part of any gated community. And they certainly didn’t look like anything else in the village.
Empty fields and old farmhouses line Winterton Road in Bloomingburg. Lamm’s three model homes, set back just a few dozen yards from the road, are two-story apartments set together into a single building. Through the back windows, past a snowed-in porch and a tiny yard, you can see the half-finished shell of a much larger neighboring building. That one is made up of five adjoining two-story apartments.
According to Herrmann, there’s no residential development this dense in all of Sullivan County. Lamm said that there are similar developments nearby, though he cited towns in Orange County as examples.
The objections kicked up following the construction of the model homes led to further digging by the local paper. In December, the Herald-Record reported that Bloomingburg’s mayor and Lamm’s firm signed a deal shortly before the village’s planning board approved the development that would extend access to a water delivery system, to be developed by the firm, to property owned by the mayor and his family. Experts quoted by the Herald-Record said that the mayor’s actions appeared to be improper.
Bloomingburg’s mayor, Mark Berentsen, did not respond to telephone messages left at his home and business.
The Rural Community Coalition now draws up to 200 people to its meetings. Signs on lawns and intersections throughout village condemn the project, and a website attacks it. Last summer, hundreds of people started showing up to Bloomingburg’s village board and planning board meetings, swarming the tiny village hall across the street from Happy Dragon City, the Chinese restaurant. Chem Lonz, the owner of the restaurant, has a video on his iPhone of police cars and residents filling the street during one overflow session. The village has canceled most of its meetings since then. But at a raucous planning board meeting last December, planning board members voted to deny a proposal by Lamm’s firm to turn a large garage in the village into an all-girls’ school. Lamm has since sued to challenge that decision.
Meanwhile, there are stop work orders in effect against a number of Lamm-owned properties, including some storefronts in Bloomingburg and a nearby building where his firm wants to build a mikveh. A judicial order currently limits work on the Winterton Road project itself to the dozen buildings already under construction.
Lamm has a clear explanation for the activists’ opposition to his project: Jew hatred.
“If you’re a conspiracy theorist and you think the Jews control things and are pulling puppet strings, then this all looks like this grand conspiracy,” Lamm said. “It’s basic anti-Semitism. You would have to be a believer in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to think that we could actually manipulate the world this way. It’s a complete absurdity.”
Lamm alleges that opponents of his project are boycotting businesses that lease space from him in Bloomingburg. “Where have you seen an image of Jewish-owned stores being boycotted before?” Lamm said. “Well, we all know the image. It’s Berlin 1933,” he said, referring to Nazi boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses.
A spokesman for Lamm provided a handful of screenshots of social media postings that the spokesman described as anti-Semitic. In one, a Facebook posting of a cartoon, Lamm is depicted as a wolf with bloody teeth dressed as a lamb. In another cartoon by the same artist, a man is selling bumper stickers with the word “Hasid” crossed out. That cartoon seems to be a satire; its target is unclear.
And then there’s the cross. It’s an arresting sight, just feet from the road, surrounded by signs that appear to obliquely protest Lamm’s development. Standing by a window in the model home, Lamm said that the cross was “just like something you’d see in Selma, Alabama, 1963,” presumably referring to cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan.
To Lamm, the alleged anti-Semitism is directed not just at him, but also at the Satmar Hasidim who he hopes will buy the homes he’s building.
It is a fact that Satmar Hasidim and other Hasidic groups have had a history of conflict with their neighbors in recent years. In Rockland County, N.Y., Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews on the East Ramapo school board are locked in a years-long fight with local parents, who accuse them of diverting resources from their public schools. In Orange County, the rapid growth of Kiryas Joel has created tensions with nearby villages. And in Williamsburg, Hasidic residents have clashed with non-Hasidic residents over issues like bike lanes and signs in store windows demanding that shoppers dress modestly.
Mamakating itself has had a prior conflict with would-be developers seeking to build a Hasidic village within the town. In 2006, members of the Skver Hasidic community purchased an old Catskills resort called the Homowack with long-term plans to turn it into a new Skver village. In August 2009, the state health department ordered the closing of a girls summer camp that the Skver were operating on the grounds because of “numerous, persistent and serious” health and environmental violations. The Skver camp, which then housed 300 children, ignored multiple evacuation orders before closing one hour before a court-ordered deadline. The Skver eventually sold the property.
In an interview with the Forward, Lamm said that it was inherently bigoted to draw connections between his project and unrelated conflicts in surrounding Hasidic communities. “It takes a certain sort of twisted, broad anti-Semitism to draw a line and say that they’re all connected,” Lamm said. “Let’s now transfer the word ‘Hasidim’ and let’s use ‘blacks,’ okay? If you rephrased your question and said blacks have moved into an area and crime has gone up, therefore is it okay to object to them here? There is no way you would ask that question. You would be ashamed to ask that question. But you have no shame to ask that question about fellow Jews. That’s not proper.”
Lamm specifically rejected comparisons between his development and the Homowack project, saying that the Skver effort to develop Homowack was a “debacle by amateurs.”
The big wooden cross stands on property belonging to James and Cathy Danzeisen. Their house is on the same land, just next to Lamm’s development. Reached via telephone, Cathy Danzeisen said that she had put up a cross every year, though never one as big as the one she put up this winter.
Danzeisen said that, with Lamm buying up much of Bloomingburg’s main street, there were more vacant stores and homes in Bloomingburg around Christmastime this year, and no one was putting up any Christmas decorations. So, Danzeisen decided to go big. She erected a Christmas tree and the cross, and had a tree-lighting ceremony with 70 guests singing Christmas carols.
Initially, Danzeisen said, the cross was not a protest against Lamm’s development. Since she put it up, however, she said that she learned that Lamm is in negotiations to buy the village’s Methodist church. Now she says she may not take down the cross.
“I have nothing against Hasidic people,” Danzeisen said. “The problem I have is that every single thing in the town is being taken over and changed, to the point that now we’re not even going to have a church.”
Lamm confirmed that his firm had reached a tentative agreement to purchase the church. He said that the church was “consolidating for financial reasons” and had been on the market awhile. Robb Hewitt, the pastor of the Mountain View United Methodist Church, declined to comment when reached via telephone.
So what does the cross mean? For Lamm, it’s clearly a sign of hate. But in Bloomingburg, as tensions rise, it’s hard to say whether the opposition to an Orthodox Jewish developer and his ultra-Orthodox clientele is due to their being Jewish, or to him being a developer.
The Yukiguni Maitake Company grows maitake mushrooms, a leafy-looking fungus resembling a shiitake mushroom that’s been feathered on the stem. The company, which is based in Niigata, Japan, sells the mushrooms to eat, and markets maitake extract as a dietary supplement. In 2003, Yukiguni’s American subsidiary made a big announcement: Yukiguni was going to build a $72 million, 920,000-square-foot factory in Mamakating. The factory would produce 33 tons of mushrooms daily, employ 210 people and pay $1 million annually in local taxes.
Anti-development activists in Mamakating came out hard against the mushrooms, delaying the factory with lawsuits and protests. They said it would “change the ambience of the town.”
More than a decade later, the factory is still just a plan.
Bill Herrmann told the story of the rejected mushrooms in his office on a cold afternoon in early February. He was wearing a green Town of Mamakating polo work shirt and a small gold anchor pendant around his neck. He began his term as town supervisor in January. It’s not a full-time job; he also works as a home inspector and as a scuba instructor, and has a background in pest control.
Herrmann doesn’t think that there’s much anti-Semitism in town. He said that he opposes Lamm’s development because it doesn’t fit with the rural character of the area — a rural character that residents have a long history of fighting to protect.
Besides the mushroom fight, locals also fought to block the construction in town of a distribution warehouse for the department store chain Kohl’s. That warehouse was eventually built. Activists are currently working to block construction of a project called China City, a college backed by Chinese investors.
“There’s opposition to many things that are trying to be built in this community,” Herrmann said. “Anything that takes away from the rural character has been fought. It’s not just housing. It’s really not a religious issue.”
As for the jobs that Lamm claims will come when his development is complete, Herrmann is dubious. Back when he worked in pest control, Herrmann spent a lot of time in Kiryas Joel. He said that a lot of the jobs in town seemed to be taken by the Satmar themselves.
Herrmann has a different plan to save Mamakating. A statewide referendum last November cleared the way for the creation of seven new Las Vegas-style casinos in New York, with poker and blackjack and slot machines and other games. Developers are vying for rights to build casinos at the former sites of a handful of Catskills resorts, including Shawanga Lodge and the Nevele. Some opponents of Lamm’s residential development, including Herrmann, back the casino projects.
“We’re a struggling community,” Herrmann said. “What I believe we have left is, we have a beautiful area. We have tourism.” A new casino at the Shawanga Lodge, Herrmann said, would be a boon. “We think that would be great for our tax base, certainly.”
The view from The Eagle’s Nest, a wedding venue way up on the Shawangunk Ridge just outside of Bloomingburg, is a classic upstate New York winter scene: naked brown trees separated by patches of empty white fields. In the nearest field, right at the center of The Eagle’s Nest’s view, are the snow-covered roofs of the decidedly nonpicturesque construction site on Winterton Road.
“It’s always pretty to see the countryside,” said Michael Spiegl, whose family bought The Eagle’s Nest 55 years ago. “Suddenly you see this huge development here. And that’s the backdrop for the weddings, usually.”
Persaud, the diner owner, came to Bloomingburg 27 years ago. An immigrant from Guyana, he owned a candy shop in New York City when relatives told him that the Quickway Diner in Bloomingburg was for sale. He’s been running the place ever since. He also sells cars, has a seasonal ice cream stand, rents U-Hauls and boards horses at his farm up on the hill.
The Quickway is just off Route 17, and in the summer it lives off tourist traffic. In the winter, though, Persaud said that he relies on Bloomingburg locals. If the Satmar move in and the current locals move out, Persaud worries that the diner won’t be able to survive.
Persaud is active in the Rural Community Coalition. Though construction has already begun, the RCC seems confident that there’s still time to put on the brakes. Roche arrived for an interview carrying a tall stack of documents to help argue her case.
The state of play between the opponents and supporters of the project is in rapid flux. As of press time, stop work orders were still in force on the mikveh building and the commercial sites in Bloomingburg. A judge had partially overturned a stop work order on the main Winterton Road development site, which had been granted as part of a lawsuit alleging that the village’s annexation of the field had been illegal in the first place. The new ruling by a judge on the state’s appellate court allowed work to continue on the 12 buildings already in progress, but continued to bar new construction. A further hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for March.
Meanwhile, on February 18, the Herald-Record reported that Herrmann had proposed a moratorium on development in Mamakating that could significantly hinder Lamm’s project.
No homes are for sale yet on the Winterton Road site, though Lamm said that he believed that units would be ready for residents to move into by this summer. Local activists said that ultra-Orthodox Jews already appeared to be living in a few other Lamm-owned properties in Bloomingburg.
Despite all the roadblocks, in Lamm’s mind the development is a done deal. He’s already created a PowerPoint presentation to explain Hasidic culture to local leaders.
“At the end of the day, the idiots who are causing all these problems will go away,” Lamm said. “The mature adults, I think, will get along and have a really good relationship.”