The New Jersey hamlet of Mahwah has become the latest flashpoint in tensions between locals and a growing Orthodox population in the far northeast corner of the state along the border with New York.
A symbolic boundary that allows religious Jews to carry objects outside on the Sabbath, called an eruv, is at the heart of the debate.
And some Orthodox view the opposition as part of a culture clash not with non-Jews — but with secular Jews.
“Fights against constructing an eruv … come from self-hating Jews,” said Joseph Kolakowski, an Orthodox rabbi who does chaplaincy work in the nearby Orthodox enclave, in a YouTube video on the subject. “It’s the secular Jews who want to destroy all religions who are behind these things.”
Rabbi Barry Diamond, who leads the sole Reform congregation in Mahwah, rejected the idea that less religious or “secular Jews” were opposed to the Orthodox community. “There is no animus toward the Hasidic community,” Diamond said.
But Diamond, who supports the removal of the eruv allowed that he does see the growing Orthodox community to the north as separate from his own. Locals have “legitimate concerns” about how some Orthodox and Hasidic communities interact with the wider community when they move into an area, he said.
His own congregation has little contact with their more traditionally observant neighbors: “We really don’t have a great deal to do with them,” he said.
Of course, there are quiet eruvs all over the country that nobody has objected to. But the question of whether to erect one has spurred several high-profile Jew-vs-Jew spats: in Tenafly, about fifteen years ago; in the Hamptons, perpetually, and most recently in Crown Heights.
In South Monsey, town officials ordered the Eruv Fund to take down a series of plastic pipes from city utility poles amid objections to the installation by local residents. The pipes were being used to create the eruv and locals worried that the ritual enclosure would lead to a mass influx of Orthodox — like they had seen in neighboring Monsey, a New York hamlet that has become a large Orthodox enclave over the last decades. That area is now home to a diverse group of Orthodox Jews — Hasidic, non-Hasidic, modern Orthodox — who move in networks largely removed from the more liberal Reform and Conservative congregations scattered through the area.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of the Monsey Eruv said that all of the work done in New Jersey was done legally, and with the approval of both the utility company and local officials.
The eruv extension in New Jersey, Steinmetz told the website Vos Iz Neias, was intended to serve Orthodox residents in the southernmost parts of Rockland County, including Suffern, Airmont and Chestnut Ridge.
“Places with large amounts of Jewish people typically have an eruv,” Steinmetz said. “It doesn’t mean that an entire area will be taken over. It is simply done as a service for the Jewish people who live there.”
The Eruv Fund had received approval from the local utility company to post the pipes in March, but — amidst growing concern from locals about Orthodox moving to the area — a city engineer said that the eruv violated local rules against posting signs this month.
“Our elected responsibilities are to serve the public and enforce the laws of the Township of Mahwah,” Mayor Bill Laforet in a statement about the town’s decision. “This sends a very strong message to those who choose to violate our sign ordinances.”
Opposition to the eruv has also veered into what some fear is anti-Semitic territory. An anti-eruv petition (since taken down) included comments describing Orthodox Jews as “these nasty people” who do not “benefit the town in any way.” Screenshots of a since-shuttered private Facebook group also Mahwah residents describing Orthodox Jews as “terrorists” and “parasites.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum .