When a Holocaust survivor took the microphone last summer at a city council meeting in Mahwah, New Jersey, tensions were already running high.
Hundreds of people filled the hall as Sami Steigmann, 78, sat before the township’s mayor and council.
The meeting happened amid rising concerns by residents that ultra-Orthodox Jews were “infiltrating” their town of 25,000 by damaging its parks and trying to buy houses for cash.
As Steigmann, who was subjected to medical experiments at a Nazi camp in Ukraine, began to speak about the dangers of anti-Semitism, the town’s lawyer shut him down.
“Your comments about anti-Semitism are not really germane,” she said.
“I cannot talk about religious freedom?” Steigmann said after being interrupted a second time. “No!” multiple people in the crowd yelled.
“They didn’t want to listen,” Steigmann told the Forward.
The exchange encapsulated the conflict in Mahwah. The council and an impassioned group of citizens say they are trying to protect the culture and economy of the township by passing laws that effectively limit Hasidic Jews’ ability to live there. The state of New Jersey and Jewish groups are calling those efforts anti-Semitic and unconstitutional.
Many cities in New York and New Jersey have seen similar conflict between secular residents — including Reform Jews — and Haredi Jews, the often insular, intensely observant wing of Judaism. But the Mahwah imbroglio has triggered an unprecedented lawsuit from New Jersey’s attorney general.
“The only Jews that are acceptable to them are Jews that don’t look like Jews and don’t sound like Jews,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a leader of two Conservative synagogues in New Jersey and the former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “I don’t think you would have had the viciousness of Mahwah if it weren’t for the Trump-era aura.”
At the heart of the case are two deceptively simple changes to township ordinances: One tweaks the definition of a sign, the other specifies who can use the public parks. The sign rule makes it illegal for Orthodox Jews to erect an eruv — a boundary created by thin wire stretched between utility poles, used by religious Jews to expand the area in which they can carry food or other objects on the Sabbath. Schlepping anything outside the home is “work” that is prohibited on that day; the eruv creates the legal fiction that all the space inside it is also “home.” The second rule, about parks, prohibits out-of-state residents — like Hasidic Jews living in neighboring New York towns — from using the parks. Mahwah sits on the border between the two states.
“They hear in the news that the Hasidic community is going to come to the town and take over the school board, destroy the community, not pay taxes,” Bill Laforet, Mahwah’s mayor, told the Forward. He pointed to the town of Ramapo, New York, which received a designated state monitor in 2015 after years of allegations that the Hasidic community in the area had taken over the school board and favored the private yeshivas over public schools. He also pointed to the recent FBI sting on 26 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Lakewood, New Jersey, who were accused of defrauding Medicaid.
According to the state’s lawsuit against the town, these rule changes discriminate unconstitutionally against religious Jews because they were motivated by anti-Semitism. The evidence: Mahwah’s council made the changes at a time when residents were making anti-Semitic comments about Hasidic Jews on social media and at local meetings. The suit alleges that the rules were meant to “address the feared ‘infiltration’ of the Township by Orthodox Jewish people” — and that they violate the right to free expression of religion enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Mahwah is a leafy suburb on the southern edge of the Hudson River Valley, about an hour’s drive from New York City. Its parks boast new jungle gyms, lakefront beaches and manicured sports fields. No Hasidic Jews currently live in the township, which has a small Jewish population. But residents fear that fast-growing Hasidic communities like Monsey and Suffern across the state border in New York’s Rockland County see Mahwah as a potential outpost. Mahwah is a mere 5 miles from Monsey, for example, which has grown by more than 25% since 2000, according to census data, and boasts an ultra-Orthodox community that accounts for over half the town’s population. By contrast, Mahwah has grown by about 8% since 2000.
Then in the spring, fears of a “soft invasion,” as one resident put it online, began to intensify when the administrators of the Rockland County eruv started extending it into Mahwah. Hasidic communities in Rockland County are encircled by a 26-square-mile eruv that runs across interstates and around golf courses. Without the boundary, Hasidic women would not be able to push strollers outside their homes on Saturdays. With permission from the local utility company, the administrators of the eruv affixed plastic piping to utility poles and connected them with thin wires, making that part of Mahwah accessible to Hasidic families on the Sabbath.
Mahwah residents say the eruv is a clear attempt to make living in the township an option for Hasidic families. The administrators of the Rockland eruv say they extended it through Mahwah because it was the shortest way to connect the two sides of the countywide eruv along nonresidential roads.
While the eruv was being installed, residents had already begun to complain on social media about overcrowding in town parks. They reported seeing chartered buses bring multiple Hasidic families to the parks at a time.
In late June, the council introduced the ordinance prohibiting out-of-state residents from using the park. Then, in mid-July, a resident posted a picture of the eruv on Facebook. Though Mahwah’s mayor tried to assuage concerns about the eruv in a Facebook post, residents reacted with concern. At in-person gatherings, on multiple Facebook groups and in the comments of an online petition, residents made anti-Semitic comments in reference to the increased presence of Hasidic Jews in the township. At a meeting in a park, one community organizer told residents not to engage with Hasidic Jews or use hate speech against them, saying, “The other group is watching,” and, “They’re aware of everything we say.” The plastic piping was torn down in the first of several instances of vandalism against the eruv, in what police have called “hate crimes.”
The simmering controversy finally came to a boil in late July, at the meeting where Steigmann, the Holocaust survivor, was told repeatedly not to speak about anti-Semitism. Hundreds of residents clogged City Hall, leading the council to open an overflow room in the basement. The town’s attorney prohibited anyone from saying the word eruv, so that comments from the meeting could not “be used against [the council] in subsequent litigation.” The council nevertheless introduced an ordinance that evening, aimed at preventing the placement of eruv markers on utility poles.
James Batelli, the chief of police, called the town’s behavior “hysteria” and said the police investigated one complaint of misuse of park facilities over the summer, and one complaint of a person asking to buy a house for cash.
“They base it on fear,” he said. “They take one incident and multiply it by 10. That concerns me. It goes back to a much darker time in our country. And I don’t think anyone wants to return to that.”
Even though the Bergen County prosecutor had concluded that the council’s proposed parks rule was unconstitutional and directed Batelli not to enforce it, the council passed the rule unanimously at the end of July. Within days, the New Jersey attorney general’s office issued subpoenas for any emails relating to the ordinances sent from municipal government accounts.
A Mahwah township official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing lawsuits said the council was not aware of any anti-Semitic comments made in the weeks before it passed the parks rule.
Yehuda Buchweitz, the attorney representing the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association, the organization that upkeeps the eruv system that extends into Mahwah, said the parks and sign rules were clear attempts to suppress religious freedom. The association sued Mahwah in early August. It has since sued the neighboring town, Upper Saddle River, for similar attempts to block the eruv.
“Everyone knows what it’s about,” Buchweitz said. “It’s not about pieces of plastic on a pole, it’s about not wanting certain people in your community. And that is un-American and it’s illegal.”
Mahwah residents have been irked by the increasing number of accusations of anti-Semitism against the town. The backlash has run from editorials on local news sites all the way to New Jersey’s gubernatorial race.
“As far as the eruv, I’ve seen what’s happened in other towns in New York, and how bad it’s gotten,” one woman said. The woman, who identified herself as Anne, echoed the concerns of several area residents spoken to for this article. Anne works for a business organization in the township. “Do I want that for Mahwah?” she said. “Absolutely not. Are we anti-Semitic? Absolutely not.”
Some of the comments about the eruv have betrayed a misunderstanding of its role in Hasidic culture. Mahwah residents have referred to the eruv as an extension of personal property, trapping their private residences inside its border. Others have complained that the eruv is a kind of “hack,” since it allows Hasidic Jews to do things on the Sabbath that otherwise would be prohibited.
An area resident who spoke to the Forward in Mahwah echoed these perceptions, calling the use of the eruv “elitist” and “half-assed.”
“They make these laws that exclude other people, and then they break them,” said the man, who wished to remain anonymous.
Rabbi Adam Mintz, co-president of The Manhattan Eruv, said that though an eruv may seem like a religious intrusion, it is really a symbolic legal “loophole” that has no bearing on secular property laws.
“That loophole is limited to the laws of the eruv,” Mintz said.
He added that the eruv is meant not to break Jewish law, but to “enhance the enjoyment of the Sabbath.”
The eruv controversy is not the first time Mahwah has been in the spotlight for overt discrimination. In 1971, the town was featured on the front page of The New York Times for using discriminatory zoning against factory workers living in the area. It has also pursued legal action against the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a 5,000-member tribe headquartered in Mahwah. The township claims that the tribe’s teepees violate zoning laws.
Despite the legal challenges facing the town, its council has forged ahead in passing rules that some are interpreting as discriminatory. Against the advice of the town’s attorney, Mahwah’s council passed two more ordinances in late September. The first was one that cracked down on door-to-door “blockbusting,” following on residents’ complaints that Hasidic Jews were offering to buy homes in Mahwah for cash. (Batelli said that he has received one complaint of blockbusting since the spring.) The second stiffened the list of prohibited activities in parks.
Laforet refused to sign the ordinances — a symbolic gesture, since township ordinances do not require the mayor’s signature to become law.
Laforet is worried about the financial repercussions for the town if the two lawsuits against Mahwah do not get resolved quickly. He is estimating that it could cost the town $10 million to litigate both — a figure that others with knowledge of the cases say might be low.
According to the anonymous Mahwah official, no dates have been set for hearings on the state’s lawsuit against the township. (The attorney general’s office declined to comment for this article.)
Batelli reflected on how quickly a few plastic pipes attached to utility poles became such a major issue.
“If you told me in June we’d be where we are in October, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. “What’s concerning is that no one tried to put a stop to it.”