The Eruv Rav
The headline of this column refers to Marc Schneier, the high-profile rabbi leading the campaign for an eruv, or ritual Sabbath enclosure, in his tony Westhampton Beach community.
It’s also an allusion to the Hebrew phrase in the Torah translated as “mixed multitudes,” or rabble rousers — in this case increasingly vocal and angry local residents, Jews and non-Jews, opposed to the town granting approval to the rabbinic loophole allowing observant Jews to carry on the Sabbath.
Whether the heart of the issue is religious rights, community relations, personality clashes, misunderstandings or thinly veiled anti-Semitism (or at least anti-Orthodoxy), the battle is escalating. The rabbi, who takes pride in his reputation for bringing people of faith together in dialogue, is digging in his heels against those in opposition to him and his synagogue, and each side is casting the other as the root cause of the ugly dispute.
A large community forum held at the synagogue several weeks ago to answer questions and allay fears about the eruv turned into a nasty shouting match. Since then, an invitation by the local St. Mark’s Church for Rabbi Schneier to speak at services this Sunday, as part of his informational effort to explain the eruv, appears to have been rescinded. And a group calling itself “Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv” has now been formed; organizers have scheduled a meeting for Sunday and expect a large turnout.
How did this situation get so out of hand?
Conflicts over an Orthodox community’s requests from local civil authorities for permission to construct a symbolic eruv enclosure — often making use of existing telephone pole wires, and essentially invisible — have been common in recent years, usually pitting Jew vs. Jew.
Orthodox proponents argue that the eruv, which permits carrying objects like keys, prayer shawls, and books, etc. within its confines, allows them to also bring babies in strollers or ill or elderly family members in wheelchairs to synagogue, or to visit friends and relatives on the Sabbath, and that it causes no hardship to anyone.
Critics tend to express concerns about changing the nature of their community, often interpreted as a fear of creating an Orthodox enclave, having a negative impact on property values and public school enrollment. Local shopkeepers worry that they might be asked to close their stores on Shabbat. In virtually every case that has resulted in legal action, the courts have ruled in favor of the eruv as a right provided by freedom of religion.
Rabbi Schneier insists that this case is different, that the Jewish community of Westhampton is not divided but strongly united in favor of the eruv. He describes his Orthodox congregation as uniquely open in that its membership is made up of Jews from all denominations. Indeed, few seem to be clamoring for an eruv as there are many strollers outside the synagogue on Shabbat mornings, and the parking places are filled for blocks around.
Some say the rabbi long ago confided that he would not seek either an eruv or mikveh in the community in an effort to preserve the eclectic mix among his congregants. It is also alleged that the request for an eruv came from a handful of Orthodox members so that they could bring young children to shul on Shabbat.
Rabbi Schneier denies these reports, insisting that the impetus for an eruv is the result of the large growth of the congregation, now in its 18th year, including an influx of young families in a community of 2,000 year-round residents that swells to about 20,000 in the summer. He added in an interview that dozens of communities around the country have installed an eruv in recent years and that it is the right and obligation of an Orthodox congregation to have one.
He said he is saddened by the situation, and notes the irony that “a rabbi who brings people together” — he heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, promoting Jewish dialogue with blacks, Christians and Muslims — is at the center of “a very ugly confrontation.” He blamed it on “the moral laryngitis that permeates the community,” saying local leaders have been too reticent to acknowledge the anti-Semitic overtones of the anti-eruv campaign.
Rabbi Schneier cited as proof the full-page ad in The South Hampton Press two months ago that brought the simmering conflict into the open. The ad asked residents, “Do you want Westhampton Beach to be proclaimed an Orthodox Jewish community?” and called for citizens not to vote for candidates in a local election who favored the eruv. “Don’t let it happen,” said the ad, signed by “the Westhampton Beach Alliance for the Separation of Church and State.”
The rabbi said such opposition has only “galvanized” his congregation and strengthened his resolve to ensure the creation of the eruv. A devotee of Martin Luther King Jr., he framed the issue as a matter of civil rights, adding: “We’re not seeking the community’s approval, we’re seeking their understanding.”
This approach has inflamed some critics, and upset even several of the rabbi’s most influential supporters within his congregation, who have tried to convince him to “back off for now and let the controversy die down,” according to one synagogue leader, believing the rabbi has mishandled the situation.
“It’s clear the law is on his side,” the leader said, “but at this rate he’s going to win the battle and lose the war” of community relation.
The Anti-Defamation League is ready to step in and help mediate, hoping to tamp down the tempers on both sides, officials of the group say. But its offer has been rebuffed by the rabbi, who maintains that after the eruv is approved, “people will get used to it” and soon forget the controversy.
Judging from the results of the Aug. 13 attempt by the rabbi and synagogue leaders to respond to community concerns, though, that won’t happen anytime soon. An estimated 500 people packed the synagogue that evening, but a number of them left in anger early on, complaining that a synagogue attorney spoke down to the crowd.
In the end, the effort to calm the situation misfired and the usually upbeat Rabbi Schneier acknowledged in an interview that “regrettably,” his informational outreach effort “is not working.”
He mused that he has had more success dealing with other faiths, noting “sometimes it’s easier to fight battles for others than your own — maybe that’s the lesson I’ve learned.”
But while he said he plans to see what the town officials will do next, he added that ultimately he will prevail and that the eruv will be constructed.
Not if Arnold Sheiffer can help it, though. A businessman who has lived in town for 16 years, Sheiffer has organized “Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv,” frustrated that even Jewish critics of the eruv are labeled anti-Semites. He maintains that Jewish traditions of “honoring and respecting people of all traditions” trumps the mandate for an eruv, and acknowledges that his complaint is less with the specific ritual and more with Rabbi Schneier, who he and others accuse of arrogance and a tendency toward self-promotion.
“I know they shouldn’t be intertwined” — the issues of the rabbi and the eruv — “but they are,” he said.
Sheiffer said that the eruv would “set apart one religion from the others in town” by focusing on one mile of the two-mile village. When asked if the problem of separation could be solved by enclosing the whole village, he responded: “Don’t go there.”
A newspaper ad for the new group says citizens have “the inalienable right to oppose an eruv” and Sheiffer says he expects up to 200 people at the meeting on Sunday.
Calmer voices are calling for Rabbi Schneier to put off his eruv request for now, using the quieter fall and winter months to rebuild some bridges of communication. “Education is the key and it has to begin within the Jewish community, and then expand to interfaith and civic leaders,” said Joel Levy, ADL’s New York regional director. “People need to understand that the eruv is important only for Orthodox Jews and has no impact on others. But it has to be done in a low-key way.”
Samuel Freedman, a journalist and author of the award-winning book, “Jew vs. Jew,” which included a portrait of an eruv battle in the suburbs of Cleveland, says he has never found a compelling argument against a community eruv.
“It’s really the practical equivalent of a restrictive covenant” in real estate, prohibiting Jews from certain neighborhoods, an action Jews strongly opposed in the first half of the 20th century.
“In effect, the opponents are saying we don’t want certain people living here,” noted Freedman, who said that opposition to the eruv is rooted, partly, in misperceptions.
“People tend to feel some form of coercion, that they will now have to live in some particular way and will be unable to opt out. On a deeper level, it’s about who sets the tone in the community.”
For now, Rabbi Schneier says he will wait to see what action the town takes and will continue his informational efforts to allay concerns, while critics say they will step up their efforts to preserve the town’s ethnic balance.
Among the lessons to be learned from the Westhampton brouhaha are that forcing an issue on a community, even when the law is on your side, can result in a pyrrhic victory, and that anti-Orthodox sentiments, and worse, can lie just beneath the surface, even in the most sophisticated communities in 21st century America.
It’s a cautionary tale that should give pause to both sides about their motives and tactics before the situation deteriorates even further.