Deja Vu

The United States District Attorney for the Southern District of New York is suing the incorporated village of Airmont, NY, for violating the civil rights of Orthodox Jews… again.

Back in 1991, the District Attorney traveled this same road. The DA claimed that the Village was using zoning laws to exclude Orthodox Jews, by prohibiting small houses of worship where similar non-religious gatherings were permitted. That sort of unique clause is an unconstitutional intrusion into the free exercise of religion.

The DA went further, however, arguing that the Village’s very raison d’etre was bias and bigotry. “The Village was formed for the purpose of excluding Orthodox Jews by, among other things, imposing restrictions on Jewish forms of residential worship. Specifically, the Airmont Civic Association (“ACA”), an organization whose purpose was the incorporation of the Village, was to enact a zoning ordinance completely preventing worship in homes — a primary method of Orthodox Jewish worship” [emphasis added]. In other words, the village was formed — in the DA’s opinion — not simply for self-governance, but in order to zone the undesireables out of the neighborhood.

The Court found in favor of the DA (and, independently, in favor of the Park Avenue Synagogue and several individuals), as reaffirmed by the Court of Appeals in 1996. According to the Rockland Journal-News, “the village was forced to rewrite its zoning code to allow residential synagogues and to pay $1 million in legal fees.”

The DA now claims that the Village did not get the message. According to the new lawsuit, it is misusing the zoning laws once again, prohibiting dormitory-style housing for religious schools where “the zoning laws allow nonreligious housing accommodating disabled people in group homes, sleep-away camps, hospitals and nursing homes.”

“The federal government is committed to ensuring that the village of Airmont discontinues its practice of using its zoning regulations to discriminate against Orthodox Jews,” U.S. Attorney David Kelly said in a written statement.

In 1991, the DA and the synagogue came to court with a dossier of quotations from officers and officials of the Village of Airmont, a convincing collection of evidence of bias. What was perhaps most startling to the DA and judges — but not, unfortunately, to the Orthodox reader — was that many of the worst quotes came from our fellow Jews.

The NY Times article about the current suit not only demonstrates that you don’t have to be a non-Jew to display anti-Orthodox bias, but that well-meaning non-Jewish reporters may not even see it coming — no matter how obvious it might be to some of us.

Then there’s the question of what’s a religious prejudice and what’s an aesthetic or a land-use one? You don’t have to spend much time in Rockland County to realize just how much the growth of dense, cluttered Orthodox towns like Monsey and New Square is the eternal thread in civic discourse. So, you don’t have to be anti-Jewish to be skeptical of the school project here.

“I wouldn’t want it, and I’m Jewish,” said Leo Bellows, an 84-year-old retiree who was waiting for his sandwich at Joseph’s Gourmet. “Once the Hasids come in, they want to take over the entire territory.”

Note that according to the reporter, Mr. Bellows is not anti-Jewish; he supposedly views this as a case about “aesthetics or land use.” Let us imagine for a moment that he had said not “Hasids,” but “blacks” — would the reporter have presented Mr. Bellows’ opinion in that same light? His statement absolutely reeks of bias, and yet Mr. Bellows is presented as one of those with legitimate concerns.

No one can deny that there are serious concerns when a dormitory-style building goes up in a residential neighborhood. Noise, traffic, water and sewage can all be real issues, and someone can’t be accused of bigotry for not wanting one hundred residents at the end of the next driveway. In order to be fair, however, the same rules applied to group homes and nursing homes must apply to religious boarding schools. This is why the DA is saying this isn’t simply preservation of a residential neighborhood, but bias — largely on the part of other Jewish residents.

Unfortunately, this sort of Jew-vs.-Jew animus is nothing new — it is the topic of an entire book by Samuel Freedman. As he found in several different situations, the practitioners often insist that they cannot be accused of anti-religious bigotry because they are Jewish, while simultaneously demonstrating the most nasty bias of anyone. This was amply documented in the previous legal battle — and if this is the best example a reporter can bring us of a supposedly unbiased opponent of the dormitory, it’s likely the DA will have little trouble proving his case this time around.

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6 Responses

  1. Zev says:

    Excuse me, but we ought not pretend that these people have no reason to be upset. One need only look at the mockery that has been made of the zoning laws in Monsey, and one knows just where they’re coming from. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as anti-Semitism, or anti-Orthodoxy. But a truer description would be anti-anarchy. The fact is that the chassidim do *not* have great respect for the zoning laws, and once they gain a foothold, they *will* build just as they please; i.e. multi-family dwellings on tiny lots; shuls without a bit of parking; yeshivos in basements and houses in residential neighborhoods, etc. etc.
    I am haredi, frum, yeshivish, whatever you want to call it, but I sympathize with the position of the Airmontonians.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Zev, “No one can deny that there are serious concerns…,” but what you write runs contrary to historical fact. There have been multiple meetings regarding zoning issues in the Monsey area precisely because the chassidim do not build as they please, and the Villages and Town of Ramapo do a perfectly good job of citing and fining those who violate the zoning laws. They didn’t “make a mockery” of the zoning laws — they fought to change them. There’s even an incorporated Village of Kaser with a majority Chassidic population, that still manages to serve all of its residents within the law.

    Furthermore, even were what you wrote accurate, a stereotypical picture of a minority group is not an excuse to keep them out. Historically, an influx of African-Americans has frequently been associated with an increase in the crime rate. Do you propose that we wipe the Civil Rights Laws off the books, or that we work with our neighbors of all colors, races and ethnicities to keep crime off our streets?

  3. Ari says:

    I live a few miles from Airmont in the greater Monsey area (Wesley Hills to be precise). I am Shomer Shabbos and have a yeshiva background. This area is perhaps the most accomodating anywhere in these United States for the unique needs of Orthodox Jews. I challenge anyone to pretend otherwise. There are perhaps more shuls, schools and mikvah per capita here than in any suburban setting. To claim anti Semitic bias in Rockland County, NY is largely ludicrous.

    There is substantial merit to the claims of Airmont residents that 450 additional residents in a neighboring institution is not in keeping with the area’s character, and will strain the local well water, sewage and road resources. Generally speaking, local zoning ordinances are constantly being revised downward by local, career politicians and lawmakers fearful of lawsuits. Newcomers looking to replicate an urban setting are doing so at the expense of residents looking for a tranquil suburban environment.

    By all means, frum yiddin should continue to create New Squares and Kasers, but they needn’t intimidate and harass existing neighborhoods that have sought to protect their lifestyle. I am a frum yid, but I do not want 400 people, a football field-sized bais medrash, kollel/rebbe townhomes, and parking lots in my backyard. There are appropriate areas for these institutions. Ner Yisroel in Baltimore got it right — buy a parcel of land that does not impinge upon the neighbors’ needs.

  4. Zev says:

    “There have been multiple meetings regarding zoning issues in the Monsey area precisely because the chassidim do not build as they please,”

    Evidently, you’ve never seen the multi-family homes across from Chareidim, or in the Vizhnitz shechunah, or tried to drive or park in these neighborhoods. How can you talk about the zoning laws being enforced?

    And your PC comparison to blacks (i.e. “African-Americans”) doesn’t impress me. I’m not afraid to admit (even if you are) that I would *not* be happy to have a sudden influx of high-crime types move into my neighborhood, even if they were all blacks. By the same token, I would not want to have an influx of people who treat the zoning laws as a joke, and who would then pressure me to allow all kinds of building that would alter the character of the neighborhood for the worse. I would look upon this as an erosion of my quality of life, and would properly oppose it on those grounds alone, and not b/c I am “anti-Orthodox” (which of course I am not).

    At any rate, you haven’t addressed my point, which was that there are legitimate reasons for the opposition. There’s no reason to attribute it to anti-Orthodoxy.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:


    Not only have I seen the multi-family homes, I was at the public hearing that led to the zoning changes permitting their existence. Not one of the zoning officers, to my recollection, was an Orthodox Jew, and they approved an amended plan that permitted these dwellings only in the neighborhoods where the residents were in favor, rather than the wider boundaries initially suggested. I can talk about the zoning laws being enforced because I followed the process of their enactment. If you didn’t, this is a sorry excuse for accusing the developers of flaunting the very laws they worked hard to follow.

    Shortly after we occupied new office space, the next building over was converted to a methodone clinic for the treatment of recovering heroin addicts. “Did I want it to move next door?” hardly needs to be asked, and the location — on a suburban county road, in a long row of office buildings, outside walking distance of most any potential client — is frankly silly. But the zoning laws permit it, and I can’t rewrite the laws to suit my interests, however legitimate they might be.

    I agree with Ari that 450 new residents would be a problem, and I was the first to bring up the fact that there are “legitimate reasons” to oppose a dormitory. Orthodox residents of the Spring Valley neighborhood surrounding a public middle school strongly opposed its sale for a 600-resident development because of water, traffic and sewage problems. The entire township of Ramapo, whose “population has swelled with the addition of a wide ethnic mix — Hispanic, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Haitian, and Eastern European Hadisic Jews,” is a classic case of “growth management” meeting up with the reality of people wanting to move to desirable locations. There are still residents who remember when all the current developments were farmland. And all of this is irrelevant, because of the many differences between the behavior of those who oppose sprawl for legitimate reasons, and the behavior of Airmont.

    Your assertion that “there’s no reason to attribute it to anti-Orthodoxy” only shows that your understanding of Airmont’s zoning laws (and US Civil Rights laws) isn’t vastly ahead of your understanding of Monsey’s zoning laws. The past history of Airmont, alone, should give any unbiased individual pause: the DA’s assertion that the Village was founded in order to foster unconstitutional interference with the rights of Orthodox Jews, the quotes from Village officials as abundant as they were vulgar, and the legal decision against the Village, finding the violations so egregious that the Village was forced to rewrite practically its entire zoning code and pay $1 million to cover the appellants’ legal fees.

    To this, we add that the DA has most every reason not to sue this time around. In the current case, the DA is suing after the Village already agreed (under threat of a lawsuit) to allow the dormitory to go forward. The dormitory is going to happen in any case; it is the zoning law itself that the DA insists must be rewritten. The zoning laws uniquely prohibit religious use (as compared to nursing homes, motels, group homes, halfway houses, and similar enhancements to the residential character of the neighborhood).

    These suits are usually initiated by the individuals injured by the law. Government offices (such as the DA) don’t sue other offices of democratic government all that frequently — even more rarely in cases where no one is currently being harmed (given that the yeshiva was already granted an exemption). Not only is the DA filing suit, but doing so under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — which has yet to be tested in the Supreme Court.

    “The enactment of zoning regulations that burden religious exercise and discriminate on the basis of religion cannot be tolerated,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney David Kelley.

    “No reason to attribute it to anti-Orthodoxy?” Obviously the DA feels otherwise. Strongly.

  6. Ari says:

    I was aware of Airmont’s past, but did not know that their zoning currently doesn’t tolerate prohibit religious institutions, while tolerating such entities as halfway houses, nursing homes, and the like. Thank you for clarifying. The latter are also strains on infrastructure, safety and tranquility, and should be regulated as well.

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