- Back in August 2008, a public information session on the implementation of a religious eruv in the village of Westhampton Beach was held at the Hampton Synagogue on Sunset Avenue. Tempers flared, voices were raised and many village residents chose to walk out in anger. Yet, a situation that fueled the on-going controversy over this religious designation also succeeded in uniting another faction in this massive debate - Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv, a new group that is garnering a lot of attention in its fight to keep the eruv out of Westhampton Beach.
In the spring, Rabbi Marc Schneier
of Hamptons Synagogue submitted an application to designate a certain part of the village as an Eruv, a religious symbolic area that allows practicing Orthodox Jews to conduct every day activities within that area that they normally wouldn't be able to on the Sabbath, like push strollers and wheelchairs or carry a child.
"[Westhampton Beach] has been a wonderful place to live in harmony and peace," said group Chairman Arnold Sheiffer, who has owned a home in Westhampton Beach for 30 years. "We never knew what religion anyone was and we didn't care."
Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv Chairman Arnold Sheiffer said that
he wanted to give members of the community a forum to speak out against
Sheiffer was among the large crowd that chose to leave the mid-August information session after the reading of heavily anti-Semitic letters sent to the synagogue in response to its crusade. Sheiffer, who is Jewish, said he was stunned by the treatment of those in the audience, who he claimed received gross insults based on the premise that anyone opposed to the eruv is anti-Semitic. Sheiffer added that before that night, he knew of the eruv, but didn't think it would do much to change Westhampton Beach. The volatile outburst at the meeting was the impetus he said he needed to take a stand against it.
"The issue is separations, divisions," he argued. "One group will be set aside for specific reasons, and that in itself will divide the village. It will create divisions where none existed."
Also in attendance that night were Charles Gottesman and his partner, who goes by the name Garcia. While both men consider themselves to be Jewish, they did not feel compelled to support the eruv along religious lines. Instead, they said they needed to protect the village they have come to love so much, having lived in Westhampton Beach for 14 years.
"Nobody wants to see this town fall like the others," Gottesman offered, referring to Lawrence, NY and Tenafly, NJ, two areas that both have eruvs. "Past history proves this will change the town."
It was while these men were prematurely leaving the synagogue session that they met Sheiffer, and from that night sprung the group spearheading the campaign against Rabbi Marc Schneier and his synagogue.
On a rainy Tuesday morning at his fashion boutique on the village's Main Street, Garcia came out of the storm to continue to discuss his concerns regarding the eruv controversy.
Village business-owners Charles Gottesman and Garcia are members for the
anti-eruv group and said they do not want one group getting preferential
"Everything was in harmony here for a very long time," he said. "[Rabbi Schneier] has managed to put a scar in the village that may never heal."
Gottesman, in agreement, contended that allowing the implementation of an eruv in the village would be setting a "horrible precedent" in catering to one small group.
"We are totally opposed to any type of interest group taking over," he argued. "We don't care if it's a gum-chewing group."
In creating the Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv group, Sheiffer said he initially had four goals. First and foremost, he wanted to create a forum where those of the Jewish faith could discuss the eruv. According to Sheiffer, 85 percent of the community opposes the eruv, and many were afraid to discuss their problems with it openly. Sheiffer, who was a trustee for the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, in East Hampton, also wanted to eliminate anti-Semitism as an issue. Thirdly, Sheiffer said he felt obligated to apologize to the citizens of the village for the "gross behavior" demonstrated at the Aug. 13 meeting.
"In the Jewish religion, we value a tradition of respect, dignity and honor," he said. "I assured them that they will never receive treatment like that again. I thought it calmed the fire."
Finally, Sheiffer envisioned a formal organization that could provide a voice for those who oppose the eruv. Two weeks ago, when Sheiffer held the group's first meeting at his home, he invited "eight or nine" like-minded individuals, including Garcia and Gottesman, to attend. Yet, 40 showed up. He said it was then that he knew there was a "groundswell of support" for this group in opposition to the eruv.
The Hampton Synagoue's leader Rabbi Marc Schneier had equated the
quest for an eruv to a civil rights struggle.
At the public meeting at Starr Boggs in Westhampton Beach on Sunday, Sheiffer admitted that there was some disruption among the crowd - yelling and shouting ensued, and an altercation broke out afterward. However, Sheiffer called the meeting "successful," with 250 people in attendance, and $10,000 donated, with more money coming in the form of pledges.
"We gave people a forum," Shieffer said. "We turned down the heat and apologized."
While Sheiffer is more cautious in addressing questions on his opposition to the eruv, Garcia and Gottesman do not hesitate in discussing their ill feelings. While both men stress that they are not against the practice of religion, they take the stance that they are against the practice of a religion that impedes on their everyday life.
"We think everyone should practice religion and sex, preferably in the privacy of their own homes," Gottesman offered.
Members of a minority group themselves Garcia and Gottesman are gay men living in Westhampton Beach, something they never really openly discussed. However, according to Garcia, shortly after writing an opinion piece on the volatile scene at the Aug. 13 public information meeting, he was approached by Clint Greenbaum, one of the panelists conducting the session, and a member of the Westhampton Beach Board of Education. Garcia recounted that Greenbaum, in trying to garner support for the eruv, attempted to equate the quest
for an eruv to a gay couple's struggle for civil rights, a comparison Garcia did not agree with or tolerate.
"I am not going around trying to change people to be gay," he said. "I don't look for acceptance from them. If I wanted to go to a gay village, that's where I would go."
And while Garcia and Gottesman didn't talk about any particular member of the Jewish Orthodox congregation, they both contend that its leader, Rabbi Schneier, has some type of agenda. Gottesman called the rabbi "arrogant" and said the religious leader was willing to step on anyone to get what he wants.
"This village is perfect," he added. "The rabbi has a hidden agenda. He is telling everyone that this is a done deal. He's not going to get his way. If he doesn't like the way things are, he can leave."
Members of Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv say giving one group special treatment would set a "horrible precedent" for the village.
Garcia and Gottesman also take exception to what they refer to as the synagogue's "lack of participation" in village affairs. While Garcia said that he and his partner support everything that benefits the village, such as donating time and money to things like family counseling, the Peconic Bay Medical Center
and the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
, they contend that the synagogue does not participate as much as other community organizations.
"We support everything that is for everybody," said Gottesman. Added Garcia, "the synagogue does nothing but what's for the synagogue."
Gottesman also alleged that dissenters at Sunday's Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv meeting were staged by leaders of the Hampton Synagogue. He also contends that the reading of anti-Semitic letters sent to the synagogue at the Aug. 13 information session was a rehearsed action, meant to divide Jewish and Gentile sentiments. "It was well-rehearsed, plotted, to turn one set of people against another. And it didn't work," he commented.
"The rabbi succeeded in uniting everyone in this town against him," Gottesman continued. "Now we're on the same side. This is not going to stop."
In the past months, Rabbi Schneier has argued that instituting an eruv is not a matter of community approval, but a matter of religious law. He has equated the right for an eruv to a civil right, and has said that his congregation should be protected by the First Amendment, which disallows government from making laws that prohibit the exercise of free religion. Gottesman countered this claim with his assertion that one group should not be allowed to get preferential treatment.
Business-owner James Flood said he doesn't think the implementation of an
eruv would hurt his business, but that it would change the village as a whole.
"Once they get a finger, they'll take an arm," Gottesman commented. When asked about the fact that the rabbi already has permission from Verizon and the Long Island Power Authority to put the eruv demarcations on utility poles, he added, "we all pay taxes, and our Verizon and LIPA
bills. They have no right to cater to one group."
Gottesman also answered the rabbi's claim that the village already supports religious observances throughout the year since it condones a St. Patrick's Day parade and Christmas nativity scenes and therefore should support the eruv simply out of religious fairness.
"Those are temporary [observances]," Gottesman said. "This is a secular community."
Next door to Garcia and Gottesman's shop is Westhampton Custom T-Shirts, owned by 28-year village resident James Flood. Flood is not Jewish, and as he puts it, is "negative to the eruv." He is not a member of the Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv, yet he did attend Sunday's public meeting. When asked if he thought the implementation of an eruv for the village would hurt his business, he responded with a quiet "no."
"In all probability, I don't think it will have a serious effect on businesses," he later added, "but on the community as a whole."
Flood said that he fears the implementation of an eruv will attract more Jewish Orthodox practitioners, who could then gain an economic and political stronghold in the community, changing it forever. And although he doesn't see this happening immediately, it's a fear that he doesn't want to see come true.
"I don't think [an eruv is] needed," he said. "Before, the community was fine."
And while Garcia and Gottesman are in agreement with their neighbor and fellow business owner, they see the establishment of an eruv as a larger issue. "All Jews are not lumped together. They come in many forms," Garcia commented. "Everyone has to watch us. What happens here will change the Hamptons."