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Westhampton Beach Residents Embroiled In Religious Boundary Debate

Originally Posted: August 18, 2008

Kelly Carroll

About 30 minutes into Wednesday’s public information session, a good portion of the crowd walked out. As the meeting went on, audience members would yell-out in protest against the words of the discussion leaders. Photos by Kelly Carroll

Westhampton Beach - Not an hour into the public information session regarding the Hampton Synagogue's desire for an Eruv to be designated in the village of Westhampton Beach, one-third of the overflowing crowd stood up and walked out, angered over the reading of anti-Semitic e-mails sent to the synagogue.

"This was supposed to be an informative meeting," yelled Jim Going, an attorney in the village. "You have made this something about Christians versus Jews."

The Hampton Synagogue, located on Sunset Avenue in Westhampton
Beach, has been in formation for the past 18 years.

Only minutes before, the synagogue on Sunset Avenue was inundated with people, spilling out on to the extra chairs set up on the patio or standing out on the lawn, stretching to hear. When Joel Cohen, one of the panelists for Wednesday's information session, began to read from the "hateful e-mails," the once peaceful crowd took turns yelling out "moron," and "filibuster," accosting Cohen and other members of the panel before eventually deciding to leave the premises altogether.

While it may sound like this scene was initiated simply by the reading of e-mails, it is actually a microcosm of the religious tension that has seemingly been brewing in the village of Westhampton Beach all summer long.

"I was disappointed, you know, taken aback by people's conduct, their intolerance, their disrespect," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, leader of the Hampton Synagogue congregation. "This community prides itself, at least publicly, as a community that champions religious diversity. We have seen the ugly head of anti-semitism."

Community Outcry
In the spring of 2008, the rabbi 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.

Glenn Dorskind opened the evening with a letter to the audience telling
them that they were setting an example for future generations.

The proposal caused considerable outcry from many in the Westhampton Beach community, and the rabbi eventually withdrew his application, stating he wanted to spend the summer educating the people on what exactly an Eruv is and how it will be implemented. His efforts were negatively received as evidenced by the scene Wednesday night.

"This congregation is committed to an Eruv, because we view this as our elemental right," Schneier said at the meeting. "This is not an issue that is subject to community approval. We believe that Westhampton Beach and this orthodox congregation should now join the ranks of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish communities throughout the land."

Rabbi Schneier asserted that an Eruv is a civil right, protected under the 14th amendment, as well as the first amendment which does not allow the prohibition of the free exercise of religion. He has taken on this debate as a civil rights struggle - contending that not granting an Eruv is tantamount to telling African-Americans they could not use a white restroom in the 1960s.

Yet those against the Eruv have their own reasons for not supporting it. Pastor Jack King of the Beach United Methodist Church in Westhampton Beach said he does support the Eruv, but that "the way it is being advanced, a fait accompli, people in a democratic society don't generally like to have things thrust upon them."

Westhampton Beach resident Meg Warren contemptuously approached the panel,
angered over the procedure of the information session.

Others voiced their concern that creating an Eruv would make the Westhampton Beach community attractive to Jewish people looking to live within an area that makes it easier for them to worship, in turn, creating an all-Orthodox Jewish community in Westhampton Beach. Those worried about this effect cited areas on Long Island such as the Five Towns and Lawrence, which are predominately religious enclaves.

Rabbi Schneier also admitted that he feels that objections are coming from residents who do not want more Jewish people in their community. However, the rabbi's position is that his congregation is at the forefront of combating religious extremism, deflecting the charge that he is trying to create an entirely Jewish community in Westhampton Beach Village.

"I have dedicated my career to the strengthening of relations between religious and ethnic communities," he said. "I wouldn't tolerate fundamentalism or extremism. We celebrate our religious community."

Newly re-elected Mayor Conrad Teller said that, down the road, he doesn't see a whole Jewish community coming into Westhampton Beach Village. However, the mayor currently has an attorney going over the legal implications of this situation - whether the village is obligated to issue a proclamation instating the Eruv, and what would happen if the village doesn't issue the proclamation, as well as outlining the compelling reasons to not issue one.

However, Rabbi Schneier says the Eruv has to be instituted.

"It's not a matter of religious technicality, it's a matter of religious law," he said. "As a practicing Orthodox Jew, for me it's a matter of faith."

There was a tense mood at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach Wednesday night. The leader of the synagogue's congregation, Rabbi Marc Schneier (second from left), has proposed designating an Eruv for the village.

A Matter of Religious Law
According to Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, religious law prohibits the carrying of things on the Sabbath, except in the home. An Eruv is a concept of expanding the boundary of the home, where one would be permitted to conduct activities on the Sabbath they normally would not be permitted to do in their home.

"It's to make life more livable," he offered, adding "they can't even carry an umbrella."

According to Jewish law, the synagogue is required to get the permission of whoever is in charge of the area to designate an Eruv, meaning the local government. In addition, the area of the Eruv must be clearly outlined to the people. Rabbi Schneier said he would like to use wooden two by fours painted black and fixed to telephone and electric poles to show the designated area. For that, he has already gotten permission from Verizon and the Long Island Power Authority.

Panelist for the night's information session Joel Cohen chose to read several hate
e-mails that have been sent to the synagogue. Rabbi Marc Scheier (center) received
questions from the audience, but was defended throughout the night by his panel.

Rabbi Zimmerman assured that there are no legal implications to putting up an Eruv. Jewish Orthodox residents observing the Eruv cannot walk on other people's property or use private property for religious use.

Where religious law becomes tricky, however, is in the many sects of Judaism and their different rules. Where Reform, Reconstructionist and Liberal Jews are concerned, an Eruv wouldn't even be needed because they do not follow the rules of not-carrying on the Sabbath. In addition, Conservative Jews can drive on the Sabbath for religious purposes and wouldn't be affected by the carrying law either. However, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews cannot drive on the Sabbath at all, nor can they carry outside of their designated home area, hence their desire for an Eruv.

"Once you start driving, the community is meaningless," Zimmerman commented. "The whole purpose of the Sabbath is community."

Why Now?
Still some question why the synagogue needs an Eruv now, after operating seemingly well in the community for the past 18 years.

"The Hampton Synagogue has experienced growth, in particular the number of young families," Rabbi Schneier explained. "These younger families are now confined to their homes on the Sabbath."

Schneier added that the congregation has a growing disabled community, which needs to be wheeled to services, which is prohibited under the no-carrying law as well.

"It sounded as if this is religious law, then they have no alternative," said Pastor King. "My religion doesn't have those kinds of restrictions."

Is It Worth It?
Yet, still others wondered if the Eruv was really worth all the disruption within the village - hateful e-mails sent to the synagogue, angry meetings with residents storming out, and a former deputy mayor, Tim Laube, who claims he is moving out of the village over the tension he has experienced.

"I am Jewish and emotional," said Norman Remler at Wednesday's meeting, his voice shaking into the microphone. "I think with the proper education, people will find it does not change their life one iota. But the disruption it has caused within the village - why not address the real issue now, which is the disruption, which is more important than the Eruv itself."

Many of the speakers voiced their opposition to the Eruv being discussed for their

When asked how he would respond to the comments of Remler and others, Rabbi Schneier replied "I hear his concern, but I have to be true to my religious conviction - true to my religious belief, true to my congregation."

The rabbi also insists that his entire congregation supports him in this effort. However, he is persistent in his refusal to admit exactly how large his congregation is.

Mayor Teller said he has heard from a member of the Jewish Orthodox community that the Hampton Synagogue has only nine members in its year-round congregation, adding that the numbers do "swell" in the summer.

"I have no clue, I'm not the kind of rabbi who surveys," Schneier said, when asked for the numbers again on Thursday. "I'm not that judgmental. I don't delineate Orthodox or Reform Jews in my synagogue. But we have had significant growth compared to prior years."

Recently, the Eruv has gained support from Governor David Paterson, who came to speak at the synagogue on Aug. 2. Rabbi Schneier has also reached out to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. Yet it is support in his own backyard that he cannot muster.

On Sept. 7 the rabbi will be speaking about the Eruv at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Westhampton Beach, an event he says will be much "calmer" than last week's information session. As the summer winds down, Schneier looks ahead to the fall when he will once again submit an application to instate an Eruv encompassing the entire village.

"Ultimately the right will prevail," Mayor Teller commented. "We are well-rounded, cosmopolitan. Once it's established, it will disappear. On paper, it seems like a very simple thing."

Residents young and old turned out for the information session, underscoring the division among neighbors regarding the controversial measure.

Updated: August 18, 2008, 5:17 pm
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