MAHWAH, N.J. – Thin strips of PVC piping on utility poles around a New Jersey town have stirred worries that an Orthodox Jewish community just across the New York border plans to expand, and backlash from those who say the opposition raises worries about anti-Semitism.
While arguing over the expansion of Monsey, New York's "eruv," a ritual boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to carry items and perform some activities during the Sabbath, the town of Mahwah is also reconsidering a new law limiting its parks and playgrounds to New Jersey residents.
The law came after residents complained of families with New York license plates using a park near the border, but the county's prosecutor ordered the police not to enforce it after Mahwah's police chief raised concerns that people reporting violations were targeting Jews.
"What's your real target and agenda here?" said Rabbi Moses Witriol, a frequent liaison between Mahwah's police force and the Hasidic Jewish community, who questioned the motives of the councilmembers who backed the measure. "It's a park for kids to play. Are we going to differentiate between which kids can play?"
More than 200 people gathered to support the eruv removal last month. An eruv marking was also vandalized last week, and some have targeted the Jewish community with vitriolic posts in an online petition.
The eruv expansion and park ordinance follows years of growth among the Orthodox Jewish population in southern Rockland County in New York. There have also been complaints around the region of aggressive solicitation by real estate brokers looking to buy homes for the Jewish community in the suburbs of New York City and around New Jersey as real estate in New York becomes too expensive.
The eruvs are set up in communities of Orthodox Jews across the country, including one made of fishing line that stretches along utility poles for 18 miles around New York City. Some have led to disputes, including a six-year legal fight in Tenafly, New Jersey, which was forced to pay a Jewish group more than $300,000 in legal fees and allow them to keep their eruv up.
The Jewish community's supporters say the incursion into Mahwah is only because the layout of utility poles doesn't form an enclosure around the Rockland County border. Following an order from Mahwah to remove the eruv pipes by last Friday, the South Monsey Eruv fund retained a law firm, and the eruv remains standing.
The eruv dispute comes at the same time as the park ordinance, adding another layer to concerns the Jewish community is being targeted. Supporters of the measure say they are being unfairly maligned as anti-Semitic, when they're just looking out for their town.
Mahwah Council President Rob Hermansen said Mahwah residents began complaining this year about vehicles from New York occupying parking lots at Winters Pond, a recreational area across from the town's train station. The ordinance, he said, was to curb the number of people from outside Mahwah using parks, not to target Jews.
"No matter where they are from, or who they are, it is unsafe to occupy a playground ... in large, uncontrollable numbers," said Kate Nunez, a Mahwah resident for nearly 20 years. "Our safety concerns have been ignored, and instead Mahwah has been accused of discriminating against a religious group."
Hermansen, who condemned the anti-Semitic comments made online, said the town is looking to release a second ordinance that clarifies how the ban should be enforced.
"The principle behind this ordinance is very simple," he said. "In Mahwah, Mahwah residents come first."