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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Catskills County Accused of Disenfranchising Jews

MANHATTAN (CN) - Hasidic Jews living in the once-popular Borscht Belt of the Catskills want a federal judge to block county officials from allegedly disenfranchising them.

Moshe Smilowitz is the lead plaintiff in the class action, which cites "an unyielding discriminatory campaign" of aggression by the Sullivan County Board of Elections against a Hasidic community in the village of Bloomingburg and neighboring town of Mamakating.

The 66-page complaint filed Monday alleges due-process and First Amendment breaches, as well as violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. It contends that Sullivan wants to deny Hasidic Jews a vote in village elections to curtail progress on housing, school and other projects that would support their religious community.

"Defendants' actions were not motivated by and did not serve any legitimate, rational or compelling government interest, but were motivated by and resulted in discrimination against plaintiffs because they are Hasidic Jews," the complaint states.

Bloomingburg and Mamakating, rural communities located 25 miles west of Newburgh in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, were among the summer Borscht Belt vacation spots frequented in the 1940s, '50s and '60s by New York City Jews and popularized by the movie "Dirty Dancing."

Today, though, residents calling themselves the Rural Community Coalition "have taken control of municipal governments and have sought to use governmental power to intimidate, slow and roll back Hasidic migration to the area," Smilowitz says.

"The anti-Semitic animus in Bloomingburg is unmistakable," according to the complaint.

Smilowitz and the other plaintiffs tie the animosity to a townhouse project first proposed in 2006 and later rumored to have drawn huge interest among Hasidic Jews.

Soon thereafter, the Rural Community Coalition formed to oppose the 396-unit development. Since then, "the RCC and its allies have tried in a number of ways to block developments in Bloomingburg that they believe are affiliated with Orthodox Jews," Smilowitz claims.

Those actions are the focus of an earlier federal complaint that accused the village and town of "pervasive, government-sponsored religious discrimination" to stop the growth of the Hasidic community.

This week's complaint meanwhile takes aim at a plan the rural coalition and town and village officials allegedly hatched last summer to hold a referendum on dissolving the village with an eye toward the town taking over and blocking the townhouse project.

"At a minimum, dissolution would dilute the vote of the Hasidic Jewish population and ensure that the current public officials remain in power," Smilowitz says.

He notes that the special election was scheduled Sept. 30, during the Jewish High Holy Days.

Days before the election, supporters of the rural coalition challenged 194 voter registrations in a petition filed with the county Board of Elections. The challenge focused on residency; most of the challenged voters were Hasidic Jews.

The same group also secured a state-court ruling to sequester the challenged votes. That court ordered those challenged to vote by affidavit ballot, which typically is used when a would-be voter's name does not appear on the election roll at a polling place.

On the day of the special election, 69 of the 194 challenged voters, including the 27 named plaintiffs, voted.

While those votes were sequestered, Smilowitz says, the Board of Elections had the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office visit the challenged voters at their homes to attest to whether they really lived at the given address.

The board subsequently annulled the votes of 63 of the 69 challenged voters who went to the polls, according to the complaint.

In December, though, Sullivan County Supreme Court reversed the board, saying it "had acted unlawfully in seeking to cancel the votes from the special election," Smilowitz says.

That decision tipped the vote in the special election against dissolving the village.

"Undeterred," though, the Board of Elections now is trying to keep Hasidic Jews from voting in the March 15 village election, Smilowitz claims.

In January, the board issued notices of registration cancelation to some 184 voters, 160 of whom are Hasidic Jews. Last month, the board upheld all but 28 of the cancelations, according to the complaint.

"To target a hand-selected group of voters and to impose on them the burden and expense of proving their right to vote is itself improper," Smilowitz contends. "But what makes the action even more egregious here is that the Board of Elections has sought to cancel the votes of virtually every Hasidic Jewish resident of Bloomingburg. The board plainly singled out these voters for challenge based entirely upon religion." (Italics in original.)

Smilowitz predicts future voter challenges, "unless or until stopped by this court."

The complaint seeks class certification, punitive damages and an order barring county election officials from enforcing voting laws in a discriminatory manner or from blocking them from voting.

Steven Engel of Dechert LLP in Manhattan represents the plaintiffs.

On Wednesday, the Sullivan County Attorney's Office told the Times Herald-Record in nearby Middletown that it had just received the complaint and could not comment before reviewing the document.

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