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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Catskills County Settles Claim of Elections Bias

MANHATTAN (CN) - A New York county nestled in the Catskills agreed to install a monitor to prevent bias against its Hasidic community, even as it still denies accusations of anti-Semitic bias.

The deal reached on Monday resolves one of three cases centering near Bloomingburg, a Catskill Mountains village once considered a gateway to the "Borscht Belt," a one-time popular vacation spot for New York Jews.

Today, the village is less known for its proximity to the town portrayed in the film "Dirty Dancing" than its ongoing feud with its Hasidic population.

In 2014, a Jewish education center alleged in Federal Court that bias in Bloomingburg and its neighboring town of Mamakating scuttled plans to open ritual baths known as a mikvahs.

Dozens of Jewish residents accused Sullivan County the following year of discriminating against them in local elections, in a class-action complaint.

The two towns launched a failed counteroffensive labeling the Hasidic community's ambitious development plans a "hostile takeover" in April 2015.

Although the towns' claims fizzled out within months, both of the lawsuits against them survived summary judgment.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, who presides over all of the cases, found in June that the Hasidic plaintiffs "provided detailed and legally sufficient allegations" to bring the cases to discovery.

The elections case, Smilowitz v. Sullivan County Board of Elections, ended in a settlement on Monday.

A 10-page consent decree memorializing the terms bars religious discrimination, mandates Yiddish translation at all polling sites, and appoints a monitor to enforce these provisions in Sullivan County elections for five years.

The county also agreed to pay $550,000 in attorneys' fees and $25,000 for the Hasidic Jews' costs and expenses.

The decree states that the Sullivan County Board of Elections denies all allegations of discrimination.

Dechert LLP attorney Steven Engel, who represents the Hasidic residents, said in a phone interview that his clients were "very pleased" with the outcome.

"We brought this lawsuit to protect the rights of Hasidic Jewish voters in Bloomingburg," Engel said. "We got a fair and reasonable consent decree [that protects], not just Hasidic Jews, but all voters."

Meanwhile, the other case - Bloomingburg Jewish Education Center v. Village of Bloomingburg - currently has a trial date set for Sept. 6.

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