NEWARK (CN) — Faced with an anti-Semitic campaign that included comments such as “Get those scum out of here,” Orthodox Jews have sued a New Jersey borough for threatening to remove a religious boundary that allows them to perform everyday tasks on the Sabbath.
The already established Eruv — a ritual enclosure — allows observant Orthodox Jews to perform prohibited activity on the Sabbath and Yom Kippur. According to the federal lawsuit, plaintiffs Yisroel Friedman and S. Moshe Pinkasovits have been able to push strollers and wheelchairs and carry keys and food since the expansion of an Eruv four weeks ago.
They say their community entered into a private contract with Orange & Rockland Utilities in 2015 to affix lechis — thin PVC plastic pipes — to utility poles to create the Eruv. The utility company, which owns the poles, installed the piping under supervision of the defendant Borough of Upper Saddle River and with the approval of co-defendant Mayor Joanne Minichetti.
But shortly after the work began, a small but vocal minority of residents began a “vicious and discriminatory” campaign against the Eruv, according to the complaint. A “Petition to Protect the Quality of Our Community in Mahwah” included openly anti-Semitic posts such as: “Get those scum out of here;” “I don’t want my town to be gross and infested with these nasty people;” and “They are clearly trying to annex land like they’ve been doing in Occupied Palestine. Look up the satanic verses of the Talmud and tell me what you see.”
Facing this “firestorm of opposition,” Mayor Minichetti “actively interfered with and obstructed plaintiffs’ ability to construct the Eruv,” the complaint states. “She reversed her position and revoked her permission for Rabbi Steinmetz to continue work on the lechis.”
A July 18 letter from Upper Saddle River threatened the immediate removal of the piping and cited a borough ordinance that the lechis purportedly violates.
Friedman and Pinkasovits say there is no such law, and that even if there were, it would be unconstitutional. They say the piping is nearly invisible and poses no safety or traffic concerns.
Hundreds of Eruvin exist throughout the United States, 22 in New Jersey alone, and courts have upheld the attachment of lechis to utility poles for this purpose, the complaint states. It cites a 2002 ruling from the Third Circuit, Tenafly Eruv Ass’n v. Borough of Tenafly, that creation of an Eruv is a reasonable accommodation of religious practice. New York state and federal courts have also ruled that lechis are “not signs for the purpose of town sign ordinances” and that utility companies have the authority to enter into the contracts for the attachment of lechis, the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction protecting the Eruv. They are represented by Diane Sullivan with Weil, Gotshal and Manges in Princeton. Neither Sullivan nor Mayor Minichetti immediately responded to emailed requests for comment Friday.