MAHWAH, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Tiny plastic pipes appearing on power poles could be signaling a change in one New Jersey community, and some residents believe it’s cause for concern.
When the slender plastic pipes turned up on power poles in Mahwah and surrounding towns this summer, they were residents’ first clue that this is America’s newest eruv.
Made of poles and string, eruvs encircle cities and towns to turn them into symbolic Jewish backyards. They grant Orthodox Jewish residents permission to move freely, carry things and push baby carriages on the Sabbath.
“If you’re a young Orthodox Jewish family, you’re going to move to community that has an eruv,” said Rabbi Adam Mintz, an expert on eruvs.
As CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported, about 600 people gathered for a Town Council meeting in Mahwah Thursday night – with an overflow crowd. The debate over the eruv dominated the meeting, though residents were cautioned again and again about bringing up the eruv itself.
Nobody at the meeting said they were concerned that the Orthodox Jewish community might move into Mahwah and take over the town. But they said they were worried that their quality of life might change and some laws may be broken.
“We’re not here this evening to discuss the eruv or a religious group,” said a woman leading the meeting.
“I’m sorry then why are we here?” a man said.
The discussion continued to veer toward uncertainty surrounding the symbolic Jewish backyard.
Some leaders in Mahwah said the eruv is not legal, because the construction violates a longstanding sign ordinance. But there are other issues.
“There’s this inherent fear of what our quality of life in Mahwah community and in other communities, how it could could potentially change,” said Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet.
Residents do not want strangers pursuing their property.
“People knocking on residents’ doors and asking if they were interested in selling their homes for cash. There have been reports of threatening comments made to residents if they did not sell,” one neighbor said.
And several people said they are worried about the sudden overcrowding at the parks.
“Busloads or cars — sitting in the park with people in it, and I wonder to myself, who the hell are they?” said Dolores Gianni of Mahwah. “I really don’t know and I’m frightened!”
Laforet said he has been getting swamped with complaints and concerns that if the eruv attracts a large enough wave of Orthodox Jewish families, who rely on Jewish schools for their kids, it could cause public school enrollment and funding to decline, CBS2’s Dave Carlin reported.
“Every town they’ve gone into, they’ve destroyed the fabric of the town. They set up their own school systems,” one resident told 1010 WINS’ Samantha Liebman.
Others in Rockland County said when Hasidic Jews moved into the East Ramapo School District the education system went downhill.
“Young people who live in the district but go to religious schools that we are paying for, it’s not good for the community,” a man, named Max, said.
The majority of those who spoke at the meeting said it has nothing to do with trying to keep a particular religious group out at all.
“I don’t think we’re trying to exclude anybody. We’re trying to be very inclusive, But we really want people to abide by ordinances and laws,” said Deborah Kostroun of Mahwah.
But Yehudah Buchweitz of Rockland Eruv said the debate amounted to discrimination and even used the word “xenophobia.”
“These are settled issues. They’ve been litigated before several times,” Buchweitz said in the statement. “It’s disheartening to see people using the same arguments that have been rejected again and again.”
The issue has become so heated that the police had to get involved. Mahwah Police are investigating instances where the new eruv piping is getting ripped down and scattered.
“Are we concerned? Of course we’re concerned,” Laforet said. “Well there is this inherent fear of what our quality of life in Mahwah community and in other communities how it could potentially change.”
“The community should be open to everybody but at the same time if a large group is looking to take it over that’s an unfair situation,” Mahwah resident Rich Dakin said.
“We are deeply disturbed by the recent vandalism of the Eruv as well as the coarse rhetoric that has led up to the incident,” the Anti-Defamation League New Jersey Tweeted.
“We are concerned that the township’s decision to order removal of the Eruv has reinforced and stoked misunderstanding, fears, and even hatred towards Mahwah’s Orthodox Jewish community,” said Joshua Cohen, ADL New Jersey Regional Director. “An Eruv is a constitutionally permissible religious accommodation that allows religiously observant Jews to go about their lives while adhering to their core religious beliefs. Multiple federal and state court decisions, including two from New Jersey, have thwarted efforts to prohibit or remove Eruvs.”
Video taken by a neighbor shows private contractors constructing the eruv with Rockland Electric Company permission.
Laforet says town approval was not required because electric companies on their own can allow eruvs after losing in court when other towns tried and failed to block them.
Mahwah will attempt to get the plastic piping removed from the poles by declaring them signs that violate the town’s sign ordinance, but some experts say that will probably face an uphill legal challenge.
Damage to the piping has since been repaired and the police department is investigating the four cases of vandalism as bias crimes.