After being harassed and intimidated by local residents who opposed their presence, fervently Orthodox Jews in suburban Airmont, N.Y., have won the right to gather and pray in the small, home-based congregations known as “shtiebels,” which are often found in Orthodox neighborhoods.
A Sept. 21 verdict from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed a lower court decision and confirmed that the Orthodox Jews’ rights under the Fair Housing Act and the First Amendment had been violated by their neighbors in the Rockland County village.
The village was found guilty of violating the Orthodox Jews’ right to free exercise of religion and to fair housing, but no damages were awarded.
The village will probably appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Airmont Mayor Raymond Kane.
In 1991, Airmont was carved out of the town of Ramapo. Its founders wrote zoning laws to prevent the fervently Orthodox families from forming shtiebels, which are common because Orthodox Jews are prohibited from driving on Shabbat and need congregations close to their homes.
A group of Orthodox Jewish residents and the U.S. Justice Department charged that Airmont’s commitment to “strict zoning” was designed to make the village a less desirable place for Orthodox Jews to live.
“Preservation of neighborhoods [through strict zoning laws] is often the byword of the racist,” said David Zwiebel, general counsel for Agudath Israel of America, an organization that represents haredi, or fervently Orthodox Jews. The organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
“There was a lot of sentiment expressed by the residents of Airmont that went beyond concern over changes in logistics,” he said.
“We are pleased that willful discrimination by an artificially created village was recognized by this decision,” said Sanford Schelsinger, chairman of the N.Y. regional board of the Anti-Defamation League, which also filed a friend- of-the-court brief.
The village of some 9,000 residents has several hundred Orthodox residents, a number that has “in the last couple of years doubled or tripled,” said Kane, a defendant in the case.
Most of the haredi residents have moved to Airmont from nearby Monsey or from Brooklyn and other parts of New York City, about an hour south of the Rockland County village.
Several pages of the 53-page ruling detail the ways in which some of Airmont’s founders have attacked the orthodox community – particularly those who tried to pray at the home of Rabbi Yitzchak Sternberg.
On one Shabbat morning, a man later appointed to the Airmont planning board stood on the boundary of Sternberg’s property, counting and taking notes on the worshipers, according to the appellate court decision. He and others “conducted surveillance’s of Orthodox Jewish homes at prayer times,” the decisio states.
Many biased comments were made by Airmont’s leaders against the Orthodox community, according to the court’s ruling.
According to testimony of one of one plaintiffs, the Airmont Civic Association’s then president had said Orthodox Jews “knew that there were no houses of worship when we moved here,” that the Orthodox should not have moved to Airmont and that the Orthodox were “foreigners and interlopers coming from the outside” as well as “ignorant and uneducated.”
At a 1986 meeting of the Airmont Civic Association, a group formed to create the village of Airmont, one resident had said they should not be “giving up for what we’ve worked very hard for, to a bunch of people who insist on living in the past.”
The resident also had said, “I will not have a Chasidic community in my back yard.”
According to Agudah’ Zwiebel, “The problem of anti-Orthodox bias, which we have seen in many different communities using zoning laws to keep them out, is not at all limited to non-Jews. It’s an extraordinarily troublesome phenomenon,” he said.
The fact that approximately one-third of Airmont’s non-Orthodox residents are Jewish, said Kane, would seem to bear out Zwiebel’s assertion.
“This is an extraordinarily major victory. I hope it sends the message out” that bias against Orthodox Jews will not be tolerated, Zweibel said, “because it’s not a phenomenon restricted to the boundaries of Airmont.”