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Eruv battle in Hamptons turns ugly

David Paterson, now governor of New York, with Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue, in a file photo from 1997. (Richard Lobell Photography)

David Paterson, now governor of New York, with Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue, in a file photo from 1997. (Richard Lobell Photography)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Charges of anti-Semitism are swirling in a tony seaside village in the Hamptons after a contentious community meeting at a local synagogue and the departure of a former deputy mayor concerned over rising anti-Jewish sentiment.

The village, Westhampton Beach, N.Y., has been roiled by controversy since the announcement earlier this year that a local synagogue planned to erect an eruv, a symbolic marker that allows observant Jews to perform certain tasks normally forbidden on the Sabbath, such as carrying or pushing a stroller.

Marc Schneier, rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue, temporarily withdrew his application for an eruv in May amid fierce community opposition that some contend had a distinctly anti-Semitic undertone. Schneier, the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and a leading figure in Jewish-Muslim and black-Jewish dialogue, called a meeting Wednesday to address community concerns over the eruv.

“It got very ugly,” Schneier said. “It was a horrible display of intolerance and disrespect.”

The building of eruvs, which generally entails affixing nearly invisible markers to telephone and utility poles to create virtual enclosures, has engendered fierce opposition in communities from New Jersey to London. Neighborhood opponents generally argue that the construction of the eruv will transform their neighborhood into an Orthodox Jewish enclave, ruining the community’s character and bringing down real estate values.

Eruv supporters hear echoes of anti-Semitism in such opposition.

Opponents of the eruv in Westhampton Beach have expressed fears that their community could turn into “another Lawrence,” a once diverse Long Island town now populated overwhelmingly by Orthodox Jews.

About 500 mostly non-Jewish residents turned up for the meeting Wednesday at Schneier’s synagogue. According to the rabbi, one participant called him “slime.” Another said eruvs belong only in ghettos and that Orthodox Jews shouldn’t live in the community. Schneier was told to go back where he came from.

“I think we have seen the ugly head of anti-Semitism rise in this village,” Schneier said.

The Wednesday meeting came just as a local newspaper reported that Tim Laube, a former deputy mayor and supporter of the eruv, was planning to leave the community because of rising anti-Semitism.

“I received a number of threatening phone calls,” Laube told The Southampton Press, referring to the dozen or so calls he received during a failed bid for the mayoralty in June. “Callers accused me of being ‘a Jew-lover,’ a ‘kike-lover.’ [They] said that I would ‘burn in hell,’ [and] that ‘my parents would be turning in their graves.’”

Laube, the child of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, grew up in Westhampton Beach.

“I love the community,” Laube told the newspaper. “But I can’t look myself in the mirror and feel this is where I want to stay the rest of my life. Things would have to change.”

Mayor Conrad Teller told The Southampton Press that opponents of the eruv are mostly “level-headed, reasonable people” motivated not by bigotry, but because “they just don’t want an area declared an Orthodox Jewish enclave.”

But Schneier sees the controversy as a civil rights issue, and so does the governor of New York, David Paterson, who visited the synagogue two weeks ago and expressed support for the project.

“I’m hoping we can bring tolerance, understanding and compassion to those who want to build an eruv,” Paterson said, according to news reports.

“This is no longer about the eruv,” Schneier said. “All you had to do Wednesday night was substitute the word ‘Jew’ with ‘black,’ though Southerners would have chosen a different term. But that was the tone.”

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