When Touro College bought a building on the Upper West Side in 2008 to provide housing for students from its Lander College for Women, it replaced the building’s two aging elevators and asked for state approval to make one of them a Shabbat elevator.
A total of 43 of the 82 apartments in the building at 10-32 West 65th St. were to be used by the school’s Sabbath observant students. The elevator would stop at every floor from sundown Friday until Saturday night, thus allowing students to use it without violating Jewish law that prohibits pushing an elevator button on the Sabbath.
“We were flabbergasted – we were stunned” when virtually all of the non-student tenants opposed the request, said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, Touro’s executive vice president.
The Sabbath elevator added at most 83 seconds to the elevator ride, he said, noting that had the college not installed new elevators “the old elevators would have taken longer [to go up six floors], and they were out of service more often than not.”
But in April, a deputy commissioner of the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal upheld an earlier ruling that sided with the tenants, saying the other tenants rented their units with the expectation that there would be “two regular elevators at all times.” In addition, he found that the slower Sabbath elevator would “inconvenience” other tenants because it would operate when they do their “weekend chores, socialize and recreate.”
It is also noted that “the Sabbath is a time when those observant tenants who might use a Sabbath elevator are not permitted to work, to go shopping, to do laundry, or to do other chores that might require the use of an elevator,” said the ruling of Deputy Commissioner Woody Pascal.
This week, Touro filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court seeking to overturn that decision.
“It’s just very upsetting because a Sabbath elevator is something that has become so commonplace and usual in residential and hospital settings here, like Mt. Sinai and Beth Israel hospitals,” said Rabbi Krupka.
“And their [tenant] appeal contained rabbinic references as to why a Sabbath elevator should not be used in a way that twisted Jewish law for their own ends,” he added. “It was very hurtful.”
In its court papers, the college challenged the tenant associations’ “overall discriminatory and anti-Semitic tone … to wit, (i) that the resident students are in the 18-22 age group and should be able to climb up and down the stairs of the building, disregarding the Jewish prohibition against work on the Sabbath by pushing the buttons on an elevator … and (ii) Sabbath observers are forbidden from using elevators to travel to other floors in the building – therefore they do not really need the elevator.
“These assertions are blatantly discriminatory on many levels. In focusing on denying a religious accommodation, the association ignorantly concludes that all 18-22-year-olds are free from handicaps and disabilities, let alone possibly entitled to an accommodation.”
Rabbi Krupka noted that a staff member of the college who lives in the building has “difficulty walking and can’t negotiate the steps, and therefore can’t stay there for Shabbat.”
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In addition, he said students must keep their garbage in their rooms during Shabbat because the garbage receptacle in the basement is only accessible by elevator. The same is true of the student lounge in the basement.
“What if a student wants to take a chair to the backyard and read, she can’t do it,” Rabbi Krupka observed. “The premise of the objections was the inconvenience factor. But people having to live with their garbage for 25 hours,” or worrying that elderly guests won’t be able to walk down the steps after a Sabbath meal is equally inconvenient.
“This is a matter of decency,” he said, bristling.