(JTA) — When Paul and Helaine Kurlansky first moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 2019, they were excited at the prospect of hosting their children and grandchildren, who lived in a nearby town, for Shabbat and holidays.
They chose The Colony, a high-rise co-op building, in large part for the accommodations made for the Shabbat-observant Jews like themselves who lived there. Orthodox Jews don’t press electrical switches on the Sabbath and the Kurlanskys — he’s 68, she’s 67 — live on the 32nd floor.
The board’s president told the couple that the building staff had always pressed the elevator buttons for Shabbat observant residents and that the shareholders had recently voted to install a Shabbat elevator that would stop at each floor automatically.
So when the Shabbat elevator service was stopped in July 2020 and the building’s staff was instructed not to press elevator buttons for Shabbat-observant residents, the couple were all but stranded during the 25 hours between Friday and Saturday nights and on holy days.
“We bought this apartment with the idea that we really don’t want to move again,” Paul Kurlansky said. “And all of that has just been trashed.”
Now Kurlansky is one of several residents taking the co-op board president and other board members to court, alleging that the board is discriminating against Jewish residents like them on the basis of religion. The group has filed a complaint in federal court asking that the building be ordered to reinstate the Shabbat elevator service.
The conflict has pitted some Jewish residents in the building against other Jewish and non-Jewish residents, turning The Colony into a battleground over religious accommodations in shared public spaces.
“People should know better nowadays, frankly,” said Yehudah Buchweitz, a lawyer who is part of the team at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP representing the Shabbat-observant residents pro bono.
The Colony wasn’t always the kind of place where shareholder disputes broke out into hate mail and name calling in the hallways. For years, the building’s Orthodox Jewish residents say they lived comfortably with their neighbors, much like Orthodox Jews in the other high-rise buildings in the area — a neighborhood of tall apartment buildings facing Manhattan across the Hudson River. An Orthodox synagogue, the Young Israel of Fort Lee, is located just a few blocks away, making the neighborhood attractive to Orthodox families, and particularly to retirees.
Before the installation of the Shabbat elevator, the building’s staff would happily press the elevator buttons for residents.
When the board decided to replace the elevators, Marty Epstein, a Shabbat-observant resident for 16 years, formed a committee with other Sabbath observers in the building to push for the use of the Shabbat setting.
In May 2019, the board put the matter to a vote among the building’s shareholders, who approved the Shabbat setting. The service began in September that year, operating for nine hours each Shabbat around the times when residents would go to and from synagogue.
But at a meeting in January 2020, Moe Marshall, the board’s president, and another board member said the Shabbat elevator was putting extra wear and tear on the building’s elevator doors, according to the lawsuit. That month, the service was reduced from nine hours to five over the course of Shabbat. On July 24, 2020, residents received a letter informing them that the Shabbat elevator service would be discontinued.
And in September, a few days before Rosh Hashanah, a staff member told a resident that employees had been instructed not to press elevator buttons for Shabbat-observant residents.
Throughout the years in which the Shabbat elevator was debated and altered, Shabbat-observant residents said they have been subject to cutting remarks, hate mail and a vague threat from management.
In the letter announcing the discontinuation of the Shabbat elevator service, the board alluded to the possibility of a costly lawsuit brought on by Shabbat-observant residents.
“In the past, a small group of shareholders has mentioned potential lawsuits against the Board and Management when the option of discontinuing the Shabbos elevator was mentioned,” the board wrote in the letter. “We hope residents would not want to be a party to an unjustified lawsuit which would lead to legal fees that would be assessed against all shareholders.”
Epstein, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the board members, said another resident yelled at him in the lobby on April 7, blaming him for increasing the building’s legal costs.
In the suit eventually filed by the Shabbat-observant residents, several people accused board members of making derogatory comments about Jews.
Joan and Glenn Katz allege in the suit that in 2017, they overheard Carol Lichtbraun, who joined the board in 2018, saying that she didn’t want “too many of those types of Jews moving into the building,” referring to Orthodox Jews.
At a meeting about the Shabbat elevator in early 2019, according to the suit, Mordecai Appleton heard another resident make a similar comment: “We don’t need that kind … Let them go someplace else.”
This year, on April 21, Epstein said he received a piece of hate mail calling him “an embarrassment and disgrace to Jews.” Two other residents received similar letters.
In November, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to the board calling its policy of barring staff from pressing elevator buttons for Shabbat observers “discriminatory on its face.”
“Any prospective residents who may be interested in the building are being sent a clear message that observant Jews are unwelcome,” the letter said.
Members of the co-op board named as defendants in the lawsuit did not respond to phone messages asking for comment. An assistant manager at the building also declined to comment.
The defendants are set to respond to the suit by July 19.
For now, Shabbat-observant residents are making do with quiet Shabbats spent at home or with hiring help to press elevator buttons for them so they can attend synagogue on Saturday mornings.
Paul Kurlansky still hasn’t gotten the Shabbat with his grandchildren that he hoped for when he bought his apartment in 2019.
“All The Colony has to do is turn on a switch,” Kurlansky said, “and we’re done.”