Tuesday, February 05, 2013

A Ritual Jewish Boundary Stirs Real Town Divisions 

Every Saturday, Eugene Milanaik, a nurse anesthetist, walks more than five miles back and forth between his Orthodox synagogue and his weekend house on Dune Road. When it rains, he gets soaked, because he cannot carry an umbrella. When his 3-year-old grandson is in town, as he was last weekend, his wife must stay home, because she cannot push his stroller.

Life would be much easier, in Mr. Milanaik's view, if Westhampton Beach would finally permit a series of narrow plastic strips, known in Hebrew as lechis, to be placed on the village's utility poles. The strips would create an eruv, a ritual boundary that would allow those Orthodox Jews who do not push or carry things outside the home on the Sabbath to do so when within the eruv's perimeter.

Eruvim are an arcane matter to most people, but they are not unusual: much of Manhattan lies within the boundaries of an eruv, as do scores of Orthodox communities around the country.

"If other towns have it, we should have it," Mr. Milanaik, 68, said on Friday, after stashing a backpack filled with his Sabbath essentials — two prayer books, a prayer shawl, and phylacteries — in a plastic bin at the Hampton Synagogue, so he would not need to carry them on the Sabbath. "I'm getting by without it, but it would be nice. It's like being handicapped."

It has been five years since the Hampton Synagogue first proposed constructing an eruv in this quaint beach side village, prompting a divisive and emotional dispute that pits less observant Jews against more observant ones, storekeepers who fear the eruv against older Jews in wheelchairs, and village officials who believe the eruv would wrongly entangle the government in religion against residents who call that view discriminatory.

The eruv would consist of about 60 10-to-15-foot-long, five-eighths-of-an-inch-wide PVC strips affixed to utility poles, and painted to blend in with them. They would be difficult to see, and would be shorter than the poles themselves, said Robert G. Sugarman, the lawyer for the East End Eruv Association, which wants to erect it.

Three federal lawsuits have been filed over the matter, and on Monday, Judge Leonard D. Wexler, of United States District Court in Islip, dismissed one of them: a lawsuit brought by an anti-eruv group, the Jewish People for the Betterment of Westhampton Beach. That group said it would appeal to the Second Circuit in Manhattan. He also set a timeline for the other two suits, one brought by the East End Eruv Association to erect the eruv, and one between the three villages on whose land the eruv would exist, Westhampton Beach, Quogue, and Southampton, and the utility companies that own the poles.

The final rulings could have broad implications affecting the legality of eruvim across the country. But here in Westhampton Beach, where the year-round population of 1,500 swells to 15,000 in the summer, many residents are simply hoping the courts can bring an end to the tension the issue has caused.

"This used to be an amiable little town," said Ellen Indursky, a member of the Hampton Synagogue, who said Saturday that she now regrets her synagogue's ever bringing up the idea. "It's created an us and a them; you are either on one side or the other," she said, adding, "There's more feelings of anti-Semitism here now than there has ever been."

Only a small percentage of Westhampton Beach residents are Orthodox, and the Hampton Synagogue is the only Orthodox congregation in the area. Only about 20 of the synagogue's year-round congregants, and about 200 families in the summer, are so observant that they need the eruv, according to the rabbi, Marc Schneier.

But many in Westhampton Village — a diverse mix of Catholics, Protestants and Jews — say they fear the prospect of more Orthodox Jews moving in if the eruv is constructed. The mayor, Conrad Teller, estimated that perhaps 90 to 95 percent of Westhampton Village is now against it. "It's divisive," he said. "I believe they think somebody's trying to push something down their throats."

Storekeepers on Main Street have voiced practical concerns, because Orthodox Jews traditionally don't spend money on the Sabbath. "Retail is hard enough as it is," said Anick Darbellay, sitting in her dress shop on Friday. "I don't want to have to shut down on Saturdays. Have you been to the Five Towns?" she asked, referring to an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Nassau County. "That's what happened there."


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