Montvale likely to settle out of court with eruv association, mayor says

BY MICHAEL OLOHAN
OF NORTHERN VALLEY PRESS

An out-of-court agreement to allow an eruv—a religious enclosure marked by PVC pipes on utility poles that allow Orthodox Jews to carry objects outside their homes on Saturdays and holidays—may soon be “finalized” between Montvale officials and the association suing the borough, said the mayor Jan. 2.

Montvale Mayor Michael Ghassali said an agreement to permit an eruv to extend into the borough is likely within days, potentially ending a lawsuit filed against the borough by the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association in October.

The lawsuit alleged the borough deprived the association of its right to “fully and freely” practice their religion.

Ghassali told Pascack Press Jan. 2 that he “was hoping to have that [eruv agreement] finalized within 10 days” and that the borough had been working cooperatively with the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association of Monsey, N.Y., following its lawsuit filing.

“I think we need to resolve this and get on with other things,” said Ghassali. “I think once the agreement comes out in public, everyone will like what we’ve been trying to do” to resolve the lawsuit amicably, he said.

He said the agreement may serve as “a model” for Mahwah and Upper Saddle River to settle similar eruv lawsuits pending against them.

An eruv is an area marked by lechis (PVC pipes on utility poles) that allows Orthodox Jews to conduct common outdoor activities such as pushing a stroller or carrying car keys on Saturdays (Sabbath) and other Jewish holidays.

Mayor’s email

In his mayor’s email update Dec. 26, Ghassali wrote “the current request is to install on the poles starting on Upper Saddle River Road coming from Upper Saddle River, right on Chestnut Ridge Road, left on Summit Avenue, and all the way to the New York border through Summit Avenue.”

Ghassali said “we have been working closely with the eruv association and their New York City legal team on a mutually acceptable plan, and I am pleased to say that they are accommodating and willing to negotiate out of court,” he added. He said he would “look into a town hall meeting in January to share anything [he] can.”

Borough Attorney Joseph Voytus said Jan. 3 that he was “involved in discussions” with eruv association attorney Yehudah Buchweitz and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, an association member who oversaw eruv construction in Upper Saddle River and Mahwah.

Voytus declined to discuss a possible agreement, citing ongoing litigation. He said any out-of-court agreement to allow the eruv would need to be approved by the borough council.

Steinmetz told The Jewish Standard in August that the eruv expansion into Bergen County should not be perceived as an attempt to claim an area for the Jewish community.

He said the expansion into the county was “to accommodate hundreds of families living in Airmont and other nearby towns whose homes were outside the Rockland County eruv,” which encompasses a 26-mile area in New York near the Bergen County border, according to the newspaper.

The extension of an eruv through three North Jersey communities – Mahwah, Upper Saddle River and Montvale – has roiled some residents and local officials since last summer.

In Mahwah and Upper Saddle River, residents have expressed fears of an influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Rockland County buying up homes leading to increased costs for the school system, high-density housing, and overcrowding.

Some public meetings in Mahwah have become especially acrimonious, with anti-Semitic comments from residents claiming they did not want their community to resemble Lakewood, New Jersey, an Ocean County community where an increasing population of Orthodox Jews has led to increased costs for schools and congestion.

Lawsuits filed

The eruv association, and five Jewish residents of Rockland County, filed lawsuit against Montvale in October following similar lawsuits lodged against Mahwah and Upper Saddle River. All three towns have attempted to prevent installation of eruvs.

Since the controversy over expanding eruvs erupted this summer, several reports of vandalism to lechis, white PVC pipes on utility poles that mark an eruv’s area, have been reported.

Montvale under fire

“Based on Montvale’s unlawful acts of obstruction, no lechis [PVC pipes marking the eruv] have been installed in Montvale and no eruv has been completed,” states page 20 of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that Montvale has not enforced its ordinance on utility pole signs “with any consistency or regularity. Illustrative examples, including an advertisement affixed to a utility pole, a parking sign attached to a utility pole, and a mailbox attached to a utility pole, are annexed hereto,” states the lawsuit.

In response to a Facebook post by Ghassali, which the lawsuit called “a public plea to Montvale residents” that specified garage sale signs were not allowed on utility poles, the lawsuit states Ghassali subsequently deleted his post after four residents posted comments questioning the “timing and motivation” of his request.

Ghassali previously said Montvale had strictly enforced its ordinance prohibiting signs on poles.

Montvale has claimed the eruv violated a borough ordinance concerning “litter” in halting it. The association lawsuit claims it received approval from Orange and Rockland Utilities in June 2015 to install the PVC pipes and arranged for Montvale police to supervise the project and had rented the equipment to install the PVC piping prior to Ghassali’s stop-work order.

In his Dec. 26 email Ghassali also noted Montvale residents have limited online comments regarding the lawsuit and he thanked them for their discretion. Ghassali has tried to keep residents aware of litigation status, though offering few specifics. He did not mention the issue at the Jan. 1 reorganization meeting.

Ghassali had issued a stop-work order July 10 that halted installation of PVC piping that was to mark the eruv boundary on 27 utility poles along Chestnut Ridge Road and Summit Avenue. The action followed efforts by Mahwah and Upper Saddle River to restrict the eruv.

According to the association, eruvs exist in 22 locations across the state, including Paramus, Fair Lawn, Passaic, and Tenafly.

In Tenafly, the borough conducted a six-year court battle after the council banned eruvs in 2000. The borough lost in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which found that Tenafly allowed signs on utility poles on a case-by-case basis for churches and lost pets.

The lawsuit also cites a 2015 “Message from the Mayor” from former Montvale Mayor Roger Fyfe responding to inquiries about lechis on utility poles in the area of Lark Lane, bordering Chestnut Ridge, New York. Fyfe then noted that the construction of an eruv serves the “secular purpose of accommodation” and does not violate the separation of church and state.

Noting that a recent court decision approving an eruv relied on the 2002 federal court decision concerning Tenafly’s eruv legal battle, Fyfe wrote then: “Absent any compelling safety concerns, there is little role for Montvale to play in what amounts to a private negotiation between Orange and Rockland and the community that requested the eruv.”

Efforts to reach an attorney and spokesperson for the eruv association were not returned by press time.