Happy Ending in Mahwah

The six-month-long saga of the Mahwah eruv seems to have come to an end, and a happy one.

This past Wednesday, a settlement was announced between the New Jersey township’s council and the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association that will leave the eruv in place. The town agreed as well to not interfere in any maintenance or upkeep relating to the eruv, to provide a police escort for any such work, and to pay the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association at least $10,000 in legal fees. The Eruv Association agreed to switch the white PVC pipes with elements that better blend in with the utility poles to which they are attached.

Back in July, the town ordered the association to cease building the eruv, and remove the lechis that, with permission from the local utility company, had been attached to utility poles. In response to the town’s order, the association sued Mahwah for religious discrimination.

The ensuing months saw much ugliness, including online comments from local residents referring to observant Jews as “nasty people” “terrorists,” “parasites” and “locusts” wishing to “destroy … the fabric of a town.”

The loathsome words were followed by loathsome actions, too, like the ripping down of lechis.

The public battle incensed many town residents, who turned out in droves to council meetings to protest the eruv.

Standing up to the council on behalf of the local Jewish community were Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet, then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and then-State Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino, who filed a lawsuit in October charging the town of violating the rights of, and discriminating against, religious Jews.

Yehudah Buchweitz, an attorney for the Eruv Association, welcomed the agreement. “Our lawsuit against Mahwah,” he said, “was filed to preserve and protect the eruv that has been up in a small portion of Mahwah since last summer, which has allowed many families to enjoy the same religious freedom as so many others throughout Bergen and Rockland counties and beyond.”

That reference was to the more than 20 communities in New York and New Jersey that have eruvim, some of which were unsuccessfully challenged in courts. Currently, eruv lawsuits are being adjudicated in Upper Saddle River and Montvale, other New Jersey towns. Major cities with large Jewish populations have eruvim within their confines, too, and in those metropolitan areas, the unobtrusive piping has not drawn negative reaction.

Mahwah Town Council President Rob Hermansen, who was a stalwart opponent of the eruv, accepted the settlement, explaining that it was recommended by the town’s legal counsel.

Trying to put a pleasant face on the defeat of the anti-eruv forces, he asserted, “In any settlement, neither side gets everything that they want. But after the negotiation, we believed this was a situation that would be fair to both parties.”

Had he been fully committed to fairness from the start, though, he could have saved Mahwah the costs of a long-running lawsuit, and prevented both the shining of a negative spotlight on the town and the eruption of anti-Jewish sentiment that ensued from the council’s original order. Better late, though, than never.

What was always clear to the public officials who defended the eruv was that the town council and its supporters were disturbed not by the nearly invisible lechis — or by non-Mahwah residents using the town’s public parks, which the council also tried to prohibit — but rather by the presence of observant Jews in their midst.

State Attorney General Porrino’s lawsuit asserted as much, and the unmasking of the eruv-opponents’ true intent was what convinced the town council — or, at least, its legal counsel — of the futility of pursuing its goals. The United States does not smile upon anti-religious prejudice.

But even with the Mahwah matter settled, that prejudice persists. The Bergen Record reports that many residents wanted the legal fight to continue – even up to the U.S. Supreme Court, if need be.

As one Mahwahian said to the council before the settlement was finalized, “I know the judge and the New Jersey attorney general are trying to force you to resolve this matter immediately. Do not bow to their attempts to coerce action. You have an army of people ready to support you.”

We hope there is no such army — only, at most, some ragtag holdout soldiers, and that they, too, will come to realize that the presence of Orthodox Jews in their neighborhoods poses no threat.

It would be gratifying were something Mr. Hermansen asserted proven true. Shortly before the council’s vote last Tuesday, he maintained, “This is a good town with good people.”