The swelters of another New York summer are upon us once again. In spite of massive seasonal population transfers to the Hamptons, the Jersey shore, the Poconos and the Catskills, millions more remain behind in the five boroughs to stand their steamy ground and do battle with the heat and humidity instead of turning heel and heading for the hills and beaches. A number of years ago, a term was coined for this non-migration that has gained traction; it’s called being citybound.
This expression vividly captures the sad fact that while summers in the city can be intensely uncomfortable for all New Yorkers, for members of the Orthodox Jewish community they can be positively constraining. The weapon of choice to beat the summertime heat for most New Yorkers is downsizing clothing. But religious and cultural strictures make this method unavailable to the Orthodox.
But four times a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 to 11 a.m., and Sunday afternoons from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. — Orthodox Jewish women and girls will be accorded a kind of civic-minded break. As is the case for the rest of New York citizenry, they too are allowed to swim in the cooling waters of a public pool at the Metropolitan Recreation Center on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
This reasonable, inclusionary accommodation for an admittedly small and deeply religious demographic has been going on for decades with no turmoil, complaints or disruption of the commonweal of the highly diverse and densely populated Williamsburg community where the pool is located. Many in the community continue to greet this accommodation with relief and enjoyment. After all, why should law-abiding, tax-paying citizens be denied access to public facilities that their revenue streams helped build and maintain? These negligible hours of gender-segregated swimming hardly put a dent in the summer recreational opportunities of every other segment of the local population. So the vast majority of Williamsburg residents — Jew and gentile, young and old, Chassid and hipster — saw the self-evident fair play that informed the policy and a modus vivendi was achieved.
But now, in the wake of a recent anonymous complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights to notify the Parks Department that the policy violated the law, a huge storm is brewing over this indoor pool. Once the anonymous complaint was lodged and community comity had begun hemorrhaging, the nasty pool sharks at The New York Times smelled blood and swarmed in for the overkill. In an editorial published on June 1, the Times’ editorial board frothed at the pen with rhetoric more overheated than the dog-days of August in condemning the Metropolitan Recreation Center’s compassionate policy as “a capitulation to a theocratic view of government services,” and reeking of a “strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space.”
The Gray Lady’s editorial orientation has long been at least as obsessive about maintaining the impregnable wall separating church and state as the Trump campaign is about erecting such a wall on the United States’ southern border with Mexico. Still, the mean-spiritedness of a stance that would deny some aquatic relief to Orthodox women and girls and the lack of discernment and subtlety in viewing this as an encroaching theocracy are astounding. Based on the level of editorial fear and revulsion, one would have thought that Brooklyn Orthodox communities had worked compulsory instruction in the tenets of Judaism into the NYC public schools’ curriculum instead of a lone recreational center being attuned to local community special needs and affording a few girls and women a very limited opportunity to swim in the summer while maintaining their modesty and dignity. To retrofit new teeth on the old H.L. Mencken saw defining Puritanism: the Times’ church-state fanaticism is the haunting fear that some Orthodox females, somewhere, may be happy.
The inconsistency of The New York Times’ editorial board in picking up on the scent of religious intrusion is particularly unsettling. As recently as February, a laudatory Times feature about reasonable accommodation for the modesty concerns of Muslim women at Regent Park Aquatic Center in Toronto was published without editorial comment; far from it.
In what read like more of a panegyric of the contemporary secular religion of multiculturalism than a human interest story, the feature extolled the Aquatic Center as more than just a “an architectural jewel of glass, wood and chlorine in the middle of Canada’s largest housing project,” but as some kind of magic panacea to all the ills associated with public housing projects. In that feature, a Ms. Idil Hassan, a 34-year-old Somali immigrant nurse, is quoted sympathetically explaining the need for, and her appreciation of, gender-segregated swim-hours: “I wouldn’t come before because my religion doesn’t allow women to be seen by men [unless they are fully dressed] … It’s really helpful to have that day to be ourselves. I even learned to swim.”
The Orthodox women and girls of Brooklyn couldn’t have put it better themselves.