Second Lawsuit Against Airmont Alleges Systemic Bias Against Jews

AIRMONT, N.Y. -

The Rockland County village of Airmont, founded four decades ago to get away from Orthodox Jews, still engages in blatant discrimination by making it nearly impossible to daven with a minyan or have a typically larger Jewish household, a lawsuit filed Monday by three local Rabbanim and other residents charged.

The lawsuit, the second filed against the village this month and the fourth since its establishment in 1991, accuses ruling authorities of forcing residents to pay thousands of dollars up front just to hold meetings on permits. It also alleges that the village imposes an extraordinarily long process that extends for years and has yet to result in a single permit being granted since the current mayor and board took over.

“Thirty years of religious bigotry are enough,” Hiram Sasser, general counsel of First Liberty Institute, who filed the lawsuit on the plaintiffs’ behalf, said in a statement Tuesday. “The Orthodox Jewish community of Airmont just wants to be left alone to peacefully worship and coexist but Airmont officials are openly hostile.”

Interviews with Airmont residents depict a village administration bent on making life as hard as possible for its Orthodox community as a means of forcing them out. While other villages and town dotting Rockland have had issues with discriminatory practices, said Yehuda Leib Zorger, a Brooklyn transplant who has lived in Airmont for several years, Airmont leads in this dark field.

“Airmont is the king of these anti-Semitic villages,” Zorger told Hamodia.

The village of approximately 2,300 residents is bordered by Monsey, Chestnut Ridge, Suffern and Mahwah — all of which, with the exception of Monsey, have sought in recent years to limit its Jewish population growth.

Orthodox Jews have lived in the village since its founding and have witnessed a growth spurt in the past few years, as housing prices in traditional Jewish neighborhoods have skyrocketed and apartments became scarce. There are currently between 800 and 1,000 Jews living there.

Airmont was once part of Ramapo — home to Monsey, Spring Valley, New Square and other Torah strongholds. It became incorporated as its own village in 1991 to get away from Ramapo’s inclusionary zoning laws.

If history is a guide, the lawsuit will end as it did twice previously — with a federal judge ordering the village to change its practices and stop using its zoning and inspection controls to make it hard to get a permit to build a shul or extend a home.

But the village’s current leadership is facing its first re-election in March since defeating the old guard four years ago, having accused them of insufficiently harassing the growing Orthodox population, Shimon Rolnitzky, who is familiar with the local politics, told Hamodia.

“The incumbents [in 2015] were the people who established the village with the goal of keeping the Jews out,” Rolnitzky said. “They changed their ways because of the pressure of the federal government and became fair — they didn’t give preferential treatment to Orthodox Jews. They treated everyone equally. For this sin, they were forced out, they were defeated.”

The lawsuit names as defendants Mayor Phillip Gigante, members of the Board of Trustees, village attorney Sean Mack, members of the planning and zoning boards, and Building Department inspectors and code-enforcement officers.

Evidence presented in Monday’s lawsuit includes searing testimony of Airmont’s founding as a flight from Orthodox Jews. “Why Do We Need To Incorporate?” asked one flyer at the time — with the answer given, “Zoning control and enforcement.” Shortly after it was incorporated, a board member was heard to say, “Let’s face it, the only reason we formed this village is to keep those Jews from Williamsburg out of here.”

One of the new Board of Trustees’ first acts was to enact zoning laws that forbade the “home synagogues” that pervade small villages with not enough people or funds to build a regular shul.

That ordinance was challenged by the federal Justice Department, then led by Attorney General William Barr — who was nominated this week by President Donald Trump for the same job.

That lawsuit was resolved in 1995 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that “there was evidence that the events leading to the incorporation of the town and the implementation of its zoning code ‘amply support a finding that the impetus [to form the town and implement the Code] was not a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason but rather an animosity toward Orthodox Jews as a group.”

Another federal lawsuit in 2005 ended with the village promising to end the use of zoning laws to disrupt the religious exercise of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Since that consent decree expired in 2011, the lawsuit asserts, Airmont has returned to its discriminatory practices.

“The village had trouble twenty, thirty years ago but it became better,” said Harav Eliezer Halberstam, Rav of the local Bais Hamedrash Radashitz. “The new kids on the block never went through the lawsuits so they never learned their lesson.”

Rav Halberstam recounted some of the struggles shuls go through to receive a permit.

The first thing the village requires is an informal meeting to see if the applicant has a chance of getting approved. Following that, the review is farmed out to the zoning board and then the planning board. Each sitting of these boards require the payment of at least $1,000 — with the fee stricture “subject to change without notice,” the application notes dryly.

Harav David Ribiat of the Bostoner beis medrash, one of the plaintiffs, says he has paid more than $40,000 in fees during a two and a half year process that included multiple delays with no resolution. Another plaintiff, Harav Moishe Berger of the Rudniker shul, “faced the prospect of a year in jail for simply welcoming his neighbors into his home for prayer,” the lawsuit alleges.

Rav Halberstam said that he received a permit for his shul years ago, before the current Gigante administration took office. But he now wants to extend a parking lot to a neighboring property that he purchased and has come up against a brick wall.

Each meeting with village enforcers ends with a new checklist of things to do and more money to spend. For the parking lot, the village told him that the code does not allow building a lot for cars coming to a different property.

“There was never such a code. It was made up,” Rav Halberstam says bitterly. “We call it dysfunction by design.”

The lawsuit is actually two separate claims — one filed by three shuls and another by local residents.

“On the outside,” says Zorger, “if you’re going to look at it, it looks like a legitimate law. But it is all targeting the heimishe community. It’s just a daily struggle to be Jewish and live in this area.”

Zorger has a long list of examples to buttress his claim.

Weeks after a hachnasas sefer Torah in the village, he says, a law was passed by the board tightly regulating “parades.”

One year after Sukkos, when Jews trimmed or cut down trees on their private property in order to erect a sukkah, a law was suddenly passed governing the treatment of tree pruning and axing.

Last year, an existing law that forbade parking on public street in the winter months was extended to all year round. It was clearly aimed at Orthodox Jews who parked near shul on Friday night, Zorger said.

“The common denominator,” the lawsuit declares, “has been an unwritten government policy to frustrate, fatigue, discourage, delay, deter and deny the rights of citizens to the free exercise of religion and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.”