The New York City Council has proposed a bill that would ban on the sale of all new fur items in all five boroughs, a plan that could have foreboding ramifications for shtreimel wearers in the Orthodox community.
Democratic Councilman Stephen Levin, whose district includes much of Williamsburg, told Hamodia that though the legislation was in its early stages, members were aware of the impasse it could pose to constituencies such as his own, and were favorably disposed to creating an exemption, should it advance.
“We heard quickly about the shtreimel,” he told Hamodia. “It’s my understanding that they are an article of a religious nature, in which case I would expect them to be exempt. That’s not in the language of the bill right now, but I certainly think that it’s an issue that ought to be addressed.”
Councilman Levin added that he felt the bill’s sponsors would be sensitive to conflicts with “religious freedom” of such a ban, and would be open to amendments to protect shtreimlach and other hats favored by the Orthodox community that are made from fur products.
Councilman Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) told Hamodia that he believed the bill was ill-advised, and that passing it without an exemption for streimlach and the like would not pass legal muster.
“Obviously, a religious exemption to protect our community is required in any law that affects religious observance. I am very confident that a ban without protection for religious communities would be unconstitutional,” he said.
The bill, formally introduced last Thursday, calls for a total cessation on the sale of fur in New York City, leaving only exemptions for second-hand items, and threatening heavy fines for violators.
It follows a trend in several California cities, including Los Angeles, which recently passed a law to ban all fur sales starting in 2021. A similar bill was also introduced in New York’s Assembly earlier this year.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is one of the measure’s sponsors, told local media that he felt the proposal was in keeping with the city’s values.
“As an animal lover, I truly think it is cruel to kill an animal for the sole purpose of people wearing a fur coat,” he said. “There is really no need for this. In a progressive city like ours, we need to take steps to protect animals.”
New York’s fur district in the upper 20s and lower 30s streets on the West Side was once a booming part of the city’s economy, which employed hundreds — if not thousands — of Jewish immigrants from Russia and other parts of eastern Europe. While the industry has shrunk considerably, the city still has some 130 fur shops. According to a recent poll, more than 60 percent of Americans see no moral issue with wearing fur.
The bill is being strongly opposed by the city’s fur industry, much of which is located in Speaker Johnson’s own lower-Manhattan district, which is home to over 100 fur-related businesses.
Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Relations for the Agudath Israel of America, said that should the measure advance, his organization would lobby to ensure that it “would not affect religious practice.”
“It would be our job to make sure that no law interferes with religious practice,” he told Hamodia.
One community advocate, who requested anonymity, told Hamodia that while an exemption for religious garb might be the best the Orthodox community could achieve if the bill gains support, that such an approach could still be likely to put shtreimel wearers in a negative light to many New York residents as beneficiaries of an industry the council has labeled as “inhumane.”
Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn), Chairman of the Council’s Jewish Caucus, said that it was too early to tell if the bill would garner significant support, but he was confident that it would not pass without exemptions to protect the customs of the Orthodox community.
“We have to keep an eye on every bill, especially if it stands to affect people’s ability to fulfill their religious obligations,” he told Hamodia. “I spoke to the speaker about it, and he was very receptive. I could not allow something like this to move forward without making sure the proper exemptions for the community were in place.”
Updated Tuesday, April 2, 2019 at 7:27 pm .