Governor Hochul’s Principled Move

Since the early 1990s, there have been efforts on the part of a number of communities to prevent Orthodox Jews from establishing homes and shuls in their environs, hiding their bigotry behind zoning laws and other measures.

Rockland County’s Village of Airmont, for instance, promulgated zoning ordinances prohibiting houses of worship in private homes. The impetus for the measure was expressed well by one local man, who admitted, “The only reason we formed this village is to keep those Jews from Williamsburg out of here.”

In nearby Ramapo, the Town Supervisor described opposition to an influx of observant Jews starkly: “The motivation of some people is that they do not want the ultra-Orthodox or the Hasidim to move in.”

Ploys to keep Jews out were embraced far beyond upstate New York, in places like Long Beach; Beachwood, Ohio; Hancock Park, California; and Ocean Township, New Jersey.

Such attempts are built on the premise that these residents cause problems. But in reality, they enhance neighboring communities.

A recent attempt to keep Jews out of an area has been festering in the town of Blooming Grove in Orange County, whose officials wanted to establish a real estate transfer tax for collecting revenue that would be utilized to preserve agricultural land and parks — read: prevent Jewish home developers from building housing in the town. Blooming Grove’s preservation areas included land parcels purchased by a Kiryas Joel businessman.

A bill to implement the Blooming Grove tax plan was passed by New York’s legislature but was vetoed last week by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

In explanation of her veto, the Governor wrote, “There have been well-documented tensions in Orange County between local elected officials and members of the Hasidic community. Similar tensions in the nearby Town of Chester resulted in litigation. It would be inappropriate to sign this legislation at this juncture, while facts are still being gathered about the situation.”

Her reference to Chester was about that township having been sued in 2019 by a developer who alleged that the town was deliberately attempting to keep Orthodox Jews out by buying property to keep it from being developed, levying additional taxes on developers, limiting construction hours and passing restrictive zoning laws.

Attorney General Letitia James joined that lawsuit, saying, “This campaign to deny housing to members of the Jewish community is not only a clear violation of our laws but is antithetical to our basic values and blatantly antisemitic.”

Then-Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed the Chester measure and, in 2021, the township settled with the developers who had initiated the lawsuit.

Gov. Hochul’s veto of the Blooming Grove tax bill brought grumbling from predictable directions. Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, blasted the Governor’s veto as a violation of Blooming Grove’s “home rule” rights. And it elicited kudos from those who had championed the fight against the legislation, like United Jewish Communities of Blooming Grove, led by Joel Stern and Isaac Eckstein.

Assemblymen Simcha Eichenstein and Daniel Rosenthal also weighed in with praise for the Governor’s veto, as did the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, and Agudath Israel of America.

The Agudah, on behalf of the United Jewish Communities of Blooming Grove, waged an intensive advocacy effort to have the bill vetoed, and placed it as a high-priority item on the agenda of a meeting held with Gov. Hochul at the home of Agudah Board of Trustees’ Chairman Mr. Shlomo Werdiger.

Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s director of New York Government Relations, led and coordinated the advocacy effort. “We are glad that Gov. Hochul saw through this façade and recognized the true intentions of this bill,” he said.

The veto, he continued, “sends a clear message that Chassidic Jews, like any other Americans, are entitled to live anywhere in New York State.”

Rabbi Silber also praised Jake Adler, Gov. Hochul’s Director of Jewish Affairs, for his role in the effort. Avrohom Weinstock, chief of staff at Agudath Israel of America, played an important role as well.

Isaac Eckstein and Joel Stern of the UJC of Blooming Grove also worked hard and helped make this happen.

We join in that sentiment and thank the Governor for her decision to veto the bill. Not only does her action open up a neighborhood to Jewish Americans, but it sends a message, too, to other community leaders and residents with “concerns” about Orthodox Jews daring to purchase land or homes near them: Anti-Jewish bias dressed up as environmental responsibility or zoning rules can be exposed and dealt with by responsible leaders.