2 Groups Opposing Jewish Expansion in Rockland Agree to Dissolve

By Reuvain Borchardt

The Grace Baptist Church property at the heart of the litigation.

Two organizations formed to oppose Orthodox Jewish expansion in Rockland County have agreed to dissolve, in settlements over the groups’ battles with a Jewish school allegedly motivated by antisemitism.

The settlements, finalized last week, end litigation brought in 2020 by Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland (ABY) against Citizens United to Protect our Neighborhoods Inc. (CUPON) and a local chapter called CUPON of Greater Nanuet, which had worked with officials in the town of Clarkstown to block the sale of a church building to ABY.

Per the settlement, each group released a statement saying that it and ABY “agreed to a settlement to the case brought by Ateres in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on February 18, 2020, bearing docket number 20-CV-1399 (NSR),” and that “as part of the settlement,” the group “will be dissolved and has ceased operations. No parties have admitted to any wrongdoing or liability as part of the settlement.”

Within 15 days of the settlements (made May 22nd with CUPON of Greater Nanuet and May 17th with CUPON Inc.) the groups will have to delete their social-media accounts.

CUPON of Greater Nanuet’s website has already been taken offline.

The settlements bring a close to a six-year battle that pitted the school against a town whose leadership and some residents fought to keep out.

In 2018, ABY, which at the time was housed in modular structures in Monsey’s New Hempstead neighborhood, entered into a contract to purchase Grace Baptist Church, a 30,000 square foot building with approximately 50 classrooms in the town of Clarkstown.

“But the establishment of an Orthodox Jewish institution did not sit well with Clarkstown, its elected officials, and a notoriously anti-Semitic group of ‘citizen advocates’ called Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhood (CUPON),” ABY wrote in court filings, accusing town leadership of working “to prevent what they viewed as a ‘hostile invasion.’”

CUPON Inc.’s mission, according to its website, is to “orchestrate awareness of changes that adversely impact our diverse community,” to “oppose land-use variances that adversely affect our diverse communities,” and to “protect the character of our neighborhoods.” But according to ABY, this mission entails keeping out Orthodox Jews.

ABY said it attempted to complete the transaction by applying for zoning approval, securing an informal commitment of public bond financing, and obtaining a commitment from a private bank as an alternative source of funding — but Town Supervisor George Hoehmann and other town officials and members of CUPON conspired to deny ABY financing by refusing to grant the regulatory approvals for purchase of the property.

ABY said that that “CUPON’s attorney coached [CUPON members] including Supervisor Hoehmann, on how to disguise their religious animus as ‘facially neutral,’” in an attempt to avoid accusations of religious discrimination.

But some Clarkstown residents made their intentions clear. At the public board meeting in November 2018, video posted by The Yeshiva World shows some attendees shouting while ABY dean Rabbi Aaron Fink presented his school’s plan; a portion of the crowd engaged in a walkout, with one person bluntly yelling, “We don’t want you.”

Comments posted online by Clarkstown residents opposed to ABY included phrases like “parasites,” “cult,” “infest[ing] the local river” and “#hopetheyallgetmeasles.”

Ultimately, the deal fell apart before the town ever issued a final zoning ruling: the bank revoked its letter of intent to finance the deal, the church terminated its agreement to sell the property to ABY, the town acquired the property and “then proposed amending its zoning laws to effectively foreclose building applications by religious groups like [ABY].”

Clarkstown ended up purchasing the church property in January 2020. According to The Journal News, Hoehmann said the town planned to develop the property, possibly with senior citizen housing and parking for the Nanuet School District.

ABY filed suit the following month against the town, Hoehmann, and CUPON, alleging civil-rights claims against the parties, including a violation by the town of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits government from applying a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person or institution. The suit also alleged tortious interference with contract by all three defendants, saying they had engaged in a scheme “to prevent [ABY] from executing its obligation under the contract to purchase the Property” by hindering its attempts to secure financing and regulatory approvals to complete the transaction.  

The district court dismissed most claims, saying ABY lacked standing to sue because the town had not in fact issued a final negative zoning ruling against ABY. But this ruling was overturned last December by an appellate court, allowing ABY to proceed with its case.

Ateres Bais Yaakov Dean Rabbi Aaron Fink with the team of pro bono attorneys from Weil Gotshal at the 2nd Circuit courthouse following oral arguments. L-R: Yonatan Shefa, Josh Halpern, Yehudah Buchweitz, Kevin Simmons, Rabbi Fink, David Yolkut and Ben Apfel. (Weil Gotshal)

Clarkstown agreed in March to settle the litigation by paying $225,000 and having its officials to undergo training in religious-liberty law with a former Justice Department official. Attorneys for Clarkstown were not immediately available to respond to Hamodia’s request for comment for this story.

And on May 17th and May 22nd, respectively, CUPON Inc. and CUPON of Greater Nanuet agreed to cease all operations, dissolve immediately, and not reconstitute. (Other local CUPON chapters — there are 16 more in New York and New Jersey, according to CUPON Inc. website — are not affected.)

The settlements are a legal victory for ABY. But the groups and town officials succeeded in preventing ABY from purchasing the church — a completed building ABY could have moved right into — and instead, ABY, had to build a new building on its grounds in New Hempstead. While the school was in limbo over its location, it lost many students, and its student body is still smaller than what it was before the attempt to purchase the church.

“The debacle with Grace Baptist Church cost us a lot of students — but Baruch Hashem we continue to thrive,” Rabbi Aaron Fink, who served as dean of ABY until his retirement in 2021, told Hamodia on Sunday. “Despite the challenges created by the behavior of Clarkstown, its officials and partners who prevented us from buying the church and then bought it themselves, we have persevered. Under the leadership of Rav Yisrael Teichman, the Head of School, Ateres Bais Yaakov has built a new facility in Monsey’s New Hempstead neighborhood and are educating Bnos Yisrael with Ahavas Hashem, Ahavas Torah and positivity.”

Four years after the town paid millions for the church property, it remains undeveloped, which, ABY attorney Yehudah Buchweitz says, proves the town’s motivation was solely to keep religious Jews out.

This was one of many RLUIPA-related case that have arisen in recent years in towns in upstate New York and in New Jersey, as Orthodox Jews have moved into the towns for the first time. 

Typically, the cases arise after the towns deny the Jews permits to erect an eruv, a school or a shul. The town leaders, and the residents who support them, refuse these permits on the grounds that they violate local laws — and sometimes the towns enact new zoning laws as Orthodox populations grow and these permits are sought. Opponents of these permits say that allowing increased construction would lead to overdevelopment and change the suburban nature of the town, and that they are not trying to keep any particular group out of their town. But the Orthodox communities allege that the residents are engaging in thinly veiled, or at times overt, antisemitic rhetoric and actions, passing and enforcing laws that serve to restrict Orthodox growth.

The Jewish community has won or achieved favorable settlements in nearly all the cases, though often only after protracted litigation.

“This important success closes the book on [CUPON Inc.’s and CUPON of Greater Nanuet’s] activities,” said Buchweitz, who led a pro bono team from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in the case, and who has represented a number of Orthodox Jewish plaintiffs in similar cases in New York and New Jersey. “We are very proud to have represented Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland in this matter. This case is unfortunately one of many instances where local residents work with a municipality to try to keep religious minorities from moving in or practicing their religion freely. This is America and people should be permitted to live, worship and go to school wherever they choose, regardless of their religious affiliation. Most importantly, this case sends a clear message to everyone across New York and beyond that we will continue to root out and fight against discrimination.”


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