Bridging the Gap

staten island, westerleigh

Some 450 young Jewish families have recently moved to the borough of Staten Island — most from Boro Park, but others from Williamsburg, New Square and elsewhere, including Chassidei Ger, Vizhnitz, Belz, Skver and others. Thirty-five of these families have settled in the Westerleigh neighborhood, which previously did not have an Orthodox community. They have not been warmly welcomed by all of their neighbors.

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As Chassidic Jews have relocated from their long-time Brooklyn bastions over soaring home prices, new and growing Jewish communities have sprouted outside New York City across the tri-state area and beyond.

But some seven years ago, a few Gerrer families moved to Staten Island, and that borough, which already had its own sizable Jewish community, soon became a desirable destination within the city itself for those Brooklynites, Chassidic and non-Chassidic alike, looking for greener — and cheaper — pastures.

The earliest of these Brooklyn pilgrims settled in the Willowbrook neighborhood, which has boasted a flourishing Jewish community for more than five decades; then, some of the population began to spill over into nearby Manor Heights. Three years ago, for the first time, families began moving to Westerleigh, a neighborhood that had never had an Orthodox presence before.

The story of how an eruv was removed last month in Westerleigh – which now has 35 Orthodox families – following some residents’ complaints over a lack of permits, has been widely reported in the media. But community members say the eruv is just the latest in a litany of complaints that a minority of established Westerleigh residents have been levying against Orthodox Jews since they began moving into the neighborhood. The issue, say the Orthodox Jews, is one of unambiguous anti-Semitism, intended to make life difficult for Jews and thereby discourage more from moving into the neighborhood.

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A home in Westerleigh, with a “Not Selling – Westerleigh Strong” sign. (Yitzy Engel/Hamodia)

‘Because of Hate’

“The eruv was taken down because of hate,” says Rabbi Yisroel Rottenberg, a leader of the Gerrer kehillah in Willowbrook and an expert in eruvin. Rabbi Rottenberg was called upon to assist the nascent Westerleigh community when it began construction of an eruv around a year ago.

“As we built the eruv, there were many hardships. Some Westerleigh residents gave us a very difficult time,” says Rabbi Rottenberg. “Some members of the Westerleigh Improvement Society were scaring away workers who were putting up the eruv.”

The Westerleigh Improvement Society (WIS) calls itself a neighborhood civic group. Its president, Mark Anderson, has been the prime antagonist against the Jewish community, according to residents who spoke with Hamodia. Anderson did not respond to multiple requests from Hamodia to be interviewed for this article.

The eruv committee sought assistance from the Young Israel of Staten Island, and its Rav, Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield. That shul, located in Willowbrook, is one of the largest Young Israels in America, as well as being the largest religious institution of any kind in Staten Island.

In the year 2000, when Rabbi Lehrfield first became Rav, he had obtained permission from Con Edison and Verizon — with the help of Staten Island borough president James Molinaro — to place PVC pipes on their utility poles to serve as lechis for an eruv in the Willowbrook community. Because the agreement between Young Israel and the utility companies had given general permission for construction of an eruv in Staten Island, the Westerleigh eruv committee believed there would be no problem with piggybacking on the Young Israel permit and placing lechis on utility poles in their own neighborhood.

Thus, an eruv was constructed in Westerleigh.

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A PVC eruv pipe on a utility pole in Westerleigh. (Yitzy Engel/Hamodia)

Westerleigh Isn’t Willowbrook

But Anderson and some other residents were dead-set against an eruv, and contacted the utility companies to complain.

Unbeknownst to the eruv committee, the rules had changed in the years since Young Israel had obtained its permit. Due to numerous requests from wireless operators to install cellphone towers on utility poles, the utility companies established new rules for use of their poles by any entity — including an eruv committee. Now, in addition to an insurance requirement, the entity had to map out the precise poles that would be used and obtain a permit for each one. So piggybacking off of the Willowbrook eruv contract would not work.

Anderson and the others seized on this, and began repeatedly contacting local elected officials and utility companies. But their complaints about the eruv were not limited to the lack of permits. They pointed to one lechi that was flapping loosely, saying it was a danger; after that one was fixed, several others suddenly began flapping, leading to the presumption that it was the eruv opponents themselves who were loosening the screws.

“This was never about an eruv or permits; this is about anti-Semitism, no question about it,” says Rabbi Rottenberg.

Meeting and Protesting

Meanwhile, at the WIS’s monthly meetings, some members were expressing opposition to the eruv and espousing anti-Semitic statements, according to sources who were present. At one meeting, some 50 of the 300 people in attendance voiced opposition to the eruv. At another meeting, 30 Jews in attendance walked out in disgust and protest over the comments they heard.

Rabbi Lehrfield says that when he attended a WIS meeting two months ago, people expressed anger that residents were being “made to sell” their homes.

“I said, ‘Nobody is making anybody sell,’” Rabbi Lehrfield tells Hamodia. “‘People are selling because they are offered good prices — it’s called capitalism.’ A few vocal people make more noise than all the others — in every community — and the people who go to these meetings are the vocal ones. I think most people are happy with diversity and with housing prices going up. It is a vocal minority that is loud and angry, and probably anti-Semitic, that are running the meetings.”

The WIS appears to have been promoting its meetings more heavily in recent months. Westerleigh resident Carolyn Cuneo, who has never attended a meeting, told Hamodia she has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years but never received a mailing from WIS until three months ago.

Elected officials were receiving dozens of calls a day from angry opponents of the eruv and tried to mediate between the parties.

At one meeting between several members of the Jewish community and WIS, held in the office of an elected official, Anderson said, “An eruv in Westerleigh is a threat to Westerleigh,” according to a community member at the meeting who spoke to Hamodia on condition of anonymity.

“The whole room was silent. Everyone was in a state of shock that he had said that — even the other Society members,” the community member says.

At another meeting, one man told Rabbi Lehrfield, “I don’t want a fence because I feel like I am in jail, I am in a ghetto,” Rabbi Lehrfield recalls. “I went outside with him and said, ‘Sir, show me the eruv.’ He pointed to a utility pole. I said, ‘That is not an eruv, that is a utility pole.’ He had no idea what an eruv is. Then I said, ‘What part of that pole makes you feel like you are in jail?’ He said, ‘The wires.’ I replied, ‘The eruv doesn’t even come this far! That is just a plain utility pole!’”

The man then yelled at Rabbi Lehrfield, and pointing to a map of the eruv, said, “Are you going to take over?”

At the same meeting, another man told Rabbi Lehrfield even more bluntly, “We don’t want to be your neighbors.”

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A PVC eruv pipe on a utility pole in Westerleigh. (Yitzy Engel/Hamodia)

New Rules? Or Simple Prejudice?

Ultimately, the elected officials and utility companies asked the eruv committee to take down the lechis and apply for a proper permit.

The committee was at first unsure about whether to comply. They had done everything they had believed proper all along. Now they were being asked to remove the eruv, ostensibly over a permitting issue, but in reality, they felt, due to blatant prejudice. Removing the eruv, in addition to the time, effort, cost and inconvenience involved, would be handing a victory, however temporary, to anti-Semites bent on making life difficult for Jews.

Rabbi Lehrfield called Rabbanim who had constructed eruvin in other towns for their opinions on the matter, and most urged him to do everything to the letter of the law.

The lechis were taken off the utility poles in mid-May.

Even as a worker was removing the eruv, Anderson approached him and said, “An eruv is dangerous for Westerleigh.”

Rabbi Lehrfield says that several elected officials, as well as Con Ed, Verizon, and the Transportation Department “were very understanding and helpful throughout the process.” By early June, Con Ed and Verizon were on the verge of granting approval for the eruv to be reinstalled.

But the Jewish community is not expecting the problems with Anderson and like-minded individuals to disappear once the permits are granted, as the eruv is only the most public of numerous complaints levied at the Jewish community.

When a new shul tried to open, it was the object of continual harrassment over an alleged lack of permits.

Anderson sent elected officials a photo of a yeshivah bus, claiming that it was speeding; when contacted by the officials, Jewish community members showed them the bus’ GPS data, which proved it had never been driven faster than 27 mph.

When a child had a serious seizure, necessitating a Code 1 Hatzolah call, Anderson complained to the office of an elected official because, he claimed, the Hatzolah ambulance had made contact with a car mirror.

Several months ago, signs that read “Not Selling – Westerleigh Strong” began to be seen on some neighborhood lawns. Ostensibly targeted to local real-estate agents seeking homes for sale in the area, many in the community interpret the action as a not-too-subtle message to keep Jews out of Westerleigh.

‘Neighborly Feeling’

When Carolyn Cuneo first saw the lawn signs, “I thought it was quaint, cute,” an expression of unity among the community she has called home for more than two decades, she told Hamodia. But then her daughter, who works as a speech pathologist in a Jewish school, told her that the signs belied a far more nefarious, anti-Semitic intent.

Cuneo says she has no problems with people of any race moving into the community — so long as they assimilate. And she is somewhat apprehensive, based on her perceptions of Chassidic Jews, though she says she doesn’t have any Chassidic Jews as neighbors.

“This is not a snobby neighborhood at all; it’s very blue-collar, but very patriotic,” says Cuneo. “If you go up and down the blocks, there are American flags, and blue ribbons to support cops. This is a very blue-collar, flag-waving type of American neighborhood.”

Cuneo says she finds it “offensive” that yeshivos are open on July 4 and Memorial Day. “This is America and we are citizens here, and those are holidays that are near and dear to us and mean something. And to go about your business and have schools open is kind of like a lack of respect.”

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(Yitzy Engel/Hamodia)

Cuneo says she enjoys the neighborly feeling in her community, and hopes that anyone who moves in will share that.

“In this neighborhood — which is one of the reasons why I love it here — when we had a blackout, everybody ended up meeting in the street; we all brought out any perishables, and they set up tables and everyone was sharing with everyone else. And with the last blizzard, everyone was out in the street, people making hot chocolate, bringing out goodies. If your husband is away, and there is a snowfall, somebody else’s neighbor will shovel your snow. I think that if the Hasidics that move here are willing to embrace that, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Cuneo says she believes the Chassidic Jews “don’t mix very well with people from other faiths.” But “if they could acknowledge the neighborhood that they are moving into, and kind of assimilate into that … the neighbors just want it to stay as it is now, not as far as the religious makeup, but as far as a civic, community thing.”

Cuneo says she opposes the Westerleigh Strong signs due to their anti-Semitic nature, but that one of her friends told her she put a sign on her lawn only because local real-estate agents were harassing her, and they stopped approaching her once her sign was up.

Getting Along in a ‘Lovely Place’

Rabbi Levi Leifer, who moved to Westerleigh from Boro Park three years ago, says he has a friendly relationship with his new neighbors.

“The problems come from people who have a fear of the unknown,” Rabbi Leifer says. “I communicate with my neighbors all the time, and we get along very well.

“We were one of the first families to move here, and we were very careful to please the neighborhood. If anyone ever complained about anything, as long as it was respectful, the issue was immediately remedied.”

Another Chassidic Westerleigh resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Hamodia, “I get along very well with my neighbors; so does everyone else I speak with. When it snowed, my neighbors used their blower to clear the snow from my house. We take out each other’s garbage. My neighbors don’t know anything about the civic society meetings; we are all extremely friendly.”

As for those seeking to keep the Jews out, says Rabbi Leifer, “They have to learn that this is America and there is freedom of religion for everyone, for places of worship — whether a synagogue or church — and no one should be afraid to practice their own religion. As long as we are loyal citizens, we should be allowed to live wherever we choose.”

Ultimately, says Rabbi Leifer, the hatred is preached by “a very small minority who will die out one way or another.”

“Few people are paying attention to it for the most part,” he says. “Jews are still moving in, and will continue to do so. We are not going away. We are very happy here, baruch Hashem.”

“People are afraid of the unknown; it’s just human nature that change doesn’t come easily,” says Cuneo. “I think these are just growing pains and that’s it. Westerleigh really is a lovely place.

“I don’t blame anybody for wanting to live here.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com