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Aug 14, 2008 10:37 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Crowd storms out of meeting at synagogue

Aug 14, 2008 10:37 AM

A meeting about a controversial proposed religious boundary in Westhampton Beach started badly on Wednesday night when significant portion of the more than 600-member audience at the Hampton Synagogue stormed out, angry that a synagogue official read aloud e-mails from community members that insulted Jewish people.

Wednesday night’s meeting was billed as an informational discussion on the proposed eruv, an invisible religious boundary covering a one-square mile zone in the village inside which Orthodox Jews can push and carry objects on the Sabbath. The synagogue has asked the village to establish the eruv on behalf of its congregants.

But at the beginning of the meeting, Joel Cohen, a member of the synagogue’s newly formed eruv committee and the moderator of the event, read e-mails that expressed sentiments strongly against the eruv and against an increased Jewish presence in Westhampton Beach.

One e-mail Mr. Cohen read questioned why the village needs an eruv and stated that the synagogue has bullied the residents of the village.

“F’in kikes—send them back to Israel, or, better yet, Germany,” Mr. Cohen read from another e-mail.

In response, a sizable group of the 600-member audience got up and left. One woman screamed, “You’re only inciting everyone!” Another woman yelled, pointing her finger and stomping, “You started off wrong—you did the whole thing wrong!”

Throughout the debate over the proposed eruv, critics have complained that any opposition to the plan has been unfairly characterized as anti-Semitism. That appeared to be what provoked so many people to storm out of Wednesday’s meeting.

Mr. Cohen explained that he read the e-mails in order to show what has “galvanized the community.”

“No one said the sentiments here are the sentiments of any number of people,” Mr. Cohen said, emphasizing that he read the e-mails in order to show the divides in the Westhampton Beach community.

The Hampton Synagogue on Sunset Avenue hosted the meeting about the eruv, despite requests from the some of the community that the meeting be held in a “neutral” location, such as Westhampton Beach High School. The meeting lasted nearly two hours.

After the packed synagogue cleared out, Mr. Cohen read a letter written by former President George H.W. Bush that stated his support of the creation of an eruv in Washington, D.C.

But his recitation of the letter was met with jeers and booing from the audience—some members yelled that Mr. Cohen was wasting their time, and another shouted that Mr. Bush is “an idiot.”

Once over 100 members of the audience left—leaving a crowd of approximately a little more than 400—Rabbi Marc Schneier read aloud a flier about the eruv handed out at the beginning of the meeting. He stated that the flier “serves as a backdrop for discussion”—but the audience laughed and shouted derisively in response.

The synagogue’s eruv application to the village was temporarily withdrawn in late May so that Rabbi Schneier, the Founding Rabbi of the synagogue, could make an effort to inform the community about the specifics of an eruv and answer questions.

Last night’s meeting was the first public outreach on behalf of Rabbi Schneier. Another is planned on September 7 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The panel at last night’s meeting was made up of the synagogue’s eruv committee: Mr. Cohen, Synagogue President Morris Tuchman, congregant Clint Greenbaum, and Rabbi Schneier.

On Thursday, Rabbi Schneier said that he found “the emotional outbursts, the lack of civility and the blatant disrespect” of some members of the audience “shocking.”

“But I did have good fortune of meeting some fair-minded and good-willed members of the community,” Rabbi Schneier said. “That’s the population that I’m reaching out to.”

Shortly before 9 p.m., the question-and-answer session of the meeting began—although some audience members said that there should have been less of a “lecture” in the beginning and more of an opportunity to ask questions throughout the meeting.

Mark Williams, a resident who has been vocally opposed to the eruv, was one of the first audience members to ask a question.

He first said that the letters Mr. Cohen read were “horrific, and whoever wrote them should be ashamed,” while adding that the reading of the letters by Mr. Cohen was “counterproductive.”

He then asked the rabbi to explain why the eruv is a “civil religious right” and a “matter of law.”

The rabbi stated that the eruv is a “civil right, as Governor [David] Paterson said a week ago,” in reference to the governor’s visit to the synagogue two weeks ago.

“For traditional Orthodox Jews, it’s not a custom or accommodation—it’s a matter of law,” Rabbi Schneier said. “We need permission from any public official who can open or close the streets.”

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I just think that if the Jewish are allowed to erect an eruv on public property year-round then the Christians should be allowed to erect Crosses and Mangers on PUBLIC PROPERTY year-round. And the Chinese to erect symbols (again on public property) during their Chinese new year, and so on and so on. Fair is fair. Whats wrong with that??
By Sam (252), Westhampton Beach on Aug 25, 08 1:30 PM
Unfortunately though, the Eruv actually runs on PRIVATE property. Telephone poles & power lines are owned & operated by Verizon & LIPA respectively. Last time I checked they were private companies & they have consented long ago. They don't have any anti semetic agenda thankfully.
By Michael A. (3), NYC on Aug 26, 08 10:14 AM
Here's what I don't get:
An eruv permits people to get around the restrictions of their religion? Is that right?
It sounds like a loophole.
Or, like in the old days, a Catholic might get around the meatless Friday rule by chewing meat but not swallowing?
Why would a religious person be looking for ways to legitimize a loophole in his/her religious
Can someone please explain this to me?
By Maire (1), westhampton on Aug 28, 08 3:43 PM
Stop pandering to to Marc Schneier by copying the press release in which women can't push their prams! The Village of Westhampton Beach has NEVER inhibited anyone from the free exercise of their religious rights and if their religion does, they should petition that religion and not the Village of Westhampton Beach.Marc Schneier was NOT invited to speak to the congregation at St Marks... he lied... he was invited to speak at the coffee hour after services. He said in public he was invited to speak ...more
By Resident (42), Westhampton Beach on Aug 29, 08 10:03 PM