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Whiff Of Foul Air In Airmont

Fight over Rockland yeshiva compound seen as tinged with anti-Semitism; neighbors say rural character at stake.

Gabrielle Birkner - Staff Writer 

Airmont, N.Y.

Article appeared in The Jewish Week, July 15, 2005


Ample and immaculately manicured lawns separate Hillside Avenue’s modest, mid-century houses from the narrow asphalt road. The prospect of a new neighbor on this tidy Rockland County street might evoke images of effusive welcomes and homemade cookies.

But the chasidic group that four years ago scooped up a 19-acre tract of land along Hillside Avenue, intent on building a yeshiva there, engendered widespread hostility from villagers who say a single-family residential zone is not the right place for the campus.

[Editor’s note: The Hillside application includes 13 buildings—10 three-floor residences for families; 2 yeshivas--one for married students, another with a dormitory for unmarried students; and the rabbi’s residence; total floor area for all buildings--174,354 square feet; total provided parking spaces--212. Click here to look at site map drawing.]

To the relief of many local residents, the Airmont planning board — in line with its policy banning boarding schools within the village —rejected Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov’s 2002 proposal to erect a 174,000-square-foot yeshiva compound.

[Editor’s note: In June 2002, Rockland County Department of Planning disapproved the Congregation Yakov application, and the Village of Airmont Planning Board followed suit shortly thereafter. Both the County and the Village had the same two reasons for disapproval. The first was that while Hillside Avenue’s RR50 zoning did permit the conditional use of general and religious schools, it did not permit the use of dormitories and multi-family housing. The second reason was that "this proposal is not compatible with the surrounding land uses. The community character of this section of Airmont will be jeopardized by the more intense land use proposed." Because the application was denied on zoning code noncompliance and community incompatibility, the specific health, safety, and welfare issues of the community, which were many, were not mentioned in the Planning Board’s final ruling. A complete overview of the history of the site is available here.]

That decision is at the center of a federal lawsuit filed last month against the Village of Airmont’s board of trustees and its planning board.

Airmont, one of 12 incorporated villages in the town of Ramapo, stands accused of religious bias, a breach of the Fair Housing Act, and of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

RLUIPA, a controversial 5-year-old directive, makes it easier for houses of worship to fight zoning and landmarking laws that burden their religious practice.

[Editor’s note: Click here for the legal issues concerning RLUIPA legislation and how it’s being interpreted in Ramapo.]

With church-state issues increasingly defining the battle lines of America’s culture war, the clash over Airmont bears watching.

It is one of several zoning cases involving synagogues and religious institutions — another is playing out in the tony Long Island enclave of Southampton — likely to yield legal action that will test the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

A case of this kind — if not Airmont, then one with a similar throng of competing interests — is widely expected to end up before a realigned U.S. Supreme Court in the wake of the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Since it was founded 14 years ago, the Village of Airmont has faced charges of discriminatory zoning practices targeted at excluding the large Orthodox population in Ramapo. In 1991, the federal government, which alleged that Airmont was formed to keep out fervently Orthodox Jews, forced the village to amend its zoning code that had banned home-based prayer services.

Earlier this year the Lubavitch Congregation Bais Menachem Chabad, facing stiff opposition from Airmont residents, withdrew its proposal for a zoning variance and abandoned its plans to move to the village.

[Editor’s note: The application was withdrawn as the property in the application was protected by its historical status. Part of the structure goes back to the 18th Century.]

Airmont residents are "doing everything they can to keep [Orthodox Jews] from coming into the community, and the federal government has had enough," Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said. "I’ve spoken with the federal prosecutors, and they’re ready to teach Airmont a lesson."

But some neighbors say they need no lesson on tolerance and vow their opposition to the building project has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

They are quick to point out that in the early 1980s, before Airmont was incorporated and before RLUIPA passed, the Town of Ramapo Planning Board turned down a proposal from the Church of the Nazarene to build a 950-seat house of worship on the Hillside Avenue property after a group of neighbors, voicing concerns about the area’s drainage, sewer and water supply, threatened to sue the town.

"The ethnic claims are a cop-out, an absolute cop-out," said Ernie Mendillo, 71, a Hillside Avenue resident who was outside pruning his garden on a recent morning.

Mendillo, who has lived on the block since 1988, said he opposes the yeshiva not because his would-be neighbors are chasidim, but because he believes a yeshiva compound would increase traffic congestion and could overwhelm the sewer system in the area.

A Hillside Avenue resident who asked not to be named said the street wasn’t designed for the pedestrian traffic that a yeshiva might bring, especially on Shabbat when congregants walk to and from synagogue. The resident noted that the street has neither sidewalks nor streetlights.

"It’s an issue of safety," this person said. "One of my neighbors parks her car at the end of her driveway to block her kids from wandering into traffic."

[Editor’s note: A discussion of the traffic study commissioned in 1983 along with sewer and water problems can be read on the page containing the history of the site. Click here and scroll down the page to see these items with photos.]

Roy Schuchman, a Reform Jew who lives with his family in Airmont, added: "The chasidic community doesn’t allow for the possibility that anyone is against the yeshiva on the merits of the plan. They’re saying it’s anti-Semitism because that’s what plays out politically.

Schuchman went to say that the chasidim "play the system to their own advantage, and they don’t think about the community at large."

Airmont zoning regulations allow for other facilities with residential components — group homes for the disabled, overnight camps and nursing facilities — to be built on rural residential roads like Hillside Avenue, but singles out boarding schools, the recent federal lawsuit alleges. That policy effectively precludes chasidim from worshiping in accordance with communal norms, the government says.

"It is the Congregation’s religious practice and belief that when Hasidic boys reach the age of approximately 15 years, they are sent to live and study at religious boarding schools to pursue their religious studies for an indefinite period of time," the lawsuit states. "Members of the Congregation believe that it is essential for these boys to live, study and pray in the same place in order to minimize outside influences and to intensify the religious learning experience."

Congregants, according to the suit, are encouraged to continue learning in such an environment even after they marry, apparently a reference to the yeshiva’s plan to build 11 townhouses for married students, in addition to a large dormitory for unmarried students, a residence for the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Abraham Katz of Rockland County, and a parking lot with 212 spaces.

The government is asking the court to demand that Airmont change its zoning code, permitting adult student housing, and stipulate financial penalties against the village.

In July 2002, Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov, filed a federal suit alleging the village was violating RLUIPA. In January, the village and the congregation agreed on an out-of-court settlement that allowed the yeshiva’s proposal to go back to the village Planning Board pending an environmental review that is still in progress.

[Editor’s note: This agreement is the subject of an active lawsuit alleging that its approval was not done in public session, therefore violating New York’s Sunshine Law.]

There had been no resolution when the government initiated its suit last month.

Airmont Mayor John Layne said that following the 1991 lawsuit, the federal government reviewed and deemed constitutional the village’s modified zoning code.

"I feel confident that our zoning code is fair and reasonable," said Layne, who maintained that a Hillside Avenue yeshiva could place excessive strain on the neighborhood’s roads, and water, gas and sewer systems. "My sense is that the village stands behind me in standing behind the zoning code, and is willing to take the risk of going to court."

Layne said he sees no reason that the village zoning code must have an adult student housing provision.

"We are a predominantly single family community, and I’d rather not change the zoning codes," he said. "But if deficiencies are proven, I’m also a mayor that follows the law."

Dennis Lynch, a Rockland County civil rights lawyer representing Congregation Mischknois Lavier Yakov, said he is convinced that Airmont’s boarding school prohibition targets chasidim, many of whom believe that "students must be immersed in the yeshiva; that is, they are to be there on a 24/7 basis."

Lynch asserted, "Zoning laws don’t come down from Moses. They’re drafted to keep things in and keep things out."

The yeshiva is currently housed in a Ramapo facility that Lynch said is too small to meet its needs.

Lynch said the congregation, before submitting its 2002 proposal to the Planning Board, commissioned engineers, and traffic and drainage consultants to study the potential environmental impact of the yeshiva. He said many villagers have been outspoken in their opposition to the yeshiva without considering these studies, which the attorney said concludes that the yeshiva would not have a detrimental effect on the environment.

[Editor’s note: These studies have not been given wide circulation. We will make a request this week to have copies sent to Preserve Ramapo so that we might compare them to the traffic study conducted in 1983, the FOIL documents from the Sewer Commission on sewage spills in the streets of Airmont and other testimony related to the Airmont sewers, and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory study of the aquifer "Water Shortages, Development, and Drought in Rockland County, NY." We will report back on the response from Mr. Lynch when made available.]

Orthodox On School Board

Throughout pockets of Ramapo, and especially in the Village of New Square and the unincorporated neighborhood of Monsey, the influence of the fervently Orthodox is evident. Women wear calf-length pleated skirts, loose blouses and sheitls. The men, earlocks skimming their shoulders, don black hats and knee-length black coats.

Schuchman, a medical malpractice attorney, said he doesn’t want the bedroom community of Airmont to morph into a neighborhood like New Square, where synagogues, shtiebels and kollels dot residential neighborhoods.

His primary concern, however, is area property values, which he says rise and fall with the perceived quality of the local public schools.

Airmont is located in the Ramapo Central School District, but in the neighboring East Ramapo Central School District, Orthodox Jews hold five of the nine seats on the school board. Some, like Schuchman, have accused the Orthodox board members — and Orthodox residents, who vote on the school budget in a referendum — of attempting to "starve" public schools while sending their children to private yeshivas.

In May a $172.7 million budget passed by the East Ramapo Central school board was rejected by the community. The board was forced to shave more than $1.5 million from the spending plan.

"They know how to work the system," Schuchman said of the Orthodox. "They vote as one bloc and they’ll do the same thing here that they did in East Ramapo."

He said the people who send their children to private schools should be barred from serving on the school board.

St. Lawrence, the Ramapo town supervisor, said he finds such rhetoric "really distasteful."

Orthodox Jews, like any other Ramapo taxpayer whose money funds the public schools, should be able to serve on the school board, he said.

"This is America, people can run for election," St. Lawrence said. "What’s wrong with having Orthodox people on the school board?

"I’m Catholic, but I can tell you that a lot of lashon hara goes on in this town," he said, using the Yiddish term for "hurtful speech."

Of the approximately 26,500 school-aged children living in the East Ramapo Central School District, only about 8,000 attend public schools. Most of the others attend Jewish schools.

"What if all the Orthodox and chasidic people put their kids in the public schools tomorrow?" St. Lawrence wondered. "Property taxes would go through the roof."

Christian Sampson, the East Ramapo Central School District Board president, said the Orthodox community has legitimate concerns about competing financial obligations: multiple yeshiva tuitions and rising property taxes that are used to fund public schools.

"[Orthodox board members] have asserted that they will strive to find ways to save money without compromising the quality of public education," said Sampson, who is not Jewish.

Sampson dismissed the concerns about plunging property values in the Ramapo Central School district.

"Rockland is one of the hottest markets," he said. "Who buys the property may change, but we’re not seeing values going down."

Joseph Brennan, a Ramapo resident who opposes the Hillside Avenue yeshiva project, agrees with those who assert that the bottom line is about neighborhood integrity.

"You move into a neighborhood that’s zoned a certain way, and you expect that’s how it will develop," said Brennan, who will challenge St. Lawrence in the November election.

While residents talk about their wish to maintain the rural and residential character of their neighborhood, for the second time in 14 years Airmont is facing charges of attempting to keep out fervently Orthodox Jews.

That, said one town official speaking anonymously, was the reason for establishing the tiny village in the first place.

"Was that the intention back in 1991?" Brennan asked. "I hope not. And I hope that wouldn’t be the reason anyone would form a village."


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