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Catskills Lawsuit Settlement Shows that Anti-Jewish Prejudice Is Alive and Well

The village of Bloomingburg and the town of Mamakating will pay $2.9 million in damages to a developer for their alleged efforts to block the settlement of Hasidim in the area

Armin Rosen
October 31, 2016
Flickr / danryan28
Fall foliage in Mamakating, NYFlickr / danryan28
Flickr / danryan28
Fall foliage in Mamakating, NYFlickr / danryan28

This presidential campaign season has drawn attention to the grim persistence of anti-Semitism in the American political discourse. As bracing as it’s been to see what Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has meant for the nation’s most vocal Jew-haters, the settlement of a lawsuit pitting developers and Jewish community figures against local government in upstate New York is a timely reminder that there are more instrumental and more insidious forms of anti-Semitism still active in certain corners of American life.

Last week, the Bloomingburg Jewish Education Center and developer Shalom Lamm settled its lawsuit, first filed in 2014, against the village of Bloomingburg and the town of Mamakating (Bloomingburg is an incorporated village in the town of Mamakating). The governments of Bloomingburg and Mamakating will pay $2.9 million in total damages ($1.595 million from Mamakating and $1.305 million from Bloomingburg) connected to the upstate New York communities’ alleged efforts to block the settlement of Hasidic Jews in the area. Filings in the case, accessed through PACER, the federal court system’s online record of system, read as if they belong to an entirely different time and place. Soberingly enough, their record of official discrimination and communal acrimony unfolded over the past two years, just 75 miles north of New York City.

The governments of both Bloomingburg and Mamakating were eager to keep out Hasidic Jews themselves, using an arsenal of procedural trickery to make Hasidic settlement as difficult as possible. As the plaintiff’s initial complaint recounts, the lawsuit was brought in response to “pervasive, government-sponsored religious discrimination,” with the defendants, which included local government officials, “acting on behalf of an aggressive and hateful group of their residents.”

In 2006, a developer called Sullivan Farms obtained permission from the Village of Bloomingburg to construct nearly 400 housing units in a new neighborhood called Chestnut Ridge. When Hassidic Jews began moving into the Bloomingburg area, and when it became apparent that the Chestnut Ridge development could eventually host a large Hasidic community, the town used every means available to reverse the area’s Jewish influx (although officials later unsuccessfully claimed that the developer had misled local government about its actual intentions for the Chestnut Ridge development. In 2013, the village’s Planning Board turned down a planned Jewish school’s request to build a busway and parking lot. The Board offered no rationale for how or why they’d rejected the request, although the plaintiff’s complaint claims that “hundreds of angry residents” had showed up to board meetings to register their opposition to the school’s construction. The board’s rejection made the building of the school almost impossible, thereby forcing Hasidic families to home-school their children. (Two of the co-plaintiffs on the initial lawsuit are women who would have sent their children to the proposed Jewish school.)

When the New York State Supreme Court vacated the village Planning Board’s decision to effectively block the construction of the Jewish school, Bloomingburg simply dissolved its Planning Board, placing the project under the jurisdiction of the Mamakating town government and requiring the developers to jump through a slew of additional procedural hoops. When construction moved forward at Chestnut Ridge in 2014, the village declared a moratorium on all new development in the area, period. When it became clear there was no other way to reverse the various permissions and zoning decisions that enabled Chestnut Ridge’s development, the mayor called a September 2014 referendum to dissolve the village itself, leaving open the possibility that the Mamakating government could tie up the project in additional red tape. When that referendum failed, the town and village brought a lawsuit against Chestnut Ridge developer Shalom Lamm and his partners in April of 2015, accusing them of organizing electoral fraud in connection to the vote.

That case’s complaint alleges that “The Town and Village are presently under siege in a hostile takeover spearheaded by a racketeering enterprise,” with the defendants harboring “the sole goal of controlling these municipalities for the benefit of the racketeering enterprise which they head.” The case was dismissed in August of 2015, not long after it was filed. Naturally, this case wasn’t Bloomingburg and Mamakating’s only lawsuit related to Chesnut Ridge: residents unsuccessfully sued to stop the development in 2013, while last week’s settlement also resolves a lawsuit that the town of Mamakating had brought against New York’s Department of State.

As the original plaintiff’s complaint makes clear, the townsfolk and their leaders did little to hide their anti-Hasidic motives. In 2012, Bloomingburg residents formed a “Rural Community Coalition” to oppose Chestnut Ridge. The complaint cites one of the coalition’s founders as explaining that the community was not initially against the development, which had been in the works since 2008, because “at that point in time, it was not known that the developer planned a Hasidic community.” The village’s elected officials practiced a more covert form of discrimination. Mayor Frank Gerardi, who the plaintiffs’ complaint alleges was elected on a platform of preventing additional Hasidic settlement in Bloomingburg, “sought personally to inspect many Jewish-owned properties in search of code violations.” He was allegedly adept at concocting roadblocks for Hasidic-related building projects, issuing a “stop-work” order at one point simply because people were observed “entering and exiting” buildings at the Chestnut Ridge worksite. In 2014, the village government enacted a building moratorium in response to “a substantial number” of building code complaints—which, it turned out, had to do with things like the presence of a Torah scroll in a residence, and the use of a private pool as a mikveh. Gerardi didn’t try to disguise his reasoning for opposing the project, either: According to the complaint, Gerardi “has declared that he was elected to keep ‘those people’ out and to condemn Jewish-owned buildings.”

This week’s settlement puts an end to this long and sordid episode, in which a small town exhausted every possible legal and procedural option in an attempt to block the arrival of outsiders based solely on their religious identity, while making the town’s existing Hasidic population feel as unwelcome as possible. But little contrition was offered, at least according to one local news report: “On the whole, this is for the best interest of the taxpayers,” Russell Wood, the current mayor of Bloomingburg, said of the settlement. “This is a good deal.” Village Trustee Aaron Rabiner agreed that the settlement was a prudent decision, since the villager’s insurers were capable of paying out the settlement. “The insurance company is picking up the tab,” Rabiner said, according to the Middletown, New York-based Times Record-Herald. “It was a no-brainer for us.”

The Bloomingburg case didn’t end with a feel good-moment of inter-communal reconciliation. The people of Bloomingburg will have to live with their Hasidic neighbors by virtue of exhausting all apparent legal avenues for preventing them from moving in. If there’s any encouragement to be drawn from this case, it comes from the fact that it’s possible for groups like the Hasids of Bloomingburg to eventually receive some form of redress through the court system, even when confronted by an official conspiracy to keep them out of town. But overall, the case records, and even the case’s conclusion, are a stark reminder that anti-Jewish attitudes are alive and well in parts of the United States—and that they sometimes have the force of government behind them.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.