After years of pursuing a religious boundary within Westhampton Beach, an activist group announced last week that it has formally established the district—known as an eruv—within the village limits, sparking further controversy on the already divisive issue.
The establishment of the eruv was trumpeted Friday morning in a “breaking news” press release signed by Hampton Synagogue Founding Rabbi Marc Schneier and Synagogue President Morris Tuchman, and comes less than two months after a federal court ruled that Westhampton Beach could not prevent the establishment of the eruv, a nearly invisible boundary that permits Orthodox Jews to push and carry objects to temple, as well as participate in other activities that would otherwise be forbidden on the Sabbath or holy days, within its borders. The ruling was handed down in response to a lawsuit filed against the village by the East End Eruv Association, the group that has been pushing for the boundary since 2011.
But the battle over the establishment of the eruv is far from over as Brian Sokoloff, the attorney who has been representing the village in various litigation related to the eruv that has arisen since 2011, filed a letter on Monday announcing that he is seeking to have an expedited appeal of the ruling handed down by Judge Kathleen Tomlinson this past June in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.
In his two-page letter, Mr. Sokoloff describes both the village and its residents as “victims,” alleging that the presence of the boundary’s markers, called “lechis,” violates their rights and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; the clause forbids the government from establishing or favoring one religion over another.
“It’s important for people to realize that this case is far from over,” Mr. Sokoloff said on Tuesday. “The lower court still has to rule on the Establishment Clause issue, and also there are appellate courts and none, to my knowledge, have ever ruled on these issues we’re raising. We think we’re on firm legal ground with our arguments.”
Meanwhile, another group opposing the eruv, known as the Jewish People for the Betterment of Westhampton Beach, has decried the announcement of the boundary as merely a publicity stunt. The group’s lawyer, Jonathan Sinnreich, an attorney with the Central Islip law firm Sinnreich Kosakoff and Messina LLP, said that because the boundary has not been approved by a governing body, it cannot be officially recognized under Jewish law.
In their joint statement, Rabbi Schneier and Mr. Tuchman noted that the Hampton Synagogue, located on Sunset Avenue in Westhampton Beach, will formally dedicate the boundary at Shabbat services on Saturday, August 16.
“This is a lot of crap, that’s really the case,” Mr. Sinnreich said. “Putting up this partial eruv that doesn’t meet all the necessary requirements is nothing but a PR stunt—period.”
The establishment of an eruv in Westhampton Beach was first pursued in 2008 by the Hampton Synagogue, which would later withdraw its request before the Village Board could vote on the measure. The baton was picked up three years later by the East End Eruv Association, or EEEA, a group of Southampton Town residents and other individuals who have been working since then to establish a boundary in not only Westhampton Beach, but in neighboring Quiogue and Quogue Village as well. Both Southampton Town and Quogue Village have denied requests from the EEEA seeking their permission to install the lechis, and both are now defendants in separate unsettled lawsuits.
In accordance with Jewish law, the borders of the eruv must be delineated by markers known as a lechis, which are, in this case, translucent PVC strips that are five-eights of an inch in diameter and between 10 and 15 feet in length. The primary issue the village has had with the eruv is the EEEA’s desire to post the lechis on utility poles, which are owned by the Long Island Power Authority and Verizon, respectively, but are located on village property.
Despite announcing the establishment of the eruv—which was created two weeks ago—Rabbi Schneier declined to address questions about the eruv when reached by phone on Tuesday morning, deferring all comments to the EEEA. The synagogue denies having any involvement with the establishment of the eruv.
“We have some people with the East End Eruv Association who are handling this,” Rabbi Schneier said. “I think it would be best if you talked to them.”
Robert Sugarman, the lead attorney representing the EEEA, said the lechis were posted on 45 utility poles throughout the village over the past two weeks by an outside rabbi who has been working with the EEEA. Mr. Sugarman said he did not know where exactly the markers were installed.
Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the EEEA, declined to disclose the location of the lechis, citing concerns that they would be intentionally damaged or removed. “To reveal them might result in them being vandalized, and it would not be wise to do so,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
Judge Tomlinson ruled that because it was not expressly forbidden in the franchise agreement that the village granted to LIPA and Verizon nearly a century ago, and because Westhampton Beach has no sign ordinance on the books that forbids the markers, the village has no means of preventing the utility companies from licensing the use of the poles to the EEEA. However, Mr. Sokoloff contends that there is still pending litigation that will determine whether posting religious symbols on public property constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Mr. Sokoloff argues that LIPA, which now is run by PSEG Long Island, reneged on an agreement not to issue any licenses until all litigation was resolved when, on July 8, it signed off on a license allowing the EEEA to utilize 27 of its utility poles. Neither utility company stands to gain any benefits, financial or otherwise, for permitting the lechis.
Jeff Weir, a spokesman for PSEG Long Island, explained that the utility was simply following the orders of the court. “The magistrate ruled that this could be done and we obliged by that ruling,” he said on Monday.
Mr. Sokoloff, who thus far has received nearly $40,000 from Westhampton Beach for his legal council, said he wrote to Judge Tomlinson seeking a hearing to request an expedited appeal in order to get the issue resolved as soon as possible. He is arguing that the village was caught off-guard by the boundary’s establishment, noting that neither he nor the Village Board was notified of its creation.
He added that he hopes the EEEA will join him in pushing for a speedy resolution. “They should want to get this taken care of on appeal immediately, unless they’re concerned the lower judge did not make the right decisions,” he said. “I don’t know why they would want to wait.”
Mr. Sugarman, whose Manhattan-based firm, Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, has been representing the EEEA pro bono for years, said he is investigating the issues raised in Mr. Sokoloff’s letter, which is available online at www.westhamptonbeach.org.
Mr. Sugarman also noted that, in the interim, the eruv should not be viewed as a threat.
“The existence of the eruv does not in any way affect the ability of non-Jews or non-observant Jews to do anything they did before the eruv was up,” he said. “They can do the exact same things.”
Mr. Sokoloff said the village does not oppose the existence of such a boundary, but rather the utilization of public property to establish it.
“The Village of Westhampton Beach is not against all eruvs—we’re not saying you can’t have an eruv in Westhampton Beach,” he said. “If Orthodox Jews want to buy property or acquire property, or if they have property and they want to post lechis on, they are welcome to do that. That’s a different issue than saying we demand that it be put on public property.”
Even if Judge Tomlinson’s ruling is upheld, Mr. Sinnreich maintains that it will have little effect on whether the eruv is allowed to remain, as he believes the First Amendment question is a much bigger issue, one that he expects to be eventually dealt with by the U.S. Circuit Court, if not the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Sinnreich also pointed out that his group is made up not only of liberal Jews, but also members of various other religions as well as atheists, all of whom think that the eruv violates the separation of church and state. He also noted that despite what proponents of the boundary have argued, an eruv is a religious symbol and, therefore, should not be allowed on public property.
“Until that issue is decided, the war isn’t over,” he said. “It hasn’t really begun.”
Westhampton Beach Mayor Maria Moore declined to comment on the issue when reached this week, citing the pending litigation, as did fellow board member Hank Tucker.
“It’s still in litigation,” Mr. Tucker said. “Only part of the situation has been addressed, [and] being that this is a long and sensitive topic, I have nothing to say at this time.”
Representatives of The Hampton Synagogue, the only local house of worship that will benefit from the boundary’s creation, are clearly anticipating that the courts will eventually permit the eruv’s expansion. In their joint statement, Rabbi Schneier and Mr. Tuchman wrote: “We look forward, in the near future, to expanding the Eruv to Quogue and Westhampton.”
Mr. Sheinkopf, meanwhile, declined to say whether the EEEA is still seeking to expand the eruv into the hamlet of Quiogue and Quogue Village.
“That’s not the issue right now,” he said. “I have no comment on that.”
Reporter Alexa Gorman contributed to this article.