Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Lawsuit Slams Anti-Semitic Discrimination In Upstate NY

Jewish businesses vandalized… car windshields smashed to pieces…. ruffians cursing young Jewish mothers and their young children, goaded on by onlookers and cries of “Dirty Jew!” A giant wooden cross hammered into the ground across the road from a Jewish property, aimed at terrorizing Jews and driving them from the village… Whose nightmare did we fall into? Are these scenes from pogrom-riddled Europe of the 1900's? The Deep South of the Civil Rights era? The terrifying prelude to the Holocaust?

Surprise. These shocking events are unfolding now, in real time, just 75 miles from New York City.


In the village of Bloomingburg and nearby Mamakating, a lawsuit filed by Jewish plaintiffs last week alleges, individuals including senior municipal officials are engaged in “pervasive, government-sponsored religious discrimination and harassment” against their Jewish neighbors.


In efforts to drive out the Chasidic families who live there and to frighten off any co-religionists who might contemplate joining them, the complaint says, residents have stooped to vandalism, verbal assaults and naked hostility. Municipal officers have not only turned a blind eye to the persecution, but have abused their authority to invent legal obstacles to block Chasidic Jews from buying houses and establishing a private school.




With lawless conduct of this sort escalating in recent months, Jewish parents together with leaders of a religious girls’ school and Jewish real estate developers formed a coalition, “Sullivan Farms,” to seek relief in federal court. Their complaint, filed in New York’s Southern District, accuses the Villages of Bloomingburg and Mamakating of violating local, state and federal laws as well as civil protections guaranteed by the Constitution, in a campaign of anti-Semitic persecution.


Citing explicit examples of official overt anti-Semitism on the part of municipal officials, the lawsuit quotes Bill Herrmann, the Supervisor of the Town of Mamakating, as having said that “the people elected him to stop the Jewish infiltration.” Frank Gerardi, Mayor of the Village of Bloomingburg, was quoted in turn as declaring he was elected to prevent more of “those people” (Chasidic Jews) from moving into Bloomingburg.


A Village trustee, defendant James “Jimmy” Johnson, has repeatedly referred to Chasidic women in derogatory terms and has voiced his objection to their pushing baby carriages on streets in the Village.


As evidence of town authorities’ unlawful behavior, the complaint cited the case of a Jewish religious school, Learning Tree, which last year sought official approval to use an existing building as a school – fully permitted under the town’s zoning code. Learning Tree sought only to widen the driveway to permit an adequate turning radius for school buses and to site a parking lot on an adjacent parcel, the lawsuit stated.


The brief describes a raucous scene in which “hundreds of angry residents mobbed the first meeting of the Village Planning Board…shouted down the board members, and forced the meeting to be canceled. That scene repeated itself a month later on September 26, 2013, when the Planning Board was again forced to adjourn without voting on Learning Tree’s application.”


Finally, on December 12, with the State Police looking on to control the crowd, the Planning Board and its members conducted the meeting, yielded to public pressure, and voted to deny the school’s application, with barely any discussion.


The Board presented no legitimate grounds for denying what should have been a routine approval, offering the limp rationalization that Bloomingburg already had a public school and “did not need a parochial school.”




Jewish parents appealed this decision. After the state court found this decision unlawful and ordered the Planning Board to reconsider its refusal to grant a permit, Board members voted to dissolve the Planning Board rather than follow the court’s order.


The Board then officially delegated its authority to the Mamakating Planning Board, which has refused to act on the application for a permit by the Jewish school, keeping the case on ice for over a year. Despite having submitted its application back in 2013, Learning Tree has not been able to open in time for 2014-2015 school year.


The lawsuit notes that Bloomingburg residents will vote on September 30 on a referendum that takes these adversarial steps to a radical level, whereby it would dissolve the township itself, ceding all jurisdiction to the Town of Mamakating.


This act of political suicide is an all-out gambit to revoke prior zoning and approval for Jewish-owned development projects, agreements which go back 7 years, Michael Fragin, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Yated in an interview.


He noted that the September 30 referendum has been scheduled during the Jewish High Holy Days, “in an attempt to keep Jews from voting.” The plaintiffs are asking the court to stop the village of Bloomingburg from going through with the referendum vote.




Discriminatory treatment of the religious school “is just the tip of the iceberg,” Fragin said. He cited “transparent pretexts” by the Village of Bloomingburg to block further Jewish housing and business development. Part of the game plan was to impose a moratorium on any new construction in the Village due to a purported ‘hazardous waste disposal’ emergency. But no evidence, background or details about the professed ‘emergency’ was ever set forth by Board members, Fragin noted.


The lawsuit chronicles a pattern of frivolous demands upon Jewish-owned businesses by municipal authorities, followed by frequent “stop work” orders until those picayune demands are met. At the same time, the building inspector is instructed by authorities to ignore complaints against non-Jewish owners because they are “one of us.”


The plaintiffs chronicle many more examples of aggression and violence directed towards Jews in Bloomingburg. Their brief includes a photo of a 20-foot-high wooden cross that locals built next to Lamm’s housing development. It describes anti-Semitic bumper stickers on cars depicting an image of a Chasidic-looking man circled in red with a line crossing out his image.


The lawsuit reports on an incident in August where the Bloomingburg building code enforcement officer broke up the morning prayers of a group of 100 visiting Jewish students in a private building, simply ordering them to clear out.


One sections lists online comments on news stories that call the Jews “parasites,” “scum,” and joke about solving the problem with a “tactical nuke” and a “Final Solution.” It also claims that workers on the housing development have “been the subject of smashed car windshields, tossed beer bottles, and have even been told to ‘die, you Jew lover.’”




The 66-page lawsuit paints a chilling picture of aggression toward the town’s Jewish residents:


“Angry protestors have hectored and cursed at Orthodox Jewish women as they push baby strollers through the streets … Chasidic residents have been cursed at while walking to religious services, with one 17-year-old girl being yelled at to “eat garbage and die.’”


Inflammatory comments of this sort are met with the overwhelming approvals of the crowds of protestors, the complaint states. Coffee cups have been hurled at members of the Chasidic community while walking through the streets of Bloomingburg. And in the past few weeks, the Village’s new Code Enforcement Officer has called State Troopers, who have threatened to arrest Jewish students on a field trip.


In an interview with the NY Post, Bloomingburg’s former deputy mayor, Clifford Teich did not deny the violence and crude, hostile behavior but claimed it was “mutual,” without citing specific conduct on the part of Jewish residents. “Nobody wants the Chasidics here because there was a lie to bring them in,” he said.


According to the Post article, Teich said he voted to approve a new, gated community of 125 “luxury homes with an 18-hole golf course, swimming pools and tennis courts” that all village residents could use. That plan dissolved, he said, when the original developer sold the property to Jewish developer Shalom Lamm, who substituted 396 townhouses for the luxury homes.


Fragin said the charge are nonsense. “The townhouses are in fact luxury homes,” he told Yated, “especially compared to community standards. They are big, spacious and beautiful.” He said he had never seen anything in writing about pledges to build a golf courses or public swimming pools.


The attorney noted that as part of the agreement the Village had reached with Shalom Lamm’s company, the developers agreed to build and finance a $5 million wastewater treatment plant. Now that the plant has been built, the Village is seeking to dissolve itself, which would release the Village from all of its pledges to Lamm – some of which go back to 2007 – while retaining the benefits of a state of the art water-treatment facility to which it contributed nothing.


In addition to asking the court to prevent Bloomingburg from carrying out its intentions to dissolve the municipality in order to escape prior agreements and freeze Jewish expansion in the village, the plaintiffs are seeking $25 million in damages.


The lawsuit will test American justice on the most fundamental level. Will small town bigotry win the day in Bloomingburg and Mamakating, or will the rule of law prevail?



Unfortunately, anti-Semitic sentiment is not new to Bloomingburg and the surrounding region, attorney Michael Fragin told Yated.


On March 28, 2012, Jewish parents brought a lawsuit against the Pine Bush School District, which includes Bloomingburg, alleging that school administrators had failed to stop rampant discrimination against Jewish public school students.


The plaintiffs tell a harrowing story about Jewish students suffering both physical and psychological abuse in the form of relentless anti-Semitic discrimination, harassment, and bullying by other students, and that school officials refuse to take measures to protect them.


As reported in the N.Y Times, “US. Investigates Anti-Semitism Claims at Pine Bush Schools,” the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is still investigating the allegations. While no criminal charges have been filed, Fragin said, authorities are continuing the probe into civil rights violations at the County’s public schools.




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