Battle Erupts Over Religious Symbol

October 4, 2008

Author: Frank Eltman

Source: The Associated Press

They are largely invisible, sometimes as simple as a small plastic marker affixed to a utility pole. There's one around the White House and one in Manhattan that sprawls from the East River to the Hudson.

Now, in a village at the gateway to the Hamptons, the eastern Long Island playground for the ultra-rich, a battle has erupted over this religious symbol for Orthodox Jews, pitting them against their more secular neighbors.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who counts New York Gov. David Paterson among his friends, wants the Westhampton Beach mayor and village board to approve the placement of the religious boundary called an eruv, which would allow observant Jews to perform minor tasks on their Sabbath or on religious holidays like Rosh Hashana, which was observed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The proposal has stirred controversy among the 2,000 full-time residents of Westhampton Beach, a community 75 miles east of Manhattan where the population can grow to 20,000 in the summer. Mayor Conrad Teller says 85 percent of village residents oppose the eruv, and several groups have sprung up to fight it, including Jewish People Opposed to the Eruv.

"The objection to the eruv has nothing to do with religion, per se," said group chairman Arnold Sheiffer, a semiretired advertising executive. "What they object to is creating a division in the village where none ever existed."

Formed in late August, the group has collected about $30,000 and enlisted 150 residents to fight the proposal, said Sheiffer, who has lived here for 30 years. Their intention, he says, is to blunt talk that anyone opposed to the eruv is anti-Semitic.

"We've always lived in peace and harmony. The truth is I didn't know if people were Jewish or not. And the truth is I didn't really care. And it was nice," he said. "Now we have this thing, this eruv, that would create divisions."

Community opposition to the establishment of an eruv is hardly unique to Westhampton Beach.