Mahwah, NJ – It was supposed to be an ordinary meeting of the Mahwah Township Council on Thursday night, but with the township making headlines on a daily basis this week, residents, onlookers and the news media packed Mahwah’s Richard J. Martel Municipal Center last night hoping to hear more about the eruv and preventing Mahwah from becoming the next East Ramapo.
While the meeting was called for 7:30, by 7 PM a standing room only crowd had already gathered in the council chambers, which seats approximately 150 people, with well over 250 people streaming downstairs to the senior center which to watch proceedings via live stream.
Given the number of people who turned out for the more than four hour long meeting, the town council agreed unanimously to extend two 30 minute public comment portion of the evening to one hour each, giving Mahwah residents the opportunity to speak before non-residents.
Both the attorney for the town council and town council president Bill Hermansen advised participants that there would be no discussion of the eruv or any religious groups.
“Tonight’s meeting will be about our agenda item and our code and our code enforcement,” said Hermansen. “What it will not be about is eruvs and religion. If that is why you have come you’ve come to the wrong meeting.”
Numerous speakers stayed on track, discussing the importance of adhering to zoning laws and different ways of preventing local parks from being overrun by outsiders.
But there were more than a few speakers throughout the night whose comments focused on exactly those two topics. Some, who had been seated downstairs in the senior center but came upstairs to address the town council, said that the live stream kept dropping and that they were unaware that the both the eruv and religion were taboo topics.
Mahwah resident Howard Tiersky began his remarks to the town council by saying that he understood how some in Mahwah might be fearful of “numbers of people who don’t look like us, who may not look like they are part of our culture because they dress different or act or behave differently.” But when Tiersky spoke about preventing religious discrimination because it is detrimental to the community, he was shut down by the town attorney.
When Tiersky continued his remarks and mentioned the eruv, he was once again asked to stop.
“So why are we here?” asked Tiersky. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I was under the impression this was about this topic. Maybe I misunderstood.”
Reminded again that the eruv and particular religious groups were off limits to prevent opening the town up to any potential liability, Tiersky concluded by addressing the sign ordinance and the PVC pipes that make up the eruv.
“I don’t believe that a piece of pipe with no words or symbols constitutes a sign,” said Tierksy.
Resident Brian Riback, who grew up in Spring Valley, spoke about his childhood in Rockland County which changed drastically over time.
He categorized former Town of Ramapo supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence as “the devil” saying that as a way of expressing his gratitude to certain elements in Ramapo who supported him financially, St. Lawrence lifted zoning restrictions in the town, creating a “free for all.”
While Riback was stopped by the town attorney after ominously warning, “You have no idea what you are up against,” his remarks were greeted by thunderous applause from the audience.
Riback concluded his remarks with his personal advice to the town council.
“I highly suggest as someone who grew up in this mess is that you get a constitutional lawyer, a third party to attend to this and take care of it,” said Riback.
Another Mahwah resident who advised the town council to stay one step ahead by “playing chess while they are play checkers” was shut down abruptly after suggesting that the township “reach out to the communities Lakewood, New Jersey.” Shifting gears, the resident asked the town council how much it would cost to bury all of the telephone lines in Mahwah, thereby circumventing the possibility of using utility poles to construct an eruv.
Michael Cohen, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s eastern region, said that he waited until 10:30 for his chance to address the town council.
Cohen had just barely begun his remarks when he was interrupted by the town attorney who chided him for discussing anti-Semitism and after attempting to defend his constitutional right to free speech during a portion of the meeting that had been designated for discussion of any topic, Cohen was told that his allotted five minutes had passed and that he could not continue with his remarks.
Below video Sami Steigman, a 79 year old Holocaust survivor addresses the board.
Sami Steigman, a 79 year old Holocaust survivor and volunteer at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was similarly stopped when he tried to address the topics of anti-Semitism and religious tolerance and freedom in regards to the eruv.
Cohen noted that while his own remarks to the town council were halted because he had passed the designated five minute mark, other speakers, particularly those from the Mahwah Strong group which opposes the eruv, were allowed to continue for longer periods of time.
The town council’s refusal to let both him and Steigman speak was extremely problematic, said Cohen, who said that the town could not be held legally liable for any remarks made by private citizens.
“That is a serious breach of the first amendment,” said Cohen. “They are saying we don’t want to hear the other side. We don’t want to hear what you have to say. And who on earth shuts down a Holocaust survivor?”
Outside council chambers, several Mahwah residents offered their opinions on the events of this past week.
A man who only gave his name as Joe said that many Mahwah residents have no idea what Orthodox Judaism is all about, sparking fears about a possible influx of Jewish residents.
“I think people see it as a religion that doesn’t talk to outsiders, that keeps everything in and doesn’t share in their community,” said Joe. “If they move in all around me, will they talk to me? Will they be friendly with me? Will they include me in their community? I think people feel that the answer to those questions is no.”
Jonathan Marcus said that the felt that the fact that Mahwah residents were kept in the dark played a large part in the community’s opposition to the eruv.
“Nobody from the community seeking to erect this came to the communities where they were putting the eruv,” said Marcus. “In my mind it probably would have been a good neighbor move. Most people don’t even know what an eruv is, so let people understand. Have your rebbe come in and explain it to them instead of people waking up one morning and seeing it.”
Marcus also suggested the town council is using the eruv issue for to further its own agenda.
“Residents have an ounce of fear and all it takes is maybe a couple of people with political motives and next thing you know our town is going up in flames,” said Marcus.
Marcus won a seat on the town council last November but declined the position weeks later for personal reasons, with NJ.com (https://njersy.co/2h9aC1i) reporting allegations that he had been subjected to bullying and intimidation on social media.
Former town council member Mary Amoroso said that harassment among elected official has made holding public office “a hazardous occupation in Mahwah” and Marcus’s wife Tammy told the town council last winter that “there is not a word in the English language that is derogatory or vulgar enough to describe what you people have done to my family.”
Karlito Almeda agreed that there was a political component to the eruv controversy and suggested that problems could be solved by opening up the lines of communication.
“There needs to be more education about the eruv, about Chasidim, what they are all about so we create a dialogue,” said Almeda. “When people talk more they tend to get along. There is friction here because there are walls being set up. But this is definitely political and there are definitely egos involved.”