They’re acting like a dictatorship!!!

It’s not about religion
Published Feb 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm (Updated Feb 20, 2014)

“What has Harley (Doles) promised KJ?” Kassoff said. “What did he receive in return for the bloc vote? In the one time that we were given the privilege of the floor at the last meeting, there was not a single answer to a single question posed. We spoke for over an hour, and the town board will not answer. They’re acting like a dictatorship. This was an outrageous election, we were completely disenfranchised.”

By Nancy Kriz

MONROE — The suggestion made last week by the attorney representing Village of Kiryas Joel landowners seeking to annex 507 acres from the Town of Monroe into the village that anti-Semitism was the reason for public opposition is being denounced by community members.

Attorney Steven Barshov’s comments were of concern of those who felt his remarks were an attempt to deflect from what they say are the main issues surrounding the proposed land annexation: High-density housing, potential educational and financial issues affecting the Monroe-Woodbury School District and the five towns it serves and the negative impact on water and sewer issues.

There’s more, too, including the potential negative tax impacts on the Town of Monroe and the villages of Harriman and Monroe and the cost of county social welfare programs – which based on current numbers would mostly likely increase if the KJ population increases – and which would affect all county taxpayers.

The one thing they all agreed on was this: It’s not about religion.

The Photo News spoke with a selection of community residents and leaders to solicit their opinions on the issue. What follows are their thoughts.

‘Disagreeing politically doesn’t make people anti-Semites’

Rebecca Ross traveled a circuitous route to her home in Monroe.

She described herself as having an “odd Jewish history, first as a secular/conservative Jew getting into Orthodoxy” and moving to Israel to enjoy that lifestyle.

Ross later left Orthodoxy and returned to the U.S., eventually settling in Monroe.

At the time, she was a member of Congregation Eitz Chaim, and later, active in Chabad of Orange County. Now, she’s not affiliated with any local congregation.

“I believe this is mostly a way of rallying the troops (in KJ),” she said. “The way to get people together is to say this is anti-Semitism. However, this isn’t anti-Semitism. This is just what it is, a rally cry to the KJ community. It’s a good way to get press, a good way to get other Jews involved. To me, it’s absolutely ludicrous. I moved back to Monroe from Israel. If this was an anti-Semitic community, you can bet I’d never have moved back here.”

Ross created a Facebook page called “Hudson Valley Jews Opposed to KJ Annexation” and welcomed people of all faiths and all areas to join.

“The reason I formed this group several months ago was because I had a feeling that opposition to expansion would be deemed ‘anti-Semitism,’” she said. “There’s an old adage: ‘Two Jews, three shuls’ (synagogues.).’ Jews have a rich history of debate. Disagreeing politically doesn’t make people anti-Semites.”

Ross challenged KJ officials and property owners to keep the anti-Semitic issue out of the public dialogue.

“My kids go to public school here,” she said. “There’s no anti-Semitism from our community. That they would call our community anti-Semitic when we have such a large Jewish community here is inappropriate. It’s a lot easier to dismiss everybody as anti-Semite rather than look at the issue. The annexation, it’s expensive for all of us. The annexation will take a toll on our families and our livelihood. People didn’t come up here for high density housing. It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.”

Ross also felt Barshov’s attempt to float that idea is similar to “the boy who cried wolf.”

“To me as a Jew, even though I’m not a synagogue member, I find it offensive,” she said. “What happens when there really is anti-Semitism? No one is going to believe us. Nothing is happening. This makes us look bad.”

Ross used the phrase “chillul Hashem” to describe Barshov’s comments.

Chillul Hashem, she said, means a desecration of the name of God, is a term used in Judaism for any act or behavior that casts shame or brings disrepute to belief in God, any aspect of the Torah’s teachings, Jewish law or the Jewish community.

“I feel Barshov is doing this,” she said. “I find this infuriating at best. I knew this would happen. It’s like when you get to the point, when you know when the next move is going to be. And this is wrong.”

‘It has nothing to do with being Jewish’

Leslie Weintraub of Monroe is also adamant that anti-Semitism is not a factor in community opposition to the KJ property annexation request.

Rather, she stressed, it’s clearly an issue related to what will happen to the town, its villages, the surrounding towns, Orange County and the school district if is annexation is allowed to happen.

“I think it stems from a much bigger issue,” she said. “It’s not about being Jewish or purple or green. It’s about what our town feels in an issue with annexation of property into KJ and how it is going to affect the community as a whole.”

Weintraub is angry that the anti-Semitism notion is used, but glad the larger Monroe community is rallying to say this is not the case.

“It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Jewish,” she said. “For him (Barshov) to use that race card, that hurts. I don’t see any anti-Semitism here in this town. It’s a completely mute issue. If he’s (Barshov) going to go out and make a strong statement like that, then he needs to do his research and talk to other Jews in the community. When you make a careless statement, he needs to be careful with his choice of words. It’s an issue of what they’re (KJ) doing and their tactics to annex the land. It has nothing to do with being Jewish.”

Weintraub said the tactic was clearly one to attempt to deflect from the larger issues related to annexation.

“It’s a completely invalid argument,” said Weintraub, who has two children either in or soon to be attending public school. “There’s no validity to his argument. It angers me that he would play that card, and he knows that. They’re trying to find grounds to deflect from what they’re doing and from the severity of the impact of what they’re doing to the Town of Monroe. It’s a diversion and to me it’s completely unethical.”

And, her experiences with the Monroe-Woodbury School District have been very positive, Weintraub said.

“I have only seen them go out of the way to incorporate Jewish culture as much as they celebrate Christmas or Martin Luther King Day,” she added. “I’ve never experienced any religious issues and that’s also very important.”

Weintraub noted she routinely attends Monroe Town Board meetings and said town board members need to step up and eliminate anti-Semitic verbiage from meetings.

“My strongest issue, and it makes my stomach turn, is when (Town Councilman) Gerry McQuade makes comments that the town is anti-Semitic,” she said. “He has said this and it’s such a strong statement, made with such conviction. Being a Jew and listening to Mr. McQuade’s statements, if they want to play that card, then my advice to any of the town board members is why don’t they embrace the Monroe Temple and the Jewish community the way they’ve e embraced KJ? Put the amount of effort and put more toward embracing the Jews of Monroe who are outside of KJ to get a better picture when they talk about the issues.”

Weintraub stressed one of the reasons she wanted to settle her family in Monroe was because it was so appealing.

“One of the reasons my family chose Monroe is because they have a Jewish population here,” she added. “But in no way does Judaism or anti-Semitism play a factor into what KJ ultimately wants to do. This is horribly upsetting. How much of this corruption can you take?”

‘I don’t think this is a particularly an anti-Semitic area.’

Rabbi Gary Loeb of the Monroe Temple Beth-El clearly knows that KJ is a Jewish community that “follows a slightly different path” of the Satmar Hasidic tradition.

The tension with KJ and surrounding communities has been going on for a long time, he said, and the annexation request has brought “a simmering pot to a boil.”

“Nobody can take anyone else to task for pursing their own self interests, but obviously I would like to think there’s more to it when we live together in communities,” he said.

Loeb knows the annexation request brings with it huge complex issues to be addressed.

“More than anything else, although there are other elements, people like things simple,” said Loeb. “They like a simple story. But things are rarely like that. So while it may be true that the issue for many people is one of a concern of quality of life, relating to small town and villages living next to a large and growing community, there may be other ‘shadings’ as well.”

By that, Loeb said, he felt “there’s been a lot of ink spilled and emotions expressed about issues in Bloomingburg and here in Monroe. For some people, there is an element of anti-Semitism…when kids are being picked on and being making fun of for being Jews, that has nothing to do with housing density. But, by far, I don’t believe that is the majority view of the people of the area.”

The other “shading,” he said, is that the non-KJ Jewish community is concerned that the emotions around the issue of KJ growth not spill over into some kind of overt anti-Semitic situation.

But he added: “I don’t think this is a particularly an anti-Semitic area nor do I think this issue (the growth KJ) revolves around anti-Semitism.”

Loeb felt having KJ leaders speak about the annexation request might be helpful.

“The other point is that one of the things that drives this is this seeming inability or disinterest on the part of the KJ officials to pay any attention at all to the concerns of the surrounding communities,” he said. “And that I think only fuels things, it makes people judge how they’re conducting their business with apparently no interest or concern about how their choices impact the surrounding communities.”

Loeb provided a parallel of when he was a young rabbi first working in Ohio, in a community bordering a large Amish community where members kept quietly to themselves.

“But KJ is a dynamic, busy, thriving, growing community,” he said. “By its nature it will bump up against the people in communities that live around it. One would hope that as its leaders look ahead, they understand that good neighborliness and good relations with the surrounding communities is essential for their continued growth and prosperity.”

As food for thought, Loeb reminded people of a quote by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important teachers in Jewish history: “If I am not for myself, who will be me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not know, when?”

By that, Hillel means dealing with the tensions between self and non-self.

In other words, every person struggles on a daily basis with the balance between what one does for oneself and what one expects from others.

According to Hillel, if one’s focus is only on oneself to the exclusion of others, then what value does the person have? To be completely selfish is to lose touch with the rest of the world, to lose touch with life.

“At times it is okay to be selfish,” Loeb added. “But, you’ve got to look at the rest of the world too.”

‘If you don’t want to do good for the community, you throw in terms like anti-Semitism.’

Congregation Eitz Chaim President Lea Morganstein – a longtime Monroe resident – is clear in her belief that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in Monroe.

“As a Jewish person, I do want to say it is offensive to say that we (the overall community) are anti-Semitic,” she said. “That’s a difficult thing to listen to. I’m not all that politically involved myself, but following what’s going on, it’s a sad thing to throw that out there.”

Morganstein noted her mother is a Holocaust survivor and she works with congregation colleagues and others from the Monroe Temple who also have parents who are Holocaust survivors.

“To call somebody anti-Semitic in this community, whose parents came from the Holocaust, is extremely sad and hurtful,” she said. “We work every year to bring the atrocities of what happened to the community because you’re not supposed to forget.”

Morganstein, who has lived in Monroe since 1984, was glad KJ community had the community it does because it’s not unlike the communities of yesteryear where the center of a community was based around a church, a temple or mosque.

“It’s most likely how my parents grew up,” she said. “The women’s movement, the civil rights movement, any community when they moved in from their respective countries, they had to fight to get to where they are today. At this point in time, there’s always going to be some sort of race issue. There are people out there like that, but I think it’s unfortunate it’s the first thing this lawyer throws out there and it’s not true.”

Morganstein felt Monroe residents want to protect and make a positive difference in their community.

“We all come from the same backgrounds, we all come from the same place,” she said. “Whether you’re Christian, practice Judaism or are atheist, people look for the good, and to do good for the community. If you don’t want to do good for the community, you throw in terms like anti-Semitism.”

The main issue, she added, is not with the people who live here.

‘’I’ve seen this community grow,” added Morganstein. “It has nothing to do with the community and it has nothing to do with the people. It has to do with politics and the way things are done.”

‘They (KJ) can’t expect to take the land from the sovereignty of Monroe’

Russ Kassoff feels the attorney representing the KJ annexation property owners has “zero standing” to call people he doesn’t know anti-Semitic.

“We have a community that welcomes everyone,” he said. “We’re open to everyone, although I know it’s not our responsibility to make others participate with us. But to say we are anti-Semitic is completely unfounded and irresponsible. The people who are anti-Semites are the ones who are screaming anti-Semitism.”

Kassoff said his father, five uncles and an aunt served in either World War I or World War II “to secure the freedom and democracy, the freedom of choice, freedom of speech that unfortunately the people of the religious sect of Satmar are not allowed to participate in.”

Regardless, he added: “They (KJ) can’t expect to take the land from the sovereignty of Monroe.”

Kassoff felt the town board made a deal “without the consent and participation of the non- KJ part of the town in which they live and raise their families and have their children go to school.”

The town board, he added, owes the public answers.

“What has Harley (Doles) promised KJ?” Kassoff said. “What did he receive in return for the bloc vote? In the one time that we were given the privilege of the floor at the last meeting, there was not a single answer to a single question posed. We spoke for over an hour, and the town board will not answer. They’re acting like a dictatorship. This was an outrageous election, we were completely disenfranchised.”

But like others, Kassoff stressed the issue has nothing to do with religion.

“It has to do with the preservation of our life,” he added. “I know the regular (KJ) people who are not the leaders or policy makers. They are all good people. I had relatives who died in the Holocaust, just like them. How is it possible to be anti-Semitic?”

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