Anti-discrimination lawsuits and demography are finally defeating the project of excluding Orthodox Jews from a gentrified village.
by Massimo Introvigne
With some fanfare, the Justice Department of the United States announced on October 20 that it had settled a lawsuit it had initiated against the village of Airmont, New York under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The Justice Department moved against Airmont because the village had passed in 2018 ordinances aimed at restricting the possibility for local Orthodox Jews (mostly belonging to the Satmar Hasidic group) to gather in private homes for praying and to alter their houses to include prayer spaces for large groups. Orthodox Jews who own homes near the synagogue were also prevented from allowing third parties to park their cars in their courtyards. The case was settled with a consent decree, where Airmont did not admit it was guilty of discrimination but promised it will accommodate the Orthodox Jews.
This was, as the Justice Department noted, the third such case it had filed since 1991 against the village. The first two cases were about Airmont’s denial of building permits for a synagogue and a yeshiva.
In fact, the very incorporation of the village of Airmont in 1991 was motivated by the idea of “preserving the identity” of a gentrified part of Rockland County. In practice, this meant dissuading Orthodox Jews, who are numerous in the area, from remaining or settling there with their lifestyle and buildings that would “disturb” the atmosphere of a rich-people country paradise.
Airmont’s project was defeated by two forces the local citizens could not control: the federal government and demography. Airmont’s policies became a national case, with the Jewish Anti-Defamation League lobbying the Justice Department to intervene. Airmont consistently lost its court cases but continued its attempts to limit the visibility of the Orthodox Jews’ presence in the village.
While the Justice Department invested considerable resources in litigating the Airmont cases and obtaining favorable decisions or settlements, demography was not less important. The zoning regulations regarded as discriminatory by the Justice Department were passed before the increase in number of Orthodox Jewish voters gave them a majority in the Board of Trustees, the elected body that governs the Village of Airmont, which also explains the settlement.
Simply put, Orthodox Jews are more prolific than their neighbors, and during the thirty years’ war around Airmont’s zoning law their children came of age and started voting. Similar controversies exist in other parts of Rockland County.