A Look Back at Our Borough’s Historic Role
Earlier this week, the Daf Yomi world made the siyum on Maseches Eiruvim. This is an opportunity to look back at the historic role Queens played in paving the way for the establishment of eiruvim throughout America and to remember the work of some of the people who made it possible.
The final stage in the approval of an eiruv is for the Jewish community to rent the rights to the streets from the sar ha’ir. In Queens, that role has been played by the Borough President. But the role of the Borough President’s office in Queens went far beyond that.
Between us, working for two Borough Presidents, Donald Manes and Claire Shulman, we obtained the support of Community Boards and obtained permits for the construction of eiruvim from utilities and city agencies. This often entailed having to explain what an eiruv is and how they could help. The process culminated with the Borough President issuing a proclamation spelling out the bounds of the area enclosed by the eiruv and renting it to the Jewish community under halachah for 100 years for $1. Our work led to the establishment of eiruvim throughout Queens. The Kew Gardens Hills eiruv was the first eiruv in a major metropolitan area in America. An exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum stated that “the Kew Gardens Hills eiruv changed the quality of Orthodox Jewish life in America.” The Belle Harbor eiruv led to the first court decision upholding the validity of eiruvim under American law.
Steve Orlow was the Vice President of the Class of January 1965 at Queens College. In 1965, he and the President of the Class, Gary Ackerman, became active in Donald Manes’ first campaign for the City Council along with Allen Gershuny. Ackerman and Gershuny would go on to become involved in Manes’ political career, while Steve went on to Cornell Law School and a position in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold. In 1971, Donald Manes became Queens Borough President. Upon the recommendation of Ackerman and Gershuny, Steve was appointed as Counsel to the Borough President.
At the same time, Steve moved to Queens and became a member of the Young Israel of Queens Valley. Two members of the shul, Steve Savitsky and David Fuld, learning of Steve’s role in the Borough President’s office, approached him about the possibility of establishing an eiruv in Kew Gardens Hills. Together with Rabbi Peretz Steinberg shlita, they went on a drive through the neighborhood. They explained how telephone and electric polls could be used for stringing wire and attaching lechis, and how bridges, highway overpasses, and fences could be part of the eiruv.
Danny Goldschmidt prepared the plans for the eiruv. Rabbi Steinberg presented them to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, who gave his approval and secured the active support of other rabbanim in the neighborhood, most notably, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld shlita.
With that, Steve presented the idea and plans for the eiruv to Borough President Manes. Steve explained the isur of carrying on Shabbos and how the eiruv would enhance the quality of life for Torah-observant Jews. Borough President Manes enthusiastically backed the plan. One obstacle that had to be overcome was the question of whether the city granting permits for the eiruv would be a violation of the Constitutional ban on the establishment of religion. The question was referred to the Corporation Counsel’s office, the legal arm of city government. The question was assigned to Judah Dick, who wrote the opinion that granting permits for the eiruv would be a “reasonable accommodation” of the needs of the Jewish community and did not constitute an establishment of religion.
Armed with the Borough President’s approval, Steve approached the Community Board and secured its support. The next step was securing permits from the telephone company, Con Edison, and various state and city agencies for running the eiruv wire on their poles and lamp posts and in some cases attaching lechis, which he described as pieces of wood. Permission also had to be obtained from the New York State and New York City Highways Departments for using bridges, overpasses, and fences as part of the eiruv. Representatives of the public agencies and utilities found the request strange and could not quite understand that nothing would be run through the wire. The idea that the eiruv would create halachic walls around the community, but not actual ones, was totally incomprehensible. Steve explained that the wires and lechis, which would come to be called attachments, were of “spiritual significance.”
Steve likely would have been laughed out of the offices of the city agencies and utilities were it not for the fact that he was acting in the name of Borough President Manes. At that time, the Borough Presidents had significantly more power than they do today. As members of the Board of Estimate, they voted on the city budget and effectively controlled land use regulations in their boroughs. In addition to being Borough President, Manes was Chairman of the Queens Democratic Party. The combination of the two roles made him the second most powerful figure in New York City government. If Donald Manes decided there was going to be an eiruv in Queens, it was going to happen.
The permits were issued, the construction was completed, Borough President Manes issued the proclamation, and the Kew Gardens Hills eiruv was established.
Most of the eiruvim faced little opposition. For the most part, the only people who knew or cared about their existence were the people who used them. One notable exception was Kew Gardens, where secular Jews led the opposition. One morning, Steve came to work at Borough Hall and saw protestors on the other side of Queens Boulevard pointing at poles that had been set up along Queens Boulevard for the eiruv. Afraid of the consequences, Steve went to the Borough President to apologize for the trouble the eiruv had caused. Borough President Manes laughed and told him not to worry.
The most serious opposition to an eiruv in Queens came in Belle Harbor. By that time, the Jewish community had a new point man in Borough Hall.
Manny Behar, a student at Yeshiva University, was the New York student coordinator of the Presidential campaign of Senator Henry M. Jackson, one of the foremost supporters of Israel and the man whose legislation would pave the way for the emigration of Soviet Jewry. Donald Manes was the Chairman of the Jackson for President Campaign in New York, and Steve Orlow was actively involved. Manny stayed in touch with many of the people who worked on that campaign. At the bris milah of the son of their mutual friend, Joel Schnur, Steve and Manny renewed their friendship, with an assist from Malcolm Hoenlein – at the time, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Steve had been named to fill a vacancy on the New York City Council and was facing a primary challenge to hold the seat. Manny ran Steve’s outreach campaign in the Jewish community. Steve went on to recommend Manny to succeed him as the Jewish community’s liaison to the Borough President’s office.
By this time, the process of obtaining the support of the Community Board and the permits from the utilities and public agencies had become routine. Most of the permits were obtained easily. The one agency that dragged its feet was the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Belle Harbor eiruv should have been one of the easiest ones to approve and complete. A beach wall runs along the Atlantic Avenue side of Belle Harbor to protect people’s property from sand and salt water. For the most part, the beach wall is higher than the ten tefachim
required and could be used as the eiruv with no construction required. But parts of the wall had eroded over the years. Plans for the eiruv involved repairing the beach wall at a few areas to raise it to the necessary height of ten tefachim. The local civic association was delighted with the plan. People had been complaining about sand from the beach coming onto their property and were pressing the city to repair the beach wall. With the eiruv, the beach wall would be repaired without costing the taxpayers a dime. But Henry Stern, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, decided there were great questions of separation of church and state involved and that allowing the eiruv committee to repair the beach walls would be a step towards the privatization of the beach. Commissioner Stern denied permission for repairing the beach walls but allowed the eiruv to put poles and string wire along the beach. Rabbi Jacob Reiner, who was the leading force behind the eiruv, arranged for the poles and the wire to go up.
The next morning, people in Belle Harbor woke up to find their beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean blocked by Henry Stern’s poles. Outrage broke loose. Manny met with Commissioner Stern, Assemblywoman Gerdi Lipschutz, City Councilman Walter Ward, and Rabbi Reiner at the beach. Commissioner Stern strongly suggested that the poles be removed. Manny pointed out that if Commissioner Stern had approved repairing the beach walls the poles would not have been necessary. Commissioner Stern said that the eiruv raised separation of church and state questions and could not be approved. Manny replied that the Corporation Counsel’s earlier decision upholding the validity of the Kew Gardens Hills eiruv represented the city government’s legal position on the eiruv and should be followed.
Upon returning to Borough Hall, Manny reported to Brough President Manes and to Claire Shulman, who was then the Deputy Borough President. Claire Shulman called Commissioner Stern and told him under no uncertain terms that he was personally responsible for inciting a religious war in Belle Harbor, that the solution was to approve the repair of the beach walls by the eiruv committee, and that he should be grateful that the eiruv was paying for an improvement to city property that should have been carried out and paid for from his agency’s budget. Commissioner Stern approved the repair of the beach walls and the poles came down.
Before the poles went up, no one in Belle Harbor knew or cared about the eiruv, except for the people who would use it. Once the eiruv became known throughout the neighborhood, people who had the chance to get the Jews were not going to let go. There was widespread opposition to the eiruv. Petitions and phone calls flooded Borough Hall. Opponents of the eiruv claimed that Belle Harbor would be designated as a Jewish neighborhood and that the area would be surrounded by barbed wire so that chasidim could drive to the beach on Saturday and litter it with beer cans.
Opponents of the eiruv filed a lawsuit against Community Board 14 and the Belle Harbor eiruv, claiming that the eiruv violated the separation of religion and state because It used public property. Community Board 14 was pressured to rescind its support for the eiruv. On Hoshana Rabbah night, Manny met with Rabbi Reiner and Joel Gerstel, the Chair of Community Board 14. Gerstel had one question: “What is Donald’s position on the eiruv?” Manny replied that the Borough President was firm in his position that the eiruv should move forward. Gerstel said, “That is now our position,” and guaranteed that the Community Board would reaffirm its support.
Calls opposing the eiruv continued to come into Borough Hall. They were forwarded to the expert on the subject, Manny, who calmly assured the people that the neighborhood would not be surrounded by barbed wire and that no chasidim would drive to the beach on Saturday.
The lawsuit against the eiruv came before Judge Aaron Goldstein. Virginia Waters of the Corporation Counsel’s office argued on behalf of the city. Dennis Rapps, the Executive Director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) argued on behalf of the eiruv committee. Judge Goldstein ruled that allowing the eiruv to use city property was a reasonable accommodation to the needs of the Jewish community and did not constitute an establishment of religion. More specifically, he ruled that the repair of the beach walls had a legitimate secular purpose, because it would better protect people’s property. Judge Goldstein’s decision, written with the help of Martin Ritholz, a law secretary who would later become a well-respected judge in his own right, was the first decision in an American court upholding the validity of eiruvim under American law. It has been used as a precedent throughout America and around the world.
We did the leg work to obtain the permits and see the eiruvim through to completion. We did not set the policy. The man who made the decision to support eiruvim and stuck with it was Borough President Donald Manes. Unfortunately, Donald Manes is best remembered today, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for his involvement in a scandal. But that is only a small part of his legacy. His pioneering the establishment of eiruvim led to the strengthening of Torah-observant communities throughout America. If it were not for Donald R. Manes, the entire quality of Orthodox Jewish life in America would be different.
When we first started working on the eiruvim in Queens, the number of people completing the Daf Yomi cycle across America probably would not have filled a large shul. Last year’s Siyum HaShas and this week’s siyum on Maseches Eiruvin are a reminder of how far we have come as a community. It is an occasion for both of us to look back with pride at what we accomplished and to remember Donald Manes, the man who made it possible.
Steven S. Orlow was Counsel to Borough President Donald R. Manes, and was City Councilmember at Large from Queens. He is currently the Chairman of the One Israel Fund and was a delegate to several World Zionist Congresses and is retired from the Queens-based personal injury practice in which he was a partner with his sons Brian and Adam.
Manny Behar was Assistant to Borough President Donald R. Manes, Director of Speeches and Publications for Borough President Claire Shulman, and Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. He is currently a member of the New York State Leadership Council and National Steering Committee of No Labels, a grassroots organization working to find common sense, non-partisan solutions to America’s toughest problems.