Orthodox Jewish Camps File Lawsuit against Wawarsing Board, which Issued “Impossible and Discriminatory” Rules
By Yehudit Garmaise
Eight Orthodox Jewish camps and one school in Wawarsing have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city, which, last fall, imposed restrictions on the Yiddish institutions that host thousands of Jewish children every summer in the Catskills.
Among the new rules: No more than 400 campers and adults per camp are allowed; no more than 10 people per cabin are allowed; and no structures or activities can take place within 250 feet of the property lines, the Times Herald Record reported.
Loudspeakers are banned, and camps must be surrounded by fencing that does not allow light to come through it and that has been put up at least 75 feet from the edges of properties.
While all the restrictions feel restrictive and discriminatory to Jewish locals, the requirement to build fences was particularly offensive.
Ellenville Mayor Jeff Kaplan, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Orthodox camps, compared the fencing requirement to the confinement of persecuted Jews in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II.
"You can call it a camp overlay," Mayor Kaplan said. "I call it a ghetto."
Camp Rav Tov and the other eight plaintiffs, who serve a total of approximately 4,300 children, say that the new rules would impose a set of impossible restraints that would prevent the camps and school from expanding or making any improvements, such as building gyms or more living spaces.
"We feel that this is harassment," Rabbi David Rosenberg, the director of Camp Rav Tov, an almost 70-year-old camp that serves 2,600 boys, told Wawarsing's board members. "We're trying to work with the town. We don't want to hurt the town."
At two different public hearings that took place in October 2021, several camp representatives and attorneys had urged Wawarsing’s leaders to forego their proposed restrictions and even had warned of litigation, however, the town’s board ultimately passed a broader zoning update that included the restrictive rules.
Warwarsing’s zoning amendment, in what is called an “overlay district,” adds an additional layer of planning control to properties in a clearly defined geographic area.
By using “overlays” towns can “tailor-make” zoning districts that each have their own specialized sets of regulations.
Businesspeople who seek to develop in overlays must comply with the regulations set by town.
Warsarsing created new "overlay district" for Jewish camps to ensure they were "compatible with the surrounding land uses, have adequate access to emergency service providers, can be served adequately by sewer and water systems, and will not have adverse town-wide impacts." The overlay district also aimed to "protect the rural character and open space in the town."
Just as zoning restrictions that other residents have tried impose on Jews in Chester and Kiryat Joel, the camps' lawyers see something sinister in the overlay district.
The camps and school, which allege that the district overlay violates the Constitution, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and state law, charge that that town’s rules were designed to meant to make it "impossible for Orthodox Jewish camps to expand, repair, and continue to operate in the town, thereby forcing them to relocate to another town.”
"Over the last few years, the town has harassed the Orthodox Jewish camps through targeted enforcement of local ordinances," Eric Treene, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, told the Times Herald-Record. "The town has also abused its municipal powers by intentionally creating unnecessary obstacles and delays for Orthodox Jewish camps, making repair or expansion efforts into a bureaucratic nightmare."