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Queens Chronicle

When religion and public affairs collide

Orthodox Jews hit snag with voting and Community Board 13 hearing

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 11:46 am, Thu Oct 11, 2012.

In at least two recent cases, public affairs have clashed with a belief of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion, prohibiting followers from attending a public hearing and almost stopping them from voting.

The issue is that entering the sanctuary space of a church is prohibited for them.

Jewish lawmakers interviewed for this article agree that there is a concern when it comes to conducting public business in houses of worship and cultural sensitivity must be maintained, but thoughts vary as to how widespread the problem is, at least in Queens, and what should be done about it.

The first incident occurred during the Sept. 13 primaries, when a polling site was initially moved from PS 164 in Kew Gardens Hills because it is not wheelchair accessible, according to Assemblyman Mike Simanowitz (D-Flushing) to St. Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic Church in Hillcrest. A “substantial amount” of Orthodox Jews complained that they wouldn’t be able to vote in a church.

Simanowitz got the Queens Board of Elections to move the site to the Kew Gardens Hills Library to accommodate those affected, and he vowed to continue to work to make sure similar problems do not occur during the November general election, but residents are still concerned.

“Even if they have it at the Kew Gardens Hills library, it can’t accommodate the crowds,” said Richard Reif, a retired McGraw-Hill staff writer and former Air Force public affairs officer from Flushing. “It’s very small. During the primary, they only had two poll workers, one scanning machine and one police officer. It needs to go back to PS 164 where it was originally.”

Reif, who is Jewish, but not Orthodox, and has lived in the neighborhood since 1940, has been voting at PS 164 since 1960, when he cast his ballot for John F. Kennedy.

The Board of Elections did not respond to emails requesting more information on how it plans to avoid similar occurrences in the future.

Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) said the Orthodox rule against entering churches has been a “big problem” in Kew Gardens Hills, but added that instances are handled by his office on a case-by-case basis and usually get resolved, as they did in the case of the St. Nicholas polling site.

“It’s an ongoing problem for the city — finding space for departmental functions, to accommodate the devoutly religious,” Lancman said.

In an unrelated case, members of Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch did not attend a Community Board 13 hearing, according to their lawyer Frederick Becker, because the body meets in the sanctuary space of the Bellerose Assembly of God Church.

The hearing was regarding the synagogue’s proposal to put a charter bus layover zone near Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights, where the ultra-Orthodox sect’s leader the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson is buried [see separate story].

CB 13 District Manager Larry McClean said if he had been notified of the problem in advance, the board could have tried to have the hearing at another venue. CB 13 has been holding its gatherings at the church since at least 2006, and has never encountered a faith-based problem, McClean said. He noted that over the years the board has had members of various religions and no one has complained about the meeting space.

Lancman said since there are not many inexpensive available venues in the city and a lot of the civics in his district have to hold meetings in houses of worship, they should use a common room or recreation area at the site rather than the sanctuary.

“We have to make every possible effort to ensure that community board meetings and polling sites are held outside of houses of worship so that no one of any faith feels uncomfortable participating in local government,” Lancman said.

Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), an Orthodox Jew, has spoken at CB 13 meetings several times, and said his beliefs don’t conflict with entering a church. He is observant but not as strict as other sects of the faith, he said, adding that Jews usually consult their rabbi when it comes to such questions.

“Everybody has certain ways of celebrating their religion,” Weprin said. “I’m not going to criticize one person’s observance over another.”

As for public affairs conflicts stemming from this belief, Weprin said, “Accommodations should be made, if there is an issue,” adding that the Orthodox should be allowed to testify or vote at an alternative location.

The lawmaker added that he had not heard of any similar instances in his district, noting that he has heard it is more of an issue in Brooklyn, where there is a larger ultra-Orthodox community.

Sister Christine Cusati, of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Queens Village, said members of that faith are allowed to enter any house of worship, provided that they don’t substitute another group’s religious service for their own.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), who is a member of the Council’s Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, said the issue of religion conflicting with a polling site has never been raised in the 12 years that he has been on the committee.

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