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Late last year, the NYCLU, our local ACLU chapter, happened to catch a glimpse of a new playground at Kiryas Joel, the orthodox enclave in upstate New York. As photos published by Haredi news site Behadrey Haredim reveal, the park boasted blue playground equipment for boys, red for girls, and vast expanses of space in between. The town’s municipal treasurer, Rabbi Gedalia Segdin, told the news outlet that the park would be watched over by the town Modesty Committee, to make sure no mixed-gender playing was going on. So did Yiddish signs distributed throughout the park making sure everyone kept to their specified color.
That, the NYCLU said, was decidedly not OK. Public parks cannot be segregated by sex. They were also concerned by Behadrey Haredim’s report that non-Jews wouldn’t be able to use the park: “Foreigners who do not belong to the Orthodox stream are not allowed to work out and the site is reserved for locals only.”
Kiryas Joel initially responded by saying that the park didn’t exist. That didn’t prove to be a great strategy, and now the village has been forced to settle the suit, agreeing not to “endorse” sex-segregation in its public places.
When the NYCLU first contacted Kiryas Joel officials with an open records request about the financing of the park — intent on determining whether it had been built with public funds — KJ essentially responded with a big, palms-up shrug, saying that no such park existed in the city limits.
That was technically true, but didn’t remove Kiryas Joel from its legal responsibility not to enforce sex-segregation in its public facilities. The NYCLU announced yesterday that they’d settled the suit, writing, “In settling this case the NYCLU has confirmed that the village has removed all signs suggesting the red and blue areas may only be used by females or males.”
The NYCLU notes, too, that Kiryas Joel “has been subject to numerous legal challenges because of the excessive entanglement of religion in all aspects of village life.” In the case of the playground, for example, they declined to say exactly where the money to build it had come from. Initially, they accepted some $195,000 from the state to build it, but later insisted they’d returned the money and secured private funding.
The civil liberties organization has made it clear, too, that they’re not going away. “Under the latest agreement,” they add, “the NYCLU and ACLU will drop the lawsuit, but will continue to monitor the park over the next three summers to ensure that there is no endorsed or enforced segregation on the basis of sex in public places or programs.”
Those are mighty stern words, but Failed Messiah, a blog that’s often critical of Orthodox Judaism, calls the settlement “essentially meaningless.”
“Kiryas Joel residents can spot an outsider without any problem,” writes Shmarya Rosenberg, Failed Messiah’s author. “And the NYCLU isn’t exactly overflowing with staffers and volunteers who speak or read Yiddish. Kiryas Joel leaders will just instruct followers in the synagogue or through robo calls to ‘voluntarily’ gender segregate. The followers will do it, the park will be gender segregated, and the NYCLU will have lost, despite its claim of victory today.”
In other words, the problem might be a little bigger than one playground.