(JTA) – An only-in-New-York story about a public swimming pool that offered women-only swim periods for the area’s Orthodox community turned into a full-blown media firestorm when The New York Times weighed in on the subject.
The pool, located in the heavily Orthodox Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, had been offering women-only hours since the 1990s to accommodate those whose religious sensitivities forbid women and men from swimming together.
Late last month, the Parks Department cancelled the women-only swim periods after an anonymous complaint was made to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, only to reverse itself following objections by Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox politician representing the nearby Borough Park and Midwood neighbourhoods.
The reversal led to a strongly worded editorial in the Times on May 31 asserting that setting aside a special time for a religious group at a public facility violated “the laws of New York City and the Constitution, and commonly held principles of fairness and equal access.”
“The city’s human rights law is quite clear that public accommodations like a swimming pool cannot exclude people based on sex,” the editorial argued, adding that the current practice has a “a strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space.”
The editorial drew a swift backlash from parts of the Jewish community, who accused the paper of unfairly rejecting a reasonable religious accommodation and of applying a double standard to Orthodox Jews.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of the New York Sun and a former editor of the Forward, wrote a heated missive in the New York Post titled “Let My People Swim – and Damn the New York Times.”
In a letter to the Times, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a haredi Orthodox umbrella organization, called the women-only hours a “reasonable accommodation,” according to the Jewish Daily Forward.
“Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying, ‘No people with traditional values allowed,’” he wrote. “The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion.”
A group in New York’s Rockland County associated with that area’s Hasidic Satmar community, the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, also released a statement saying “The hypocrisy and inflammatory language in the New York Times is astounding in many ways.” It pointed to a February story in which the Times reported favourably on accommodations made at a public housing project in Toronto that offered a women’s-only swim period for Muslim women.
“If it is great when the wishes of women in the Muslim community are accommodated, why is it a problem when the same is granted to women in the Orthodox Jewish community?” the council asked.
In Tablet magazine, Yair Rosenberg pointed to examples in St. Paul, Minnesota, San Diego and Seattle in which accommodations made for Muslim women to swim without men were applauded in some cases and sparked controversy in others. But he questioned why the Times editorial failed to mention these precedents and focused exclusively on Orthodox Jews.
“It is exceedingly odd that the national paper of record only excoriated the practice of sex-segregated swimming when it became aware of religious Jews engaging in it, and even then, omitted the identical practices of religious Muslims,” he wrote.
Hikind, meanwhile, called the city’s decision to continue the separate swimming hours “a major victory for human rights.”
“It is a major victory for the people, and the community can rest much easier this Shabbos knowing that men and women can continue to swim separately,” he wrote in a statement.
The Commission on Human Rights and the Parks Department continue to review the pool policies, a spokesperson told Gothamist.
The Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa has weekly men-only and women-only swim periods.