Courts

Rockland advocacy group defends against charges of antisemitism, threatens libel lawsuit

CUPON-Nanuet is threatening to sue Lohud over its coverage of a court case involving an Orthodox school

Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City. Credit: Heather Paul/Flickr

Dec 18, 2023 5:35 PM

Updated: 

The Nanuet chapter of CUPON, an advocacy group in Rockland County, is defending against charges of antisemitism and threatening to sue a local news outlet for its coverage of a recent court decision. CUPON lost an appeal related to accusations that it discriminated against an Orthodox girls’ school that was attempting to purchase a church property.

Federal judges recently ruled that the Orthodox school Ateres Bais Yaakov had standing to sue CUPON and Clarkstown after Ateres was prevented from purchasing the property, contrary to what a lower court had previously ruled. But a lawyer for CUPON says that the news outlet Lohud mischaracterized the judges’ recent decision, claiming that they sided with Ateres and suggested that CUPON caused damages to Ateres when actually, they only ruled that Ateres’s argument must be considered.

Lohud’s wording “discourages people from getting involved in CUPON-Greater Nanuet” and potentially smears CUPON members in the eyes of their employers, said Steven Mogel, a lawyer for CUPON, in an interview with Shtetl. “It probably also discourages other citizen groups from standing up and opposing projects.”

Mogel said the organization is “very seriously” considering a libel lawsuit, and that they request a retraction and apology “at minimum.”

After struggling for years to find a permanent place to hold classes, Ateres hoped to purchase the property of Grace Baptist Church — a church in the hamlet of Nanuet, which is in the town of Clarkstown — to build a K-12 school for 450 girls. Ateres entered into a contract to purchase the property, but the church withdrew from the contract after the town denied Ateres’s permit application, and Ateres lost financing resources necessary to pay for the property. After that, Clarkstown purchased the property instead.

Ateres claims it’s because of Clarkstown town supervisor George Hoehmann and CUPON that Ateres lost its financing. According to Ateres, these groups opposed the school because of its religion, not because of stated reasons such as concerns about traffic congestion. Hoehmann had made comments saying that zoning codes would be strongly enforced against Ateres, and CUPON, a private organization, had made its concerns about Ateres clear while the sale was pending. The Anti-Defamation League, a major Jewish organization opposing antisemitism, filed an amicus brief in support of Ateres, arguing that the case represented a trend in which zoning laws are used to discriminate against Orthodox Jews.

In 2022, a district court dismissed Ateres’s claims, saying that it didn’t have standing for its argument, since the town had never issued a negative zoning ruling against Ateres. But earlier this month, a federal panel of judges reversed that decision, saying that Ateres did have standing. The case was sent back to the district court so that the district court could determine whether discrimination had taken place.

Mogel, the CUPON lawyer, said that Ateres lacked evidence to blame CUPON for its loss of financing. “The allegations that were made against CUPON were all supposition,” Mogel said. “It was all assuming some sort of nefarious meetings that were held between unnamed individuals on unidentified dates with unidentified agendas.” Mogel said that some people opposing Ateres did make antisemitic comments, but to the extent that any of those people were members of CUPON, they were “immediately” kicked out.

Among allegations in Ateres’s original complaint is that Mogel “coached [CUPON members] including Supervisor Hoehmann, on how to disguise their religious animus as ‘facially neutral.’”

Mogel said he didn’t remember whether or not he used the phrase “facially neutral.” He said that his goal was to stop antisemitism, not feed it.

At a CUPON public hearing in 2019, when members of the advocacy group discussed their concerns about Ateres, Mogel seemed to express opposition to antisemitism. “As a human being, if you have hate in your heart for someone else, cut it out,” Mogel is heard saying in a recording of the hearing. 

“As a lawyer, I will tell you, if you have hate in your heart, you will stab this group, this cause, in the heart,” he said. “If you can’t get that hate out of your heart, then please, keep your mouth shut.”

In its original complaint, Ateres called Mogel’s comments a “sanitation effort” intended to “mask the organization’s underlying discriminatory motives.”

Meanwhile, Clarkstown officials have voted to tear the church down, according to Lohud.

As for Ateres, it is now holding classes in New Hempstead, a village in the town of Ramapo, which borders Clarkstown, according to Yehudah Buchweitz, a lawyer for the school.

It’s not the school’s first move. Before it sought to purchase the church property, the school operated out of a building in Airmont — but when that building was purchased by a Satmar Hasidic school system, the school had to leave, according to Lohud.

Ateres also operated out of classroom trailers on Summit Park Road in New Hempstead in 2017, but Rockland County government officials shut the school down because it wasn’t hooked into the public water system or the electrical grid.

Lohud reporter Steve Lieberman did not immediately respond to Shtetl’s request for comment.

Lauren Hakimi is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, New York Jewish Week, WNYC/Gothamist and more. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in history and English literature. Hailing from an Iranian Jewish community on Long Island, she looks forward to shining a light on stories that matter to the Jewish community. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_hakimi.