Let My People Swim: Hasidic Demand for Women’s-only Pool Hours Threatens Coexistence in Williamsburg

How a Brooklyn public swimming pool has become an inter-communal flashpoint with the rapidly-growing Satmar sect.

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A Hasidic woman leaves the Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, June 6, 2016.
A Hasidic woman leaves the Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, June 6, 2016.Credit: Rachelle Blidner, AP
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

BROOKLYN – The water at a Brooklyn public swimming pool is growing choppier by the day as conflict roils both sides of a dispute over Hasidic-driven women-only swim hours.

At the Metropolitan Recreation Center pool, on Bedford Avenue in Satmar-heavy Williamsburg, women-only hours have been in place for roughly 20 years, local sources say. But the Hasidic community there is increasing its demands of non-religious swimmers, say the latter.

At issue is competition for scarce resources. Williamsburg’s population has burgeoned. The Hasidic community, with a high birthrate, grew by about 50 percent between 2001 and 2011. The non-Orthodox community of artists and the middle-class has grown dramatically as well. Tensions periodically flare between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic populations, say local residents. Years ago it was around crowding at local banks and the post office, said Catherine Fukushima, a long-time Williamsburg resident. Now it is around who can swim when.

“There was just a handful of people” using the neighborhood city pool when painter Doug Safranek, whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moved to Williamsburg 32 years ago. “Now it’s totally different.”

And both sides are gearing up for battle.

Thousands of Hasidic Jews in the Williamsburg section of New York.
Thousands of Hasidic Jews in the Williamsburg section of New York. Credit: AP

A newly organized group of secular swimmers has initiated a letter-writing campaign to elected officials and leaders of the New York City Parks Department, which controls the city’s 67 public swimming pools. The Hasidic community “has a very organized political voice in New York,” Fukushima told Haaretz. “We are a large part of the community but not so well organized. Our goal is to make sure that our voice is also heard in this debate.”

The Hasidic community is also working to protect what it views as its rights. “We’ve contacted the city asking them not to deprive or take away from women what they deserve, especially with the mayor’s real commitment to equality. These women should also have the chance to benefit from a government resource that everybody has,” said Rabbi David Niederman, president of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a close relationship with the Hasidic community. Soon after being elected in 2013 he reversed city policy requiring that parents of babies being circumcised with metzitzah b’peh, oral suction, which is believed to have caused life-threatening herpes in some, to sign informed consent. He won over 90 percent of the ballot in some Williamsburg voting districts, and faces a re-election campaign next year.

Just two New York City public pools have gender-segregated hours. Both are in Brooklyn: the facility in Williamsburg and one where things appear to have been worked out more peaceably, in Bedford Stuyvesant near Crown Heights, home to the Lubavitch community. At the St. Johns Recreation Center there, women have swimming to themselves once a week in the evening for two hours, and men have the same later in the week. The separate swimming hours have been in place at both pools for about 20 years, according to Parks Department spokesman Sam Biederman.

At the Williamsburg pool, four days a week for two hours curtains are drawn over the large plate-glass windows to give Hasidic women privacy. That is twice the time as when they began, when it was just Monday and Friday.

Doug Safranek
Artist Doug Safranek is a devoted Williamsburg swimmer, wants compromise with Hasidic women but has reached his breaking point.Credit: Courtesy Doug Safranek

It first increased by accident. When a pool staffer erroneously posted Wednesday women’s hours years back, “everyone cheered,” said Safranek. “When they were told it was a mistake they got upset and the Parks Department said ‘just give it to them.’ A few years ago they wanted extra time on Sundays.”

“Their hours seem to have expanded and encroached on other swimmers’ time,” said Fukushima, a consultant to non-profits who lives a block from the pool and has swum there since moving to the neighborhood in 1984. “That makes it hard for a lot of other people who want to swim to get in there.”

“It is a ladies’ swim in name only,” said Barbara Campisi, an art collection manager who also objects to the sex-segregated hours. “It is in fact a Hasidic ladies’ swim.”

UJO’s Niederman says that many non-Hasidic women swim during the women-only hours, including Muslim women, “some of them veiled.”

But others say that the Hasidic community expects a different set of rules just for them. “It’s a double standard. Accommodating others only goes in one direction here,” Campisi told Haaretz.

 Barbara Campisi
Barbara Campisi, who opposes women-only swim hours at the Williamsburg public pool.Credit: Courtesy Barbara Campisi

Hasidic women don’t abide by Parks Department requirements permitting only white T-shirts over bathing suits, say secular swimmers. Instead, “they wear full, knee-covering dresses and some wear stockings and turban-like head gear instead of bathing caps,” said Campisi. Fibers end up clogging pool filters, which break and put the pool out of service, she said.

The Hasidic women also don’t swim laps. Instead, they “take the entire pool, bobbing around in groups,” said Campisi, making it “virtually impossible” for anyone else to swim laps. “A friend tried to swim around them and got tapped by a woman who asked ‘what’s the rush?’”

Jan Peterson chairs the community board’s women’s committee, is not Jewish and has no problem swimming during women’s hours. “It is mostly Hasidic women, and I have lap swum there a million times. There is a lot of discrimination in people’s complaints,” she told Haaretz.

Inside the changing room, Campisi said, Hasidic women have put their clothes over hers inside a locker. “It’s a feeling of entitlement,” she said. “This is supposed to be fun, and instead it just becomes stressful.”

Hasidic swimmers also frequently ask pool staff to increase the water temperature. They forget to turn the temperature down after the gender-separate hours, making it uncomfortably warm for lap swimmers who follow and get a strenuous workout.

“Asking to turn up the heat is a total lie,” said UJO’s Niederman. “These are elderly women who go and swim for their health. It’s too cold for these elderly women.”

When schedule changes have been needed to accommodate schoolchildren, “the ladies were never docked time. It always came out of adult lap swim or family swim. They were given what was perceived to be preferential treatment,” said Safranek. “I don’t want the Hasidic ladies to lose their opportunity to swim, but it has to be understood that this is a special concession to their group and they can’t ask for more.”

On June 15 three secular swimmers met with leaders of Brooklyn’s Parks Department office, said Fukushima. “They were told ‘this issue is in play,’ and that the policy is ‘being deliberated as we speak,’” she said.

Over 60 people have written letters to Brooklyn and New York City elected officials ranging from de Blasio to the public advocate, objecting to the women-only swim hours, Fukushima said. They haven’t yet received substantive responses.

Biederman told Haaretz that the Parks Department “is working with the NYC Commission on Human Rights to determine a consistent citywide policy addressing gender-specific hours.”

The Human Rights Commission did not respond to inquiries.

Several times a week Safranek leads men and women in lap swimming and then in core-strengthening exercises in a second-floor room. They go straight upstairs from the pool. Because the Hasidic women are swimming when they conclude their workout, the men cannot go through the pool area to return to the locker room and change into street clothes. Instead, they have to walk through the lobby.

The rec center director recently told Safranek he got numerous complaints about men walking through the lobby in bathing suits. That was his breaking point, Safranek said. “It really annoyed me. That’s when I said ‘no’ to more accommodations for the Hasidim.”

In his letter to elected officials Safranek wrote, “Williamsburg is a diverse neighborhood made up of folk from many cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the Hasidic community is a part of our neighborhood. While I’m sorry that the Hasidim are unwilling to commune with the rest of us, it is certainly their right to segregate themselves if they so desire. To insist, however, that all men be barred from a public facility in order to satisfy one group’s extreme standard of modesty and decorum is unfair.

“If Hasidic women are uncomfortable or unwilling to share a public pool facility with the rest of us, it would be better for the Hasidim to build a private pool which their community could use exclusively and in the manner of their choosing.”

Because New York City’s Human Rights Law prohibits gender discrimination, when complaints were first made about the separate swimming at both pools, the Parks Department ended them.

But city officials immediately reversed themselves when New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents a heavily Orthodox district, condemned them for being “culturally insensitive.”

Experts hold differing views on whether the gender-segregated hours are legal.

Constitutional law expert Marc Stern, of counsel to the American Jewish Committee, says it is not clear whether women-only swim time would stand up in court. If there were equal time for men to swim separately, it would likely be ruled kosher, he said. The legality of “any facility catering to the public having sex-segregated hours remains to be seen. It has not been litigated,” noted Stern.

Even putting in a pool in a Satmar-developed building wouldn’t solve the conflict, he said. “The city’s human rights law prevents developers from creating buildings aimed only at Hasidim. And if it’s an amenity of the housing then its use can’t be restricted to the Hasidic community.”

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman says people “don’t have the right to impose gender discrimination on a city pool simply because it’s mandated by their religion,” she told Haaretz. “Not in a city-funded pool.”

While the city is obligated to provide “reasonable accommodation” for religious practice, Lieberman says, “when you’re impinging on the access of everybody else, then that’s not reasonable.” The NYCLU will soon decide whether or not it will file a lawsuit against the city over the gender-segregated swim hours, she said.