The Battle of Gender Segregation in Hasidic Brooklyn

New York City can be described as a city that is culturally aware and willing to embrace people from all walks of life. If you were to take the time to walk the streets of New York City, you would witness homosexual and heterosexual relationships, interracial relationships, and an overall sense of acceptance. New York City is a melting of pot of different cultures and ethnicities, thus building an overall tolerance for one another. Additionally, the city has put forth the New York City Human Rights Law, which protects all New Yorkers from any form of discrimination or segregation that may come their way. Since New York City has managed to create such a safe and accepting atmosphere, it is surprising that there are still some establishments in the city that have explicit forms of discrimination and segregation.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Metropolitan Recreation Center holds gender-segregated pool hours where only women are allowed to swim. This pool along with the St. John’s Recreation Center in Crown Heights are the only two pools in New York City that host gender segregated hours. Currently, the Metropolitan Recreation Center has gender segregated hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sundays [1] and the St. John’s Recreation Center has gender segregated hours on Tuesdays. [2] 

Both of these pools are in neighborhoods that are heavily populated by the Jewish community. When this community first immigrated to New York City, they brought with them many Jewish customs, one of which included minimal heterosocial interactions besides marriage. Many, if not all, Jewish women completed domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their children, which meant there was minimal time for social interactions. When Jewish families immigrated to New York City, they tried to assimilate with the culture as much as possible in order to not stand out as an immigrant. Whilst trying to assimilate with American culture, the Jews noticed that “turn-of-the-century urban America promoted heterosocial contact, which challenged immigrants parents’ presumptions about gender relations.” [3] Although many children from the early twentieth century tried to stray away from this custom, it remains prominent amongst Jewish communities in Crown Heights and Williamsburg today.

With these customs in mind, both recreation centers decided that it would be appropriate to create gender segregated hours so that the women from the community would have the opportunity to take advantage of the pools. These hours have been set in place since the 1990s but in 2016 the Commission of Human Rights received an anonymous complaint saying that these hours challenged the New York City Human Rights law. After this was brought to their attention, the Commission of Human Rights began to look into the issue. In the eyes of some people this an example of how New York City has worked to be tolerant and respectful of other cultures. Is this, however, an example of New York City stretching the limits of separation of church and state?

As mentioned earlier, Jewish women lived restricted lives and had very little time for recreational activities. Therefore, many Jewish women are appreciative of the gender restricted hours at the pools that give them a chance to exercise. A Hasidic Jewish woman by the name Paula Weiss says “It’s good for our body, and it’s good for our mind. And we know where to go and we have a little exercise.” [4] Without these gender segregated hours, Jewish women would not be able to swim at all due to its immodest nature. According to Sarah Nir of The New York Times, even while being in a single sex environment, Hasidic women “swam in dresses” and “paddled in thick black tights.” [5] This issue of immodesty, however, is not prevalent throughout the entire New York City, making it specific to certain religion/culture. This is where we see the issue of separation of church and state.

The concept of separation of church and state is paraphrased from the Establishment Clause, which “prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.” [6] Both pools in Brooklyn are considered public pools, which means that they were built on the premises of serving the entire community. Although a majority of population of both Crown Heights and Williamsburg is Jewish, it should not be expected that the whole neighborhood should follow their customs. According to Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “we draw the line on exemptions that serve to impose one person’s faith on another.” [7] If this statement were applied to the gender segregated hours at these pools, it can be argued that the beliefs of Jewish women from the community are a burden on men, especially non-Jewish men who do not have the same standards. Doug Safranek is a non-Jew who attends the Metropolitan Recreation Center. Whilst leaving the pool as the gender restricted hours began, Safranek speaks on the Hasidic Jewish community and says “It’s an extreme religious group that has a standard of modesty and decorum the rest of the culture doesn’t share. I don’t want to change my attire to accommodate them.” [8] Safranek’s statement exemplifies the unlawful act of creating public policy that seemingly favors one religion over another. Safranek makes a great point by pointing out that the Hasidic Jewish community has customs that are not shared with other communities, thus imposing one’s faith on another.

In addition to the separation of church and state, it can be argued that the gender segregated pools violate the City Human Rights Law, which claims that it is illegal “for a public accommodation to withhold or refuse to provide full and equal enjoyment of those goods or services based on… gender…religion/creed.” [9] It is important to remember that this a public pool that is meant to serve an entire neighborhood, not just a specific population of the neighborhood. Although these pools do not explicitly claim that these gender segregated hours are solely meant to serve Jewish women, historically only Jewish women have take advantage of these hours because of their religious beliefs. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholic for Choice, speaks about the demands made by different religious groups and says “Freedom of religion necessarily means having freedom from religion.” [10] New Yorkers should not be forced to take into consideration and essentially practice any religious beliefs while taking advantage of public services. If people in the community are forced to comply with women only hours that are based on religious beliefs, there is no way that they have freedom from religion.

Although the people looking into the issue may argue that the gender segregated hours are unlawful by the separation of church and state along with the City Human Rights Law, it is important to note that they are not being insensitive towards any specific communities. Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, discusses what encompasses religious freedom. Weaver explicitly states that accommodating to all religions “in a society where there are countless different religious beliefs and preferences, and harmonizing them with other core rights” [11] can prove to be nearly impossible. Keeping this difficulty in mind, one can notice the clear bias that has been set in place towards the Hasidic community by both the Metropolitan Recreation Center and the St. John’s Recreation Center. Overall, this bias infringes on New York City’s attempt to promote unbiased, tolerant culture.

To watch an interview discussing gender segregation in Hasidic Brooklyn watch here: