SCOTUS Strikes an Historic Blow against Antisemitism 

The decisions of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) last week regarding affirmative action, student loan forgiveness, and a Christian graphic designer who refused to create wedding websites for gay or lesbian couples have created a national firestorm. I concur in part and dissent in part from these rulings and will author columns on each.

There was one SCOTUS decision last week that as an Orthodox Jew filled my heart with joy and gratitude. The Court ruled UNANIMOUSLY in favor of a former U.S. Postal Service letter carrier from Pennsylvania who didn’t want to work on Sundays in order to observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) on Friday night and Saturday and was disciplined for skipping shifts.

The decision gives Gerald Groff, the carrier, a chance to potentially get his job back and more broadly raises the bar for when employers can legally refuse to accommodate the religious practice of their employees.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to accommodate the employee unless it would pose an “undue hardship.” The Supreme Court 46 years ago interpreted that to mean anything more than a “de minimis” cost on the business — a low bar.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court clarified and tightened that standard, saying federal law requires employers to show more deference to the religious practices of their employees unless there is a “substantial burden” on the business.

The opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito. His ethics have come under severe scrutiny recently, and I do not defend them. Yet on behalf of American Jewry, he has performed the greatest mitzvah (good deed) ever by a member of the US Supreme Court. He has earned the eternal historic gratitude of American Jewry, past, present, and future.

I can say unequivocally that this decision constitutes the greatest jurisprudential victory for American Jewish religious liberty in my lifetime. For American Jewry, this decision gave more meaning than ever to the First Amendment.

Observance of the Sabbath (Shabbat) and the Laws of Kashrut have been central to the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years, including during periods of horrific persecution culminating in the Holocaust. The decision also was a blow against the forces of antisemitic elements in the workforce who harass Shabbat observant Jews and have reacted in hostile fashion to the growth of Orthodox Jewish communities.

In New Jersey, this decision will have a most salutary impact upon the burgeoning Jewish community of Lakewood, a heavily Ultra-Orthodox municipality. Lakewood is now the fifth-largest city in New Jersey. If its rate of growth continues — 46 percent in just 10 years — it could be the third biggest by the next census in 2030.

Young Ultra-Orthodox (Hareidi) Jewish families, because of housing expenses, are increasingly moving to Lakewood from Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Boro Park. They are the engine of Lakewood population growth.

In fact, there are projections that the Jewish population of Lakewood could rise to be as high as 150,000. Such new young immigrants to New Jersey are eager to contribute to life in Lakewood, and they will be a net positive to the Garden State.

Lakewood is home to multiple massive yeshivas that attract young men from around the world. Most particularly, Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood (BMG) Is an institution devoted exclusively to the learning of Torah, Talmud, and other sacred written works. It is the finest institution of its type in the world.

The famed billionaire media and real estate entrepreneur Mort Zuckerman, who served a term as Chair of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, once visited BMG and described it as the most joyous intellectual learning experience he had ever witnessed, even exceeding that of his alma mater, Harvard Law School. New Jersey can well be proud of Beis Medrash Govoha.

There have been hostile antisemitic incidents in reaction to the Lakewood Jewish community growth, but the most serious degree of violence has been avoided. The major need is for jobs for the new arrivals from Brooklyn. The new SCOTUS decision will ensure that they can remain loyal to their traditions of Torah while becoming a most beneficial addition to the New Jersey workforce.

When I learned of the SCOTUS decision, my initial thoughts focused on two of the major heroes of my life: My paternal great-grandparents, Zayde (Yiddish for “grandpa”) Michuel Malovany and Bubbe (Yiddish for “grandma”) Bryna Gurman

Malovany. Upon arrival at Ellis Island from Pultusk, Poland in 1900, Zayde Michuel could not spell “Malovany”, so he took the last name of his immigration sponsor, “Steinberg.”

Zayde Michuel and Bubbe Bryna together had nine children, two boys and seven girls. They settled in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. I authored a column about my Squirrel Hill roots at the time of the 2018 tragedy.

Zayde Michel and Bubbe Bryna were grateful for the freedom and optimism they found in America, but they had one major problem. Zayde Michuel was a man of heartfelt dedication to Torah values, and his refusal to work on Shabbat resulted in his constantly being fired from jobs. He was, however, a man of profound principle, making him a true hero in my life.

Bubbe Bryna was a true “Eishet Chayil” – Hebrew for “a woman of valor,” as described in the Book of Proverbs (chapter 31:10–31). Despite the seemingly overwhelming economic problems facing the family, she joyfully and hopefully lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night and dressed the children in a most dignified way to join Zayde Michuel at the Shabbat table. The mood at the table was one of unbounded love. As my Grandma Rose once told me, “I read once that the first generation of Eastern European Jews in America only had bread, but we had bread and happiness.”

The year 1938 was a terrible time for the Steinberg family. Zayde Michuel died in April, and his absence made my father’s Bar Mitzvah in October an occasion of sad reflection.

Yet that was not the worst of it. The Munich Conference in September, at which the British and French acquiesced in the beginning of the Nazi encroachment of its European neighbors, made World War 2 and the Holocaust inevitable.

In 1943, Bubbe Bryna was to learn that her sister, Shprintze Melnik, who had remained in Pultusk and her entire family had been murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. The news of this catastrophe in horrific fashion vindicated the judgment of Zayde Michuel and Bubbe Bryna of emigrating to America.

Bubbe Bryna passed away in October, 1956 with her gratitude to America and faith in its future unshakable and intact. The Supreme Court decision last week vindicated that faith.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, for me, family isn’t everything, it’s the only thing! To the members of the US Supreme Court, especially Justice Alito, regarding the Shabbat decision, on behalf of all my family members, past, present, and future, I address you with the Hebrew words, “Kol HaKavod” – all honor for you for a job well done!

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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4 responses to “SCOTUS Strikes an Historic Blow against Antisemitism ”

  1. Respectfully, the characterization of Mr. Groff’s religious beliefs and practices presented in this piece is misleading. Representing this SCOTUS ruling as a ‘blow against antisemitism’ to the exclusion of facts presented in Groff v. DeJoy detailing the plaintiff’s Christian faith and religious practices is, at best, a misreading of the case resulting in an injustice against truth. I’m stunned! At first I thought I was reading about an entirely different case.

    “The Court ruled UNANIMOUSLY in favor of a former U.S. Postal Service letter carrier from Pennsylvania who didn’t want to work on Sundays in order to observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) on Friday night and Saturday and was disciplined for skipping shifts.”

    The Sabbath rest which the plaintiff, Mr. Groff, observes is situated upon Sunday, which Christians have celebrated as a Solemnity of the Lord’s Day for two thousand years. Although theological and practical roots of Sunday rest, worship and recreation arguably harken back to Torah, Christian faith and observance is founded upon a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on ‘the first day of the week’ (again, a reference to historical and cultural realities of Judaism as practiced then and present day.)

    It seems this ruling is favorable to people of all faith traditions insofar as it upholds a basic principle upon which the United States of America was founded – religious liberty- as relates to employee-employer disputes regarding accommodations for religious practices. Maybe some of the confusion is related to details of the 1970’s case law (which was overturned) discussed in the Court’s opinion being conflated as pertaining to the present case – Groff v. DeJoy. If that’s the case, so be it, however, this piece leaves the casual reader with a less than accurate impression and the conscientious reader with a great deal of questions. Shabbat Shalom.

  2. As an American Jew I also appreciate this ruling, but I can’t help put in the wider context of the other SCOTUS rulings Steinberg mentioned (which I’m sure he will properly deride in another article). This Groff case is good for religious freedom, but the Christian web designer case is very worrying for the same reason. Proponents of the web designer case say it is also a victory for religious freedom, but this is disingenuous. It is a victory for weaponizing religious views against other groups, and with the way the wind is blowing in conservative legal circles I truly believe it is only a matter of time until that case is used against others. What happens when a Christian business says it is against their beliefs to provide services to a Jewish person? The Groff case is good, but with the web designer case we are one step forward and several steps backward.

  3. So beautiful
    Everyone in our Shul and for that matter everyone every where should take the time to read this absolutely beautiful and inspiring article
    Yasher Koach
    Alan you are as always “A class act “and
    I am proud to be called …. your Rabbi
    Rabbi Kaufman
    Congregation Ohav Emeth of HP NJ

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