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End Special Treatment for Hasidic Women Swimmers at City Pool, Critics Say

By Gwynne Hogan | June 24, 2016 3:21pm | Updated on June 27, 2016 7:56am
 Non-Orthodox swimmers feel that their rights to use the Williamsburg public rec center pool have been infringed upon because of a women-only swim time for Hasidic women. (from left to right) Catherine Fukushima, James Sheenan, Doug Safranek and Jennifer Kuipers
Non-Orthodox swimmers feel that their rights to use the Williamsburg public rec center pool have been infringed upon because of a women-only swim time for Hasidic women. (from left to right) Catherine Fukushima, James Sheenan, Doug Safranek and Jennifer Kuipers
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

WILLIAMSBURG —  A group of male and female swimmers are pushing back against women-only swim times at a city rec pool that caters to the the area's ultra-Orthodox Jewish population — asking the city to drop the illegal policy they say unfairly infringes on others at the Bedford Avenue facility.

Despite the fact that the city's Human Rights Commission found in May that the policy at the Metropolitan Recreation Center at 261 Bedford Avenue was in violation of the city's Human Rights Law — prompting the city to quietly eliminate the hours, the women-only times were reinstated following an uproar from the Hasidic community.

The all-women swim began in the nineties, swimmers said, and at first, non-Orthodox women said they were excited about the swim hours, even though they ate into times that had previously been allotted for co-ed lap swimming and family hours.

But critics say the situation has reached a tipping point, as there are currently four days a week that have been dedicated to women-only hours — including a peak 2-hour block on Sunday afternoons — according to a group calling themselves "secular swimmers," who sent notes to the Parks Department and other city officials this week.

"This is a public space it's meant to be for the general public," said Catherine Fukushima, 55, who has used the pool since she moved to Williamsburg in 1984.

"When a small group tries to impose their moral mores on the rest of the group, then it becomes a problem."

The critics — many of whom are women — say the pool staff turn a blind eye as the Hasidic women break the rules, including wearing house dresses and stockings into the pool despite a Parks Department pool rules explicitly stating "For everybody’s health, safety, and protection, we ask our guests to observe the following rules: Bathing suits must be worn on the deck and in the water."

Pool staffers also don't enforce customary rules about the pool's three swimming lanes, allowing Hasidic swimmers to cross lanes and making lap swimming — a draw for swimmers who use the pool for exercise — impossible.

The swimmers say the staff also accommodate the Orthodox women by increasing the water temperature, which they say makes it too hot for other swimmers the rest of the day, to prohibiting men in bathing suits from being present in other sections of the gym while they wait for women-only swim time to end.

The critics say they have nothing against the Orthodox community, but enough is enough.

"I feel for them. They can hardly leave their homes. I want them to be able to swim," said Barbara Campisi, 53, who's been swimming for around 15 years. "But it's just gone too far."

When the policy began the pool was less crowded and it wasn't as much of a hindrance, the swimmers said, but as the neighborhood's population has surged, the remaining co-ed lap swim hours are overcrowded.

"We're swimming head to toe like a snake. If we didn't it'd be chaos," said James Sheenan, another long-time lap swimmer at the pool who said co-ed hours are jam-packed. "We had a lot of people who wanted to swim that can't."

"They choose not to commune with everybody else," said Doug Safranek, "If they want cordon themselves off that is certainly their right, but it would make sense for them to build their own facility."

Several Hasidic women leaving the pool Friday after the all-women swim who'd been using the pool for decades said they don't see what the fuss is over.

Of the nearly 90 hours a week the pool is open to the public, the women-only hours make up just eight of those hours.

"I don't see why this should bother anyone, it's only two hours out of the day," said one woman who declined to give her name, who said she'd been using the pool for about 15 years. "Why should it bother anyone? We're harmless. We're good people. We're not bothering anybody."

Another woman, who also would not give her name, said that strict cultural constraints about modesty prevent her from swimming at other public pools or beaches. During the all-women swim she doesn't wear stockings and has shorter sleeves on, she said. 

"I wouldn't walk that way on the street," she said."We're not modest when we're wet."

Unlike non-Hasidic women, "we don't have any other options," she said.