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City Changes Rules to Keep Women-Only Swim Hours at Williamsburg Pool

By Gwynne Hogan | July 6, 2016 2:05pm | Updated on July 6, 2016 3:33pm
 City Councilman Steve Levin, State Assemblyman Dov Hikind and State Assemblyman Joe Lentol announced the city's decision on Wednesday afternoon.
City Councilman Steve Levin, State Assemblyman Dov Hikind and State Assemblyman Joe Lentol announced the city's decision on Wednesday afternoon.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

WILLIAMSBURG — The Parks Department will keep the controversial women-only swim hours that cater mostly to Orthodox Jewish women at the Metropolitan Recreation Center's indoor public pool following a revision of gender discrimination policy by the city Human Rights Commission, they announced Wednesday.

As part of the Parks Department policy going forward, the women-only hours, which are used mostly by Hasidic woman who can't swim with men for religious reasons, will be reduced to four hours a week in an effort to appease other non-religious swimmers at the pool who'd called for an end to the policy.

"Women-only swimming hours provide an important accommodation to New Yorkers who may feel more secure and comfortable in a single-sex environment," Parks Department spokesman Sam Biederman, who added that women of all religious affiliations and transgender women are welcome to use the pool during those hours. "NYC Parks is appreciative that the NYC Commission on Human Rights recognizes the need to provide such safe and fair access at public facilities."

The Human Rights Commission and the Parks Department had been reviewing the policy since May, when the Parks Department briefly got rid of the women-only swim hours after the Human Rights Commission notified them that the policy violated city law.

Following an uproar from the Hasidic community, the women-only swim was reinstated and the Parks Department claimed it had merely been a scheduling error, according to State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has has pushed for the hours after being contacted by Hasidic women upset about the policy changes.

The Human Rights Commission also softened its stance, stating that gender-separate hours could benefit some women.

“Everyone in New York City should have an equal opportunity to enjoy recreation centers," HRC spokesman Seth Hoy said. "After weighing the Parks Department’s request for an exemption for limited women-only swimming hours at two Brooklyn pools and balancing the impact on the broader community, the Commission has granted a limited exemption. Maintaining limited women-only swim hours at these pools will allow all women to enjoy the pool without being asked to compromise their religious beliefs or affiliations and will have a minimal impact on other community members’ ability to access the pool."

Going forward, the Parks Department will consider petitions for other women-only swimming hours at public indoor pools if at least 200 signatures are garnered and if the pools in consideration are far enough away from others with other women-only swims, Biederman said.

Catherine Fukushima, a long-time swimmer at the Metropolitan Recreation Center who had called for an end to the all-women swim along with a group of other non-religious swimmers said she was happy the matter had been considered by the Human Rights Commission.

"They have come to a very fair and balanced decision that takes into account the needs of all the different aspects of our diverse community," she said.

Though she added, "we look forward to have the pool rules enforced appropriately."

The group of non-religious swimmers had pointed out that the pool staff had been allowing Hasidic women swimmers to wear full house dresses into the pool instead of the bathing suits mandated under city pool regulations. They said staff also failed to maintain pool rules with three swim lanes and gave the Hasidic women other special treatment like making the pool water than usual.

While the Parks Department earlier said the Williamsburg pool was the only facility with women-only swim hours, on Wednesday they said that the St. Johns Recreation in Crown Heights will also be allowed to keep its women-only swim hours but the men-only swim will be eliminated.

At a press conference called in front of the pool Wednesday afternoon, Hikind applauded the city's decision. 

"This is a human rights victory for women," he said. "It's about respecting the cultural differences between people, that's the beauty of New York."

Hikind also promised to fight for more women-only hours at the pool, which had been cut down to four from eight hours a week by the Parks Department decision.