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The Colony’s Shabbos Elevator

The Colony’s Shabbos Elevator

In Kurlansky v. 1530 Owners Corp., a group of New Jersey Orthodox Jews filed a federal lawsuit against their co-op board over discrimination against their Sabbath observance. Believe it or not, the case is over an elevator button. 

These elderly plaintiffs—senior citizens with Parkinson’s disease, congestive heart failure, and atrial fibrillation, among other infirmities—have, in accordance with their beliefs, interpreted this Sabbath direction for modern times: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3). Though no question, lighting a fire 3,500 years ago took a lot more work than it does today, for some Orthodox Jews, lighting a fire is, still, lighting a fire. On the Sabbath, they won’t touch electrical switches, which means that they won’t turn on lightbulbs, stoves, cars—and they won’t push elevator buttons.

To get around this rule, some places have Shabbos (Yiddish for “Sabbath”) elevators: The elevators are set to automatically stop at every floor. That way, you never have to touch a button. In other places, the buildings simply have the doormen push the buttons instead. (There is an old practice among Jews to have Gentile neighbors and friends do things for them on Sabbath that they themselves feel forbidden to do. The Yiddish name for those who do this is called Shabbos Goy, for Sabbath Gentile.)

Or you could always bypass all this and simply take the stairs—which, in the case of these ailing residents, would range from dangerous to downright impossible, given their age, health, and location of their apartments (the occupants live as high as the top, 32nd floor).


Lawsuit Over the Law

But at the “luxury, full-service” Colony apartment towers in Fort Lee, the board has recently forbidden the doormen to push the button for their “fifty-four Colony residents representing thirty-three households who observe the Sabbath,” even though that service has been in practice there for more than 16 years. No reason has been given for the decision.

And though the building has newly acquired Shabbos elevators—and though residents voted in favor of turning on that mode for the service elevator in order to accommodate their Orthodox neighbors—it abruptly stopped their use, “[claiming] that putting the elevators on Sabbath mode was exerting too much wear and tear on the doors.”

The alternatives are for the Sabbath-keepers to sit in their apartments all day long or to leave before the Sabbath and not return home until after it ends, which veritably means they would have to spend the night somewhere else. Some plaintiffs pay out of pocket for caretakers to assist them on Sabbath hours, though oftentimes are subject to their limited availability.

The filing furthermore states, “The resulting impact to the overall Sabbath experience within the building and without has been profound, isolating, and irreparable: many Sabbath Observant Residents are left without the ability to pray communally, and thus fulfill numerous Jewish commandments, or to spend time enjoying and observing the Sabbath with their friends, family, and community.”

The suit alleges that the board’s actions have been spurred by anti-Semitism and have included threats, intimidation, and outright deception. For example, during purchase of their apartment, certain plaintiffs were assured by the board president himself, Moe Marshall, of the use of a Sabbath elevator as well as staff assistance in lieu of said elevator. The document also states that Marshall’s correspondence with the shareholders at board meetings intended to “incite a building-wide backlash, and create a hostile living environment” for the Sabbath-keepers in blaming them for the lawsuit costs, what Marshall deemed “a waste of money.” As a result, several Orthodox residents have received “anonymous, threatening, hate-filled letters” from shareholders.

In an article in First Things, author and law professor Michael A. Helfand wrote, “When the plaintiffs asked for substantiation, they were rebuffed; when they offered to pay for a report on the elevator doors, they were rebuffed; and when they asked why these purported costs from the wear and tear hadn’t shown up in the building’s financials, they were ignored. And so without further recourse, the case now sits in federal court.”


The Future of the Sabbath

The board has been labeled as “stingy,” “egregious,” and “draconian.” It may have you wondering: why such hatred toward the Sabbath and those who wish to observe it?

Perhaps it is worth noting that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). It was made to be a blessing for the entire human race, not just Orthodox Jews. Its purpose is for each individual to not focus on their own cares but on God, so that, as God Himself said, “you may know that I am the LORD your God” (Ezekiel 20:20). That is why it is a day of rest, a witness for anyone “who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:14). Could that include your doorman, your caretaker, and your co-op board, whether Gentile or Jew, adversary or friend?

And yet mankind has made it, as we can see in cases such as this, a burden, a catalyst for prejudice.

However this sad story will, ultimately, be resolved, it shows that though the Sabbath is a divine institution, first revealed in Eden (Genesis 2:1–3) and created as a gift to humanity, those who seek to keep it will be challenged—especially in a culture that doesn’t keep it.

The Bible tells us that this challenge will especially be true at the end of time, when final events unfold and the mark of the beast is instated. To learn more, go through our free, online study “The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast.” See just how important keeping the Sabbath is.

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