Upper Saddle River monitors water levels ahead of mikveh opening

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com

“UPPER SADDLE RIVER — The borough is engaged in an “ongoing investigation” into the progress and possible impacts on its aquifer from the construction of a mikveh, or Jewish religious bath, just over the New York border in Airmont, according to a Rave Alert email.

The borough’s April 5 mass alert email notice to residents starts with the announcement of a $900,000 settlement for the borough after a 10-year legal dispute with Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 over illegal overflow at the Saddle River Pump Station next to the Saddle River Valley Swim and Tennis Club.

However, two of the announcement’s three pages are devoted to the “current investigation and potential litigation” of the pump station and about “approvals for the water line that was to be installed” as part of the mikveh.

Upper Saddle River residents are questioning the impact on aquifer and waterways from a 18,520 square-foot 52-room Ohel Sarah Mikveh under constructed on 3.15-acres at 79 Hillside Ave. in adjacent Airmont, NY.

The 54-unit, two-story Mikveh Ohel Sarah at 79 Hillside Ave. in adjacent Airmont, New York, is scheduled to open in September, according to its website.

At issue is how much well water versus piped-in public water from a company, such as Veolia, will be needed. Religious rules dictate that an unspecified percentage of the mikveh bath water must come from natural sources such as springs, wells or rain. However, borough residents have expressed concern that the aquifer serving their household wells is insufficient to support such a large commercial enterprise.

“In particular, the plans for the Hillside Avenue project construction call for the installation of a water line to serve the mikveh,” the Rave Alert states. “The excavation and water line construction has not yet begun, but is required pursuant to the Hillside project engineer’s reports and plans. Requests for information have already been and will continue to be made regarding permits and water line installation to ensure public health and safety.”

Trees are cleared for a mikvah being built on Hillside Ave. in Airmont, directly across for a cemetery under construction Feb. 15, 2022.

It is unclear if the mikveh could begin operation using only well water while awaiting a Veolia connection, or if it must wait until the public water line is installed before operation begins.

Veolia spokesman Bill Madden would only confirm that “an application to install a new water main line at this location is still pending.”

The Rave Alert advises that the precautions being taken include:

  • Monitoring well water height through the installation of piezometers (instruments that measure the pressure head in a pipe, a tank, or soil) at undisclosed locations in Upper Saddle River and New York, presumably to establish a baseline history so that when the mikveh is activated its impact on groundwater level can be accurately documented.
  • Baseline water testing at 11 New Jersey and New York properties for evidence of perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, two of the most prominent categories of “forever chemicals” known as polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The contamination is not related to the mikveh, is widespread throughout New Jersey, and is the subject of nationwide regulations introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month. The state Department of Environmental Protection is seeking area residents’ permission to sample their wells, similar to testing done by area municipalities of their public water systems.
The Hillside Mikveh on the Upper Saddle River border includes 60 parking spaces.

The Bergen County Health Department of Health “has been enjoined in this undertaking,” the email states, but it does not elaborate on its involvement.

Because many of the zoning exceptions for the project have been granted under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the borough advised that it “could be exposed to prosecution by the U.S. Attorney Civil Rights Division or private law firms” for any objections it may raise about the project. Because of its ongoing investigation, “our attorneys have advised us not to discuss this matter specifically publicly.”

Religious requirement

The Ohel Sarah Mikveh website says the area’s current mikveh that serves Rockland County, at 236 Viola Road in Monsey, New York, “has outgrown its capacity.” According to nj.gov, Rockland County has the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the U.S., with 31.4%or 90,000 residents.

“A new mikveh benefits every Rockland family, regardless of neighborhood,” the website says. “When families in surrounding neighborhoods begin to use the new mikveh, it will free up time and space at the current mikveh.”

The $14.5 million, 18,520-square-foot project is being built on 3.7 acres off Hillside Avenue, which runs through Airmont and Upper Saddle River.

The mikveh provides symbolic ritual purity for men and women, not personal hygiene. The instances in which purification is required are related to a number of activities, including menstrual cycles, sexual activity, childbirth, contact with a corpse or grave and high holy days for the observant community.

Because of the mikveh’s importance to Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish life, its construction takes precedence over the construction of a synagogue.

Interior photos from the website show that the facility is prepared to handle the initial bathing and the total immersion of the naked body in a separate 198-gallon mikveh pool.

Where the water comes from and where it goes after use are the ongoing questions for the development. Exterior photos of construction from the mikveh website show the installation of an orange-ribbed Stormtech drainage structure that allows water to percolate back into the ground.

It is unclear what portion of the facility’s water would be processed in this way, versus connection to the Hillside Avenue sewer. However, given the area’s history with the overflowing Saddle River Pump Station, it is unclear whether either choice is preferred or functional.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Upper Saddle River monitors water levels ahead of mikveh opening