A municipal swimming pool in Brooklyn, New York, has inadvertently sparked a controversy between the New York City laws and the lifestyle of local Hasidic Jewish community.
The pool on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg neighborhood, has set aside exclusive hours for female swimmers for the past two decades. Most of the bathers who frequent the pool are Hasidic Jewish women who can only swim with no men present — mainly because bathing suits are considered inherently immodest.
Though the Metropolitan Recreation Center has followed the practice since '90s, it only drew criticism after someone lodged a complaint with the city’s Commission on Human Rights. The anonymous tip said the gender-segregated hours were violating the city law banning sex discrimination in public accommodations.
The commission immediately issued a notice to the city Department of Parks and Recreation. The center soon issued a new schedule without the women’s hours — much to the dismay of many swimmers and some local politicians.
“Why deprive them?” said New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, noting that the pool gave women from conservative communities a rare chance to exercise. “Really, you're not taking away from anyone else.”
“A number of women called my office very distraught,” Hikind added.
The administration soon revoked the new schedule, but it gave rise to a new controversy.
While the supporters commended the move, the critics called it an “accommodation to a religious minority,” which is a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state — despite the fact that women-only hours are not an anomaly.
Many public pools across the country have designated hours for women, particularly the elderly, so they can swim in peace without worrying about teenagers cannonballing into the pool.
“It's good for our body and it's good for our mind. And we know where to go and we have a little exercise,” said 80-year-old Paula Weiss. “We can't go everywhere.”
Jacqueline Larson, representative for St. Louis Park that also promises all-female swim hours, told the Associated Press such swim sessions initially served the Jewish population.
“However, as the city's Muslim population has grown, we have reached out to them to participate as well,” she explained.
While the city officials are still reviewing the situation in Williamsburg, the entire thing has made one thing explicitly clear: Gender-segregation does not offend people as much as religious restrictions do.
“So long as the pool isn't restricted to a particular religious group during that time then I don't see a problem,” wrote a Redditor, whereas The New York Times editorial opined, “Let those who cannot abide public, secular rules at a public, secular pool find their own private place to swim when and with whom they see fit.”