ALBANY — A Jewish organization that operates two children’s camps in Schoharie County has sued the county, charging discriminatory treatment as officials repeatedly issued citations and shutdown orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Albany also names county Public Health Director Amy Gildemeister as a defendant, and says the persecution by neighbors, town officials and county officials dates back to the mid-2000s, when it first acquired property and set up operations in Schoharie County.
Oorah Inc. is asking the court to declare the county’s efforts a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, more commonly known as freedom of religion; to block further attempts by the county to impair its operations; and to award compensatory and punitive damages, plus legal fees.
Schoharie County Administrator Steve Wilson said Wednesday that he could not comment on pending litigation.
Oorah is a charitable nonprofit Orthodox Jewish organization based in New Jersey that operates the Boys Zone camp in Jefferson and the Girls Zone camp in Gilboa. It also uses the two sites for retreats during the Jewish Holy Days and to host events for Jewish families.
The two camps are a dozen miles apart. The girls’ camp opened in 2006 and the boys’ camp, located at the former Scotch Valley Ski Area and Deer Run Village Resort, opened in 2015.
Boys Zone was to open in 2010 but faced a discriminatory campaign of delays and interference, Oorah’s attorneys allege in a 76-page complaint.
Some of the 557 paragraphs contain specific allegations of anti-Semitic bias, sometimes with purported transcripts of actual conversations by town and county officials, laced at times with profanities. It also presents imagery of county health personnel chasing crying, frightened children around the campground during inspections last summer.
Overall, the allegations paint a picture of a relentless, decade-long attempt to thwart Oorah’s expansion and operation in Schoharie County.
Oorah filed Article 78 lawsuits seeking to reverse actions by the town of Jefferson in 2010 and 2012, and it filed an Article 78 against the county and state departments of Health in August 2020. In the 2020 case, a judge in September barred the county from enforcing the cease-and-desist orders it had issued to stop Oorah from operating its facilities.
The newest lawsuit centers on the county’s actions in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when summer camp operations were prohibited in New York state. Oorah says it was not operating summer camps; rather, it was running legally allowable family retreat centers with full COVID-19 safety protocols; to date, it said, there has not been a single documented case of the virus at either facility.
Schoharie County attempted and largely succeeded in blocking Oorah from operating in 2020 under the guise of preventing COVID-19 spread, the lawsuit said. “In reality, however, the County has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to shut down Oorah, which is the subject of vile hostility and targeted discrimination based on its Orthodox Jewish nature,” the lawsuit said.
The county caused Oorah great financial harm, even before assessing a $65,000 fine for continued operation in 2020, the lawsuit states, and the county imposed nowhere near the level of enforcement against other violations of COVID-prevention protocol at local businesses or SUNY-Cobleskill.
Oorah indicates it hopes to use the two Zones for the 2021 Jewish Holy Days, including Passover next month, and says that to do this it needs the 2021 temporary residence permits the county has so far refused to issue.