By Howard Barbanel
When the rabbis who wrote the Talmud set forth all the intricate rules for the construction of a sukkah, including how its roof is to be partially open to the sky, they knew about rain, wind, and cold, but not about jumbo jets screeching overhead.
If it’s raining, extremely windy, or bitterly cold, we are enjoined from eating in the sukkah because we’d be uncomfortable. But what about deafening noise pollution? Would this detract from the performance of the mitzvah of sukkah or provide a legitimate excuse for relocating indoors? If you can’t hear yourself (or anyone else) talk, if the heavy noise would cause headaches, make you irritable, or even rattle your bones, wouldn’t this be on a par with being rained on?
As fantastical as these questions may sound, over the past six weeks in many parts of the Five Towns, this has not been hypothetical. Sections of our area have been bombarded with an aural blitzkrieg that at certain times of the day and evening make our neighborhood seem like it’s situated atop the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Since Rosh Hashanah, the southern and western ends of the Five Towns have been under unremitting air “attack” at the most inconvenient hours. Planes have routinely been streaking across our nighttime sky from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Naturally, these are the hours when most people are trying to go to sleep. This is seven days a week. The planes have been flying over about every 90 seconds or so without pause. If you went to the Woodmere Town Dock at the end of Woodmere Boulevard, you’d have seen dozens of planes all lined up in their descent to JFK just a few hundred feet apart from one another.
The planes resume their auditory assault at about 5:45 a.m., running past 8:30 a.m. This is also every day. Who needs an alarm clock or 1010 WINS when you know exactly when the midnight flight from Tel Aviv crosses over your house? It could be argued that the FAA is concerned that we make it to the 6:30 minyan or that the kids all catch their buses, but the time we arise in the morning ought to be our choice; one shouldn’t be jolted out of bed by the sound of jet engines while in a semi-somnolent state.
On the weekends, enjoying a Shabbat shalom can be difficult because the planes come over uninterruptedly day and night. Saturday and Sunday afternoons have been a nonstop jet-scream-fest. Because on Saturdays most of us have no electronic media options to mask the noise, we have planes as our Shabbat companions. Again, I’m sure the FAA, in its own way, is urging us to sing plenty of zemirot at the Shabbat lunch table to improve our ruchniyut and drown out the cacophony. Plenty of food and alcoholic drink will be necessary for that Shabbat nap if your consciousness is to contend with the planes screeching overhead.
This time of year we’re not using air conditioning, so there are fewer noise buffers. If you want to open your window, the noise gets louder yet. Interestingly, it’s actually less noisy while in the plane or at the airport, as the planes and terminals are girded with heavy noise insulation. Not so most of our homes.
The planes come in across Hewlett Bay, fly over the southern streets of Woodsburgh, and then continue over parts of Woodmere, Lawrence, and Cedarhurst. Why the planes can’t fly over Reynolds Channel (or the Atlantic Ocean) and then make a right turn to the runway after bypassing the Five Towns, I have no idea. At LaGuardia the planes take some sharp turns to make the runways; why can’t they do the same at JFK?
Our villages don’t allow construction work or gardeners before 7:00 a.m. or after dark or on Sundays in most of our neighborhoods. Why, then, is JFK permitted to send planes over about every 90 seconds, late at night and before dawn, day in and day out? This detracts from our quality of life.
This is an election year and we just had elections a few days ago. Many of our local elected officials were running for reelection. There were a slew of candidates looking to fill vacant seats in Congress, the Assembly, and elsewhere. Yet air noise was not high on the agenda of folks on the ballot. It seems as though, from candidates to residents, everyone has become resigned to the notion of living with intense levels of noise pollution. Why all the candidates weren’t championing this key quality-of-life issue is mystifying. That we weren’t pushing them (and our sitting officeholders) about it is ridiculous.
Equanimity in the face of a major diminution of our quality of life is no virtue. (Apologies to Barry Goldwater.) One of the few elected officials not on the ballot this week has been just about the only one who has taken these complaints seriously and has actually tried to do something about it. I’m referring to Senior Town Councilman Tony Santino. When alerted by yours truly to the deafening situation, he got on the phone with the FAA and sent strong letters out to our senators and congresswomen. Unfortunately, it hasn’t resolved anything yet.
According to one of Santino’s staff people, “It’s a constant finger-pointing game between the FAA, which controls flight patterns and approach and landing routes (a federal matter under their jurisdiction), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which administers the number of aircraft slotted to take off and land from gates at JFK (and LGA and other area airports as well).”
“In addition to Councilman Santino’s continued work to pressure the FAA to alter their flight departure and arrival patterns, ensuring all communities surrounding the vicinity of the airport share the burden of the noise—and as someone who was there [in the Five Towns] all weekend myself, less than a mile-and-a-half from your home, I can concur that this has happened—it was plane after plane landing as I was at Rock Hall with friends and on Central Avenue yesterday. It’s really ridiculous. I believe that when multiple governmental complaints are lodged, the FAA and Port Authority seem to take the concerns more seriously.”
This brings me back to getting our officeholders and candidates on the horn to the Port Authority and FAA on our behalf. Having our representatives stand up for Five Towns residents to the airport managers would be a direct, tangible benefit that would improve our daily lives.
Last week it was announced that after something like a ten-year wait, the feds finally approved the expenditure of millions of dollars to install noise meters in our area to gauge the decibel levels, which means they’ll let the planes continue their patterns so they can compile data for a tome-like study replete with myriad suggestions to mitigate the noise. It’s highly probable that implementing those eventual suggestions will take as many years as it did to get the noise meters installed in the first place. The planes fly quickly overhead as the wheels of government grind ever so slowly.
Most of us pay a fortune in taxes to live the suburban dream here, and we shouldn’t be victimized by our own government (in the form of the FAA and the Port Authority) by being made to live under bone-crushing noise pollution. Noise pollution is just as bad as air pollution or toxic chemicals. We’d be appalled by the specter of either of those forms of toxicity if they were directly upon us, and so we should also be angry about crazy, uninterrupted deafening sound levels.
If you’re as upset about the air noise as I am and would like to be proactive, you can call the FAA’s manager at JFK. His name is Jerry Spampanato; his office number is 212-435-3640 and his mobile number is 718-244-4111 (found on the FAA noise complaint web page). You can also e‑mail the FAA’s Noise Ombudsman at 9-AWA-NoiseOmbudsman@faa.gov.
In Fiddler on the Roof, someone asks the rabbi if there is a blessing for the czar. To paraphrase the rabbi’s answer, “May G‑d bless and keep the planes far away from us,” so we can enjoy some of the peace and quiet most of us moved out of the city for in the first place.