Debate heats up over whether or not city should cancel women-only program at public facility

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WILLIAMSBURG, Brooklyn -- Tens of thousands of Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish women live in New York, a city of 8.5 million people.

Whether the rights of that minority should first be protected, or the rights of the majority be promoted is a basic question of a democratic republic that is being asked -- and possibly answered at a small public pool in this evolving Brooklyn neighborhood.

At the Parks Department's Metropolitan Pool, for a total of seven hours, four days a week, the glass panels separating the pool from the lobby you are covered up, and half of the potential swimmers are kept out.

"We were told two days ago it's over, it's finished, it's being canceled," said state assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat from Brooklyn.

"The women who called my office were very distraught," said the legislator who represents many Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish constituents.

He was referring to a city program, begun during the Bloomberg Administration, that closes the pool to men during the very popular swim time of 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, as well as from 9:15 to 11 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

During five of those seven hours each week, the pool is open to adult females only. For the two hours on Sunday, it's open to women and girls. The city is considering ending the restrictions, possibly as soon as next month.

"It's an issue of modesty," said Hikind. "Giving these women, or any women -- Jewish, Muslim, Christian, it doesn't matter. You can come to enjoy."

A carved stone sign over the door identifies the facility by its original name from nearly a century ago, Public Bath. Women whose religion and customs restrict them from swimming with men are part of the public.

So, too, though, are people like Anthony Jackson, who PIX11 News encountered as he was exiting from open swim.

"You have to be fair to everybody," Jackson said. "And that means co-ed all the way."

But non-Orthodox Jewish women who spoke with PIX11 News said they were generally supportive.

"They were here first," said Williamsburg resident Laura Parnes. "Let them have their neighborhood swim time."

But Diana Zambrana was born and raised in the neighborhood. "I learned to swim in that pool," she told PIX11 News.

She said that she supported women having their own space and privacy at the pool for a few hours each week, but said that the way it's carried out isn't always equitable to all women.

"On Wednesday[s] only," Zambrana said. "They have more preference for the Jewish women than for [other] ladies and kids. That shouldn't be like that."

The Parks Department told PIX11 News that the single-sex swim hours will remain in place while it reviews the policy to ensure that it does not violate human rights, regardless of gender.