After years of legal challenges to ordinances that the Jewish community and authorities have charged were deliberately enacted to keep Orthodox Jews out of Jackson Township, New Jersey, the planning board has reversed course and approved a cluster of yeshivot.
The Lees Village LLC project was unanimously given preliminary approval on May 16 to construct three yeshivot—an elementary, middle and high school—on 13 acres of vacant land on Leesville Road, near West Veterans Highway.
The action was a direct result of a suit filed by Agudath Israel of America (AIA) five years ago against the township and many of its officials, alleging ”discriminatory and unconstitutional ordinances” were enacted specifically to ban yeshivas and dormitories and disallow eruvim. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp issued a preliminary injunction blocking enactment of the ordinances.
The area is zoned as neighborhood commercial, which allows schools as a permitted use, and meets other municipal zoning regulations that existed before the passage of the controversial ordinances. AIA New Jersey Executive Director Rabbi Avi Schnall said the court ruling was so unequivocal that although the litigation remains unfinalized, the developer felt emboldened to go ahead with the project.
“When a judge gives a temporary injunction you have to be very confident of the outcome of the suit to go forward,” Rabbi Schnall told The Jewish Link. “This ruling definitely gave us confidence. We are hoping to resolve the litigation regarding community development and growth of Jackson and hope for a good settlement.”
In his ruling, Shipp noted, “Defendants maintain that the Township Council’s decisions were not motivated by anti-Semitic animus exhibited by others. But the record suggests otherwise.”
The 28-page court ruling cites numerous examples of seemingly antisemitic actions by both municipal officials and township residents, including harassment, Orthodox Jews being referred to with insulting names and veiled references such as not wanting Jackson to become like Lakewood, being cited as the motivation behind the offending ordinances.
The suit alleges that township residents had shown animosity toward the Orthodox community through social media, email correspondence with township officials and at municipal meetings—the first of which was held in November. Because the project is fully compliant with municipal zoning law and needed no variances, board members told residents who voiced concern about traffic and congestion over the three meetings where the application was heard that they could not legally turn it down. The board’s function was to hear from professionals with expertise in site-design matters and traffic and suggest revisions to Lees Village, which is a project of Lakewood developer Mordechai Eichorn.
“This is very positive,” noted Rabbi Schnall. “This will allow the community to grow while preserving the nature of the town for all residents of the town including religious Jews who live there and pay taxes.”
Applicant attorney Donna Jennings of the Woodbridge law firm of Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer told the board the applicant “has heard your concerns and has heard the concerns of consultants, has listened to the public and has modified his application even though he was not required to do so to meet your ordinance.” She ran through a long list of modifications, including construction of a secondary emergency access road, adding a crosswalk between the parent drop-off and parking lot and a separate bus drop-off lane, including additional buffering throughout the site and between it and the adjoining neighbor as well as a six-foot-high privacy fence.
The two lower schools would each have about 600 students and the high school 225 students. The board allayed resident concerns about additional students attending by pointing out the number of students is capped by the number of parking spots according to zoning ordinance. The applicant does not have the required number of spots that would allow for any additional pupils.
Ocean County must also sign off on the project because Leesville Road is a county thoroughfare and the proposal includes changes to the street, including creating a left-hand turn lane, additional striping and widening of the road. After receiving county consent, the developer must return at a later date to the local planning board for final approval.
Rabbi Schnall said both the Orthodox populations of Lakewood and Jackson are “exploding” and there are now approximately 2,500 Orthodox families in Jackson who must send their children to schools in Lakewood.
“There are approximately 4,000 children from Jackson who go to school in Lakewood,” he said. “There’s a new phenomenon where many new schools are opening every year. A lot of these new schools are located in Lakewood but have a large portion of their student body coming from Jackson.”
According to the suit, parents have said the two-hour round-trip bus commute to Lakewood schools has interfered with the children’s prayers and studies.
Rabbi Schnall added that because it is younger people who are buying homes in Jackson, the demand for schools will continue to grow. Fortunately, Jackson has an “enormous amount” of vacant land.
“This verdict is a tremendous step forward,” said Rabbi Schnall. “The judge made it clear that ordinances that are drafted with the intent of hampering the growth of a religious community are unconstitutional and this long-awaited ruling will allow the growing Orthodox population in Jackson to freely exercise their religious rights.”
The township has been embroiled in ongoing legal action for some time over its alleged antisemitic practices. Former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year filed a civil-rights suit against Jackson Township and its land-use boards citing a repeat pattern of intentionally targeting the Orthodox community and its religious practices through zoning restrictions and discriminatory policy and enforcement strategies.
Also last year the Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Justice charged that local leaders targeted the Orthodox community through zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and barring religious boarding schools. It specifically alleges the township entities violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome discriminatory land-use regulations, and the Fair Housing Act.
By Debra Rubin