Jackson’s first yeshiva with a dormitory has been approved by the township zoning board a year after settling a lawsuit brought by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) charging the municipality with “extreme animus” toward Orthodox Jews. The suit centered on the enactment of zoning laws that restricted the building of religious schools and dormitories and other measures targeting the Orthodox community.
The unanimous vote at the May 31 meeting will allow Yeshiva Tiferes Talmud to move from its present 1.5-acre site in Monroe Township in Middlesex County to the more than nine-acre site on Brewers Bridge Road, permitting it to increase the number of its post-high school age students from 40 to 60. The site has three existing buildings that will be used: a main house that will be turned into the dorm; a garage that will be converted into a study hall/classroom; and a bungalow-type structure that will be made into a small living space for the school’s rosh yeshiva for times when he chooses to stay over, but will not be a permanent residence.
The school was given preliminary/final site plan approval, a use variance and several bulk variances. Applicant attorney Donna Jennings of the Woodbridge firm of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer said the yeshiva presented a unique situation because the property is split-zoned. The front area coming in and out of the site is not zoned for schools while further back where the three buildings are located does allow them. She also addressed questions about whether the dorm should be considered a separate use from the school.
“That is what is supposed to be there,” said Jennings of the school’s placement. “Without the hardship and issue of the shape and access to the road we would not, in my opinion, be before this board because it is our opinion the dorm is permitted as an accessory use under your own ordinance and, quite frankly, under federal law it is permitted.”
The Civil Rights division of the DOJ had charged local leaders targeted the Orthodox community through zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and barring religious boarding schools. It specifically alleged the township entities violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome discriminatory land use regulations, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The ordinance banning dormitories has been repealed.
Architect Shimon Greenbaum of RISE Architecture of Brooklyn and Lakewood said the dorm will have only a warming kitchen and meals would be brought in, as is customary for this type of small yeshiva. The dorm will have a dining area, laundry room and four to five students in rooms located on the house’s first and second floors. Students will engage in intensive study of talmudic history, ethics and prayer over a period of three to four years.
Eric Ballou of InSite Engineering in Point Pleasant Beach said only 30 percent of the property is taken up by the three buildings, allowing the rest of the site to be used for passive activity like walking. Students would not be allowed to leave the property. In accordance with zoning ordinance requiring one parking space per 1.5 students and staff, there will be 42 parking spaces provided, but 37 of them will be “greenbanked,” meaning they will not be paved because it is unlikely they would ever be needed since students don’t have vehicles.
Planner Andrew Janiw of Beacon Planning and Consulting Service, LLC in Colts Neck testified that the site will be improved through infrastructure renovation, landscaping and fencing that will be “inherently beneficial” and in line with the township’s master plan, which envisions facilities “to satisfy the level of demand required by the population.”
“We are servicing a population that seeks to educate its young men in a way that follows the traditions and customs of the Jewish faith and what is necessary to do that in an immersive experience,” said Janiw, who added that in dealing with such applications, boards must weigh positive and negative criteria. He noted the local master plan also emphasizes promoting public health and welfare, and the school fulfills that objective by providing teachings in ethics and morals, “which inherently promotes public welfare and good citizenship.”
Janiw said courts have deemed “inherently beneficial,” as defined by the state legislature, as being universally considered to be of value to a community because it serves the public good and welfare through such uses as schools, hospitals, childcare centers or group homes.
”You really don’t have any negative impacts,” said Janiw. “There will be no boisterous playing of ball on the street. These students are very studious. We’re not doing any from-the-ground-up construction…It is unlikely the neighbors will experience any issues with respect to the students…When we balance the positive and negative impact we really don’t have any detriments to the public good.”
However, several nearby neighbors voiced concern their privacy would be lost. Sidney Shelby, whose house abuts the property, said his deck overlooks the property and students could see into their kitchen or overhear conversations when his family is on the deck. As a former yeshiva student himself, he said he believed such an institution was beneficial to the community but “it should be done properly in a spot with proper frontage of its own. I believe it should be done responsibly where it’s not affecting other’s privacy.”
Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.