May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Master and Servant: It’s Electric

It is often considered an established fact that the purpose of technology is to make our lives easier. But nothing is ever that simple for Jews, especially traditional Jews. In some ways, technology can make our lives so much harder. One example ended up becoming a literal federal case in New Jersey. A housing association, in the name of added security, replaced its physical locking key with an electronic card entry for its residents. They did so without considering the ramifications for their Orthodox residents, in the Orthodox Jewish stronghold of Lakewood.

A seemingly innocuous decision by The Enclave, a consortium that owned residences restricted to senior populations, had an unanticipated effect on Nathan Reiss, a resident at Lakewood’s Enclave property. Reiss filed a discrimination complaint with the state’s Division of Human Rights and explained in detail how the security upgrade, even if unintentional, discriminated against him, and like-minded Orthodox Jews.

The problem began in 2015 when the new system went into effect. Residents were no longer issued keys, but key cards, similar to the system used in many hotel chains. However, there was an additional component. In order to grant access to guests of residents at the Enclave, residents would have to arrange for a guest pass on the date that the guest was to arrive. This would require the resident using an electronic system, and the guest receiving an electronic key.

The Enclave’s explanation of the security implementation was simple: First, replacing lost key cards was a lot less expensive than changing locks and purchasing new keys. Second, with a code and record, it was easier to keep track of who was, and should be, on the property.

However, there was a catch that the national owners did not consider, especially in the heavily Orthodox Jewish population of Lakewood. The new policy essentially left Nathan Reiss, and other shomer Shabbat residents, with an unconscionable choice: They could either be isolated in their homes on Shabbat or alternatively be forced to compromise their religious beliefs to go to shul or welcome guests in violation of the halachic prohibition against using electricity on Shabbat and holidays.

Reiss explained that that was exactly what the systematic change did to him. Before the security upgrade he could leave the premises on Shabbat and holidays. He could go to shul. He could dine with members of the community and come home at will. Alternatively, he could invite people over to meals and to celebrate Shabbat with him because he could enter and exit the premises and his apartment without using electricity.

Since the change he was stuck. If he left his home he was violating Shabbat by actively engaging the electronic doors, to which there was no alternative. Likewise, he could not invite people over as guests without having them violate Shabbat. He either had to move or remain home alone week after week after week. Which is what he chose to do.

Moving would prove the point. The housing complex was violating the rights of Jews. Since no observant Jew could live there in good conscience, whether the landlord intended it or not, they were violating the rights of Jews by making committed Jews make an unconscionable choice.

Some have suggested that Reiss had made his choice, and no one was forcing him to stay at home. The law was not intended to target Orthodox Jews. That it did so was a bug, not a feature. As a minority he should accept the Enclave’s explanation and either bear it, same as all other residents, or move to a friendlier environment.

In fact, that was essentially the defense by The Enclave. They argued that their upgrade was neutral to all and did not take into account anyone’s religious beliefs. Further they argued that the upgrade was a benefit to its residents, but the state of New Jersey did not agree. The attorney general adopted Reiss’ case and demanded damages, costs and attorney fees. The state reasoned that if a policy, even incidentally, has the effect of restricting a religious community from living at its residence, it is in effect violating the federal law.

Reiss was not prepared to be a hermit. He sought reasonable alternatives for observant Jews and found the electronic system placed restraints on Jewish residents in the facility, a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of their race, religion, national origin or gender.

We are in the month between Purim and Passover. The month that starts with miracles and ends with freedom. In the end, the Enclave folded. The miracle of technological advancement made way for the freedom from tyranny that electronic monitoring can cause.

And Reiss’ circumstance was perhaps an unintentional beneficiary of one of those miracles. Perhaps it is coincidence. Perhaps it is divinity. New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is himself a traditional Sikh and as a minority with his own unique traditions and practices, he understood Reiss and is understandably sensitive to the needs of religious minorities. Last week, he announced the settlement. The gate will be unlocked during Shabbat and on Jewish holidays. The Enclave will not require residents to use the electronic cards to gain entry to the premises on these days. Further, the guest pass procedure will be “relaxed.”

The Division of Civil Rights put out a statement: “The Law Against Discrimination requires housing providers, including private communities, condos and co-ops, to accommodate their residents’ religious beliefs unless doing so would be an undue burden on their operations. The settlement in this case allows Orthodox residents to fully observe the Sabbath without unduly burdening the housing association’s security concerns.”

The key to the future is to incorporate technology without letting advancements overwhelm the needs of the people whom they are supposed to benefit. The decision is a reminder that technology only is helpful when it serves as a tool, and not as a master. In the end, maybe that is the real message of the decision. Shabbat is not an end in itself but a recurring reminder of our place in the universe. It is part of the Jewish tradition to refrain from technology for one day a week to remember that as much as we are in charge, we are not solely in control. Our message is not just for ourselves but for anyone who seeks its meaning. When the key is no longer a fence but a jail cell, it loses its purpose as an aide, but instead becomes an oppressor. Nathan Reiss and the state of New Jersey were fortunate to be able to recalibrate the balance.

By Stephen Loeb, Esq.


Stephen R. Loeb heads the Law Office of Stephen R. Loeb, a civil practice in New Jersey and New York. He can be reached at [email protected].

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