June 21, 2024
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Toms River Republican Mayoral Primary Hit With Charges of Antisemitism

A campaign flyer from Councilman Dan Rodrick, who recently won the Republican nomination for mayor in Toms River, from the recent “antisemitic” primary campaign.

Toms River, which has in recent years been hit with lawsuits by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) and Jewish leaders for its attempts to try and keep Orthodox Jews and synagogues out of the community, has come off a mayoral primary during which two of the four Republican candidates were accused of antisemitism.

The accusations against current Mayor Mo Hill and Councilman Dan Rodrick, who won the nomination, were enough to prompt Ocean County Republican Chair George Gilmore to release a statement condemning the “antisemitic” campaigns.

“The actions by Mo Hill and Dan Rodrick are disgraceful and have no place in our party,” he said. “We have seen this before when others have tried to divide the residents of our county using the same hateful rhetoric. Leaders from around the county stood united and condemned those actions. I am calling on every Republican—commissioners, legislators and local leaders alike—to join me in condemning this abhorrent behavior.”

That charge was echoed by Agudath Israel of America, which also released a statement criticizing the campaign.

“At a time when antisemitism in New Jersey is at a record high, civic leaders carry the responsibility to counter hate and antisemitism, not promote it,” it stated. “Divisive and hateful language should never be used. We call upon civic leaders throughout the state to denounce this rhetoric and to demand an apology from those who have engaged in this divisive activity.”

Hill’s campaign faced charges over flyers that cited “People of different cultures fleeing the cities buying up our real estate; attracted by our location and affordability, they are seemingly threatening the way of life that attracts them.”

Rodrick trumpeted his efforts “fighting Lakewood-style development” and pledged to appoint new planning and zoning boards to halt special deals for Lakewood developers.

Toms River, like other municipalities surrounding Lakewood, has seen an influx of Orthodox Jews, resulting in an uptick of antisemitic incidents and enactment of zoning ordinances making it difficult to build synagogues and schools.

Rodrick did not respond to messages sent by The Jewish Link, but Hill denied that he had resorted to antisemitism in a phone interview, and said the anti-Jewish rhetoric was primarily coming from Rodrick’s campaign.

“I don’t think there was so much from our side,” said Hill, adding that he believed the campaign demonstrated there were people who aren’t happy about the number of Orthodox moving into the northern section of town.

“I live there and anybody is entitled to buy a house there regardless of their ethnicity, religion or creed,” said Hill, who noted he has worked with the Orthodox community on resolving land use issues.

However, Hill’s campaign literature prompted Toms River resident and community organizer Tova Herskovitz to respond to the flyer she received in the mail with a letter to him that she also posted on Twitter: “As an Orthodox Jew, I am concerned about the overtly biased and threatening communication that you delivered to my home. I question whether it’s appropriate for the mayor of our city to send such messages,” she wrote.

A campaign poster from current Toms River Mayor Mo Hill, in which he and Mayor-Elect Dan Rodrick were accused of engaging in antisemitism during the recent Republican primary.

She cited several of the messages mailed to constituents from Hill that included: Toms River “belongs” to the people who owned homes here before 2020; Toms River was a thriving community before “people of a different culture“ sneaked in; and Toms River has closed borders to anyone not born here.

Herskovitz told The Jewish Link she was encouraged by the number of community members who turned out in the recent primary to vote.

“We put in a lot of effort and got a lot more voters to come out than in previous elections,” she said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome we hoped for.”

However, Herskovitz said the antisemitism seemed to be subsiding in the township in the last several years as opposed to the signs that used to be seen around town about five years ago discouraging homeowners from selling to the Orthodox or having rocks thrown at them when out walking.

“There used to be a lot more antagonism,” she said, and credited the outreach done by the Toms River Jewish Community Council, which has met with local police and community leaders to explain Jewish customs and traditions and try to reach a compromise on different issues.

In 2018 a campaign was organized urging homeowners to resist real estate agents trying to convince them to sell to Orthodox Jewish families. In December of that year the DOJ launched an investigation into the township’s zoning laws that was resolved in early 2021 when the council agreed to revise its religious land-use ordinances.

The DOJ had alleged the township had “engaged in an orchestrated campaign to keep the Orthodox Jewish community from expanding” through changes to the township’s religious land-use rules in 2009 and 2017 that failed to comply with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). In 2009 the township had changed its zoning ordinances to block houses of worship in three zoning districts where they had previously been allowed since 1979.

In 2017 the council increased the minimum acreage requirement for houses of worship from two to 10 acres in areas of town where they were allowed under certain conditions.

The suit stated the rules had adversely affected the Orthodox population, who tend to gather at small houses of worship and walk to shul on Shabbat and holidays.

The DOJ contended the changes in the conditional use were in many residential zoning districts in the northern section of the township where there had been population growth, including among the Orthodox, and “thus potential demand for new houses of worship is most likely.”

A complaint had been filed against Toms River and its zoning board by two congregations, Khal Anshei and Bais Brucha, challenging the 10-acre minimum rule, asserting a “rising tide of antisemitism among the Toms River government and its population.”

Rabbi Mordechai Sekula of Bais Brucha had been forced to hold services in the basement of his home, while members of Khal Anshei were meeting in a makeshift shul in the basement of a rented home.

Chabad of Toms River and its rabbi, Moshe Gouarie, in 2016 had also filed a successful RLUIPA suit against the township charging that “anti-Semitic hostility” directed at the ultra-Orthodox population was behind requiring Chabad to seek a variance. A federal judge ruled in 2018 the local zoning board had violated the law in forcing Rabbi Gouarie to obtain a use variance to continue operating Chabad, and required Toms River to reimburse legal fees.

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.

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