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US Justice Dept. Sues Jackson Township For Anti-Semitism

Citing “extreme animus by some Jackson residents and township decision makers toward the Orthodox Jewish community,” the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against the municipality and its planning board.

The May 20 filing from the civil rights division of the DOJ charged that local leaders targeted the Orthodox community through zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and barring religious boarding schools. It specifically alleged that township entities violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome discriminatory land use regulations.

“Using zoning laws to target Orthodox Jewish individuals for intentional discrimination and exclude them from a community is illegal and utterly incompatible with this nation’s values,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in a press release announcing the filing. “Let me be clear: The Department of Justice will use the full force of its authority to stop such anti-Semitic conduct and prevent its recurrence.”

In February, the DOJ informed the township that it had been authorized to initiate a lawsuit against Jackson for violating RLUIPA and FHA. On May 12, the council voted to repeal the offending ordinances, claiming they were redundant, although the action was met with opposition by residents participating on Zoom. A second reading was scheduled for May 26, via Zoom, after The Jewish Link went to press.

The filing comes after years of wrangling between Jewish leaders and township officials, resulting in a suit filed by Agudath Israel of America against the township.

“We’re very grateful the federal government has decided to involve itself in the case at this level,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel, told the Jewish Link. “We have been in lawsuit for the last three years and during those three years we have spent a considerable amount of time in negotiations. Each time we negotiated they pulled back in bad faith.”

He said the two sides had reached a settlement on quality of life issues, the details of which Schnall declined to name. However, contended talks dragged on for many months, until after municipal elections, in what was believed to be a stalling tactic by officials in an effort to win Jewish votes. Schnall said that because elected officials never intended to follow through, “to go back to negotiations and put the lawsuit on hold (was) absolutely not an option.”

“If the township wants to go back and change something in the settlement, let them reach out to us,” said Schnall. “We will absolutely not go back to the negotiating table. To do so again would be foolish.”

Attempts by The Jewish Link to reach Mayor Michael Reina for comment through his municipal office, cell phone and email were not returned.

The DOJ filing states: “Orthodox families are significantly less likely to move to a location that does not provide religious educational opportunities for their children. Defendant Jackson foresaw and knew the discriminatory impact of the 2017 ordinances, which effectively ban both religious day schools and yeshivas in Jackson.”

The complaint, filed in the district of New Jersey, alleged that the township passed two ordinances prohibiting dormitories as a tool by the planning board to make it impossible for religious boarding schools, such as Orthodox yeshivot, to be established in the community. Despite presumptively banning all dormitories, the planning board subsequently approved, without variances, plans for two nonreligious projects with “dormitory-type housing.”

“These ordinances were enacted against the backdrop of widespread animus toward the Orthodox community moving into Jackson, and intentionally targeting the needs of the Orthodox community to establish religious schools and religious schools with associated dormitory housing within the township,” the lawsuit stated, thus treating them on a “less than equal” basis.

Among other measures used against Orthodox residents was a 2016 move by the township division of code enforcement to investigate whether Orthodox community members were violating the township’s zoning code capacity and place-of-worship provisions by holding prayer gatherings on Friday nights in residential homes.

Yehuda Tomor, who said he was one of the first Orthodox Jews to move to Jackson several years ago, told The Jewish Link that shortly afterward he held a minyan at his home, which led to the township placing his home under surveillance.

“Code enforcement would come in and start counting people,” he said. “They would ask people where they were going, what they were doing. We were being harassed by people in town. I spoke to the mayor. At that point I started to advocate for public dialogue. We want to live in an open-minded community. We want to be good citizens. We always got a smile from the mayor and everyone else we spoke to but behind our backs they were stabbing us. They were doing anything in their power to stop those minyanim.”

Tomor said code enforcement began issuing violations to those erecting sukkot, claiming they were temporary structures and therefore needed a permit.

Then came the issue with the eruv that, according to the DOJ, prompted the council to pass an ordinance prohibiting any sort of construction on the right-of-law-lawn between sidewalk and street, including utility poles. After a lawsuit was filed, the ordinance was overturned in December 2017.

“They have harassed us,” Tomor said. ”They have driven us crazy.”

The community of approximately 55,000 is estimated to have about 2,200 Jews, including about 500 Orthodox families, according to the DOJ.

The 2017 ordinances came amid fears that a number of Orthodox Jews seeking to move from nearby Lakewood, which, with more than 100,000 residents is the fastest growing municipality in the state, would come into town and bring with them high-density synagogues, yeshivot and religious dormitories.

Before 2017, the township’s zoning code allowed private, parochial and public schools as “permitted by-right uses” in a variety of zoning districts, including residential zones.

The DOJ’s filing stated that Jackson never “demonstrated, through statements in its codes, master plan or elsewhere, that allowing private schools, including parochial schools” in these zones “would impair any zoning goals for the Township, that the presence of private schools in these districts would adversely impact any regulatory land use goals for those zoning districts or that private schools, including parochial schools, would have zoning impacts such as traffic, parking or noise that are different from or greater than the zoning impacts created by a public school.”

It also noted that prior to 2017, “other customary accessory uses, buildings and structures, which are clearly incidental to the principal use and building,” had been permitted accessory uses. Dormitories, it points out, are customary uses since buildings and structures are incidental to the principal use of a school. Additionally, before that date, Great Adventure had dormitories, which are now located in a commercial/residential zone.

Rise Up Ocean County, a group that has been accused of fostering anti-Semitism, claims on its website that it was founded, “on the simple belief that the continued, unchecked growth in Lakewood is contributing to diminished quality of life in the surrounding communities of Toms River, Jackson, Brick and Howell,” and said its battles emphasize strict compliance with local zoning ordinances.

However, after requests from Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, its Facebook page, which had 18,000 followers, was banned in February from the platform for violating its terms of service by fomenting racism and anti-Semitism. Last year, the Jackson Township council refused to adopt a resolution condemning Rise Up Ocean County.

Other groups, including The Jackson NJ Strong, which was available on Facebook until recently, also had had anti-Semitic anti-Orthodox content, according to the DOJ.

The DOJ charged that, “Members of the Township Council actively followed these social media sites and were influenced by them and took official action in response to them.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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