The inquiry comes amid an ongoing quarrel between Rabbi Moshe Gourarie, who operates a Chabad shul out of his home located at 2001 Church Road, and the township over whether the rabbi needs a zoning variance to run the Chabad Jewish Center from his home, the Asbury Park Press reports (http://on.app.com/1WUTtX9). In 2009, Toms River revised its zoning ordinance laws to prohibit churches from operating in residential areas. Rabbi Gourarie’s bought his home in 2011.
In 2014, Gourarie was issued eight zoning violations for running the Chabad Center in a residential neighborhood. He pleaded not guilty in Municipal Court, saying he has weekly prayer services for about 15 or 20 people, and that he runs a Jewish community center at the location.
In response to the violations, Gourarie filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the zoning board and the town, alleging that “anti-Semitic hostility” and disdain for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community are behind the dispute and request for a variance. The lawsuit states that Chabad has been the focus of the town even though the shul has a “negligible land use effect on the local community and its existence at this location and another residential home in Toms River for 12 years without negative impacts.”
The rabbi had requested permission to continue running the shul out of his home, while adhering to “limits” set forth by the zoning board, which was denied. Over 1,200 people attended a recent, contentious zoning board hearing about the shul. Many residents expressed concerns about Gourarie’s future plans for the site and said they thought the rabbi deliberately ignored the town’s zoning laws. “Substantial community opposition to both the Chabad’s use and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in general, has targeted the Chabad,” said Roman Storzer, the attorney representing the shul.
In an April 28 letter to Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher, acting chief of the Justice Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section Sameena Shina Majeed wrote, “Our investigation will focus on the Township’s zoning laws affecting religious land uses. We are also reviewing, as part of our investigation, the Township’s requirement that Rabbi Moshe Gourarie obtain a use variance in order to engage in religious worship and educational activities at 2001 Church Road.”
Acting Chief Majeed also indicated that the Justice Department would determine whether Toms River was in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 law, which forbids towns from using land use rules to inflict a “substantial burden” on religious freedom “absent a compelling justification” that doing so would be in the government’s interest.
The Justice Department has requested a slew of documents from the town to verify if they have violated RLUIPA in this matter.
Mayor Kelaher, who, last March, referred to the burgeoning Orthodox community as “like an invasion” declined to comment on the Justice Department’s probe or the lawsuit, but said he was “very optimistic” that it would soon be settled. Kelaher has since said his remarks were taken out of context, and that he was referring to the barrage of real estate brokers in the North Dover section looking to buy homes in that area on behalf of their Orthodox clients.
Gourarie is now in talks with Congregation B’nai Israel to potentially relocate the Chabad to a different campus on Old Freehold Road.