New York – A New Jersey township that in recent years has suddenly found itself home to hundreds of Orthodox Jewish families is at the center of a federal lawsuit charging local officials with passing regulations that were deliberate acts of religious discrimination.
Because Toms River, located south of Lakewood, and Jackson Township, situated to the north, have a steady supply of affordable housing, they have become attractive options to those looking to live in the Lakewood area.
Tensions have risen in both townships as some residents have publicly expressed their concerns about possible changes in the character of their communities and both towns enacted “no-knock” ordinances banning real estate agents from asking them if they want to sell their houses.
But two ordinances passed in mid-March by Jackson Township banning dormitories and restricting construction of schools to commercial zones have landed the township in court after being sued by Agudath Israel of America and WR Property of Jackson, New Jersey.
The lawsuit was filed on May 8th in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey and alleges that Jackson Township officials have displayed a pattern of discriminating against Orthodox Jews and that the two recently passed ordinances were “clearly motivated by a desire to prevent Orthodox Jews from moving to Jackson.”
Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America, said that Jackson officials have long tried to push measures that would make the township less attractive to Orthodox Jews.
“First there was the no knock ordinance,” Rabbi Schnall told VIN News. “Then they made a significant increase to the acreage needed in order to build a shul. And when they were building low income housing, they specifically made one to two bedroom houses because it would hinder the ability of Orthodox Jews to move into these houses.”
Both the ban on dormitories and the new restrictions on school construction are in violation of the rights of Jackson’s Orthodox Jewish residents, alleges the lawsuit. Rabbi Schnall noted that there are very few commercial properties left in Jackson where a school could be built under the new ordinance and that there is no reason why Jackson parents should have to bus their children to yeshivos in another town when they are legally entitled send their children to schools located within their own township.
“We are talking about residents of the town,” said Rabbi Schnall. “There are close to 1,000 Orthodox Jewish taxpayers in Jackson who have the right to live here and exercise their liberties as appropriate.”
A speech at the 2015 Agudah convention given by Agudah vice president Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz encouraging families to live financially stable lives by moving into areas on the outskirts of existing Jewish communities, like Jackson, was met by strong comments from Rob Nixon, president of the Jackson Town Council.
“He called it reprehensible and filed a claim against Rabbi Lefkowitz with the Justice Department and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office,” said Rabbi Schnall.
Both of those claims, which accused Rabbi Lefkowitz of “blockbusting,” were later dismissed without merit.
The Agudah lawsuit also alleges that township zoning board members described the Jewish community as “cockroaches” on social media and said that “Jackson is not prepared for the tsunami of orthodoxy that is mounting at the border.”
An initial vote on the recently enacted ordinances scheduled for March 1st was rescheduled after more than 200 members of the Orthodox Jewish community came to the hearing in order to express their opposition. According to Rabbi Schnall, hundreds of emails were sent to township officials after the hearing, asking for the opportunity to discuss the ordinances in question.
“People wanted to be able to have a meeting, discuss a possible compromise and find some common ground and a way to make things work,” said Rabbi Schnall. “All of those emails went unanswered.”
Jackson mayor Michael Reina reportedly told several people that he would be happy to discuss the issues once a vote on the ordinances had been held.
“That is bogus,” said Rabbi Schnall. “The point was to talk before the vote. Once the ordinances were passed it was already too late.”
The ordinances were passed by unanimous vote on March 14th. According to a report on NJ 101.5 (http://bit.ly/2qsaYUT), Jackson Councilman Barry Calogero said that the ordinances had no religious bias but were merely intended to limit overdevelopment while preserving the township’s “suburban nature.”
The Agudah is seeking a judgment that would annual the ordinances and declare them unconstitutional and illegal, as well as nominal damages and legal fees. The decision to take the matter to court was made only after all other options had been exhausted said Rabbi Schnall.
“We have tried to come to a diplomatic resolution but the township refused to come to the table with us,” said Rabbi Schnall. “What other options did we have left?”
Mayor Reina did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.