Jackson, NJ – A Jackson Township rabbi has filed a complaint with the Ocean County Human Relations Commission charging that his constitutional rights were violated by recent changes to the bylaws of the retirement community where he lives.
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz moved from Chicago with his two adult sons to Westlake Golf and Country Club in 2016 in order to be in closer to proximity to his married daughter and her family.
The spiritual leader of the Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation for 12 years and the former assistant executive director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Lefkowitz introduced himself to his Westlake neighbors with a July 2016 post on the community’s Facebook page saying that he looked forward to “beginning new and meaningful relationships” in Westlake and inviting anyone who sought his assistance to visit him in his home.
But according to Rabbi Lefkowitz, it became clear early on that he was viewed with suspicion by his new neighbors. A welcome visit from a group of Hadassah women included a bottle of wine, a challah and questions about the 50 stacking chairs that were rumored to be stashed in the basement for a planned synagogue. Rabbi Lefkowitz said that he quickly dispelled that notion, showing the delegation that he had no basement and no stockpile of chairs.
According to Rabbi Lefkowitz, a gate near his home that gave him easy access to a nearby synagogue was locked and tagged with a “No Trespassing” sign shortly after he moved in. The new arrangement left the disabled 73 year old, who uses both a wheelchair and a walker to get around, facing a mile and a half long trip on a main road on a rabbinically approved Shabbos scooter.
“There are no sidewalks and no streetlights and cars are whizzing by at 50 miles per hour,” Rabbi Lefkowitz told VIN News. “I can’t go to shul at night because it is too dangerous. I go during the day if I can.”
Both of Rabbi Lefkowitz’s sons are legally blind and are also in wheelchairs, an issue that created a problem when Westlake gave Rabbi Lefkowitz permission to put up a small succah behind his home.
“They allowed us to put up a succah that could only accommodate a bridge table and four chairs,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz. “It was so small that none of us could get in there with our wheelchairs. It was useless to us. If I have to build a succah two feet wider and two feet longer, they couldn’t give me a dispensation for that? This was on my property, on a concrete patio that no one can see unless they are trespassing on my property.”
A 2014 Forbes article (http://bit.ly/2y0UR4Q) advising seniors on the ins and outs of buying a home in a retirement community stressed the importance of knowing the restrictions of living in a gated community, which can often seem random and extensive. But Rabbi Lefkowitz insisted that neither he nor his attorney were ever given a copy of Westlake’s rules before he purchased his home.
After hearing that Westlake was going to amend its bylaws to prohibit regularly scheduled public gatherings in resident’s homes, which would preclude any minyanim, Rabbi Lefkowitz sent a letter to the community’s board of trustees saying that the amendment infringed on his constitutional right of peaceful assembly as well as his First Amendment right to practice his religion, since the only synagogues in Jackson are located in private homes. The measure passed last spring by an overwhelming vote, according to Rabbi Lefkowitz.
Rabbi Lefkowitz, who together with his sons are Westlake’s sole Orthodox residents, said that he has tried hard to promote understanding and tolerance in Jackson. He teamed up with Reverend John Bambrick of the township’s St. Aloysius Church last October for an event to discuss Orthodox Judaism with area residents in an effort to lessen tensions and hostilities as reported by The Asbury Park Press (http://on.app.com/2y0P92w). Approximately 300 people turned out for the two hour meeting, with emotions running high at times. Reverend Bambrick later described the gathering as an opportunity to “at least lay the foundations for bridge building.”
Rabbi Lefkowitz said that he understands why his neighbors in the 1400 home development view religious Jews with suspicion, but that thing have gone too far.
“It doesn’t justify them taking it out on me,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz, who lodged a formal religious discrimination complaint against Westlake’s board of trustees on Monday with the Ocean County Human Relations Commission. Rabbi Lefkowitz hopes that issues can be resolved amicably without having to resort to litigation.
“I am very much against going to court because even if you win the animosity you create is horrible,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz. “I always look to the good people and while the commission has no legal authority on this matter, they have moral authority and I am hoping that they will intervene so that we can resolve these issues. We are living in the United States of America. There is a right of freedom of assembly. There is a right of freedom of religion. Westlake isn’t an island unto itself.”
Westlake’s property manager Steven Hodges said that while the country club’s board of trustees appreciates Rabbi Lefkowitz’s concerns, the community’s rules and policies are no secret.
“These are recorded, public documents that are part of the title search that buyers’ attorneys and title companies perform as part of the title closing process,” said Hodges.
A statement released by Westlake’s board of trustees to VIN News indicated that part of the process of buying a home in the development includes agreeing to abide by the community’s rules and policies, which include not allowing regularly scheduled public meetings in residents’ homes, which would disrupt the nature of the community.
“Westlake is, and has been, a private, residential community from its inception,” read the statement. “This is expressed in the recorded governing documents to which each owner binds himself or herself when they take title.
The fact that it is solely residential and private are two characteristics that make Westlake attractive to its residents. Having said that, there is nothing in the community’s governing documents that prevents an owner from having meetings or gatherings in their homes. What is prohibited are gatherings open to the general public on a regular basis.
There are appropriate places for public meetings and forums, but the owners and residents in Westlake do not feel that their private, residential community is such a place.”