Yeshiva Gedola Na’os Yaakov in Ocean Township, New Jersey , under the leadership of its Rosh HaYeshiva, Hagon HaRav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, wanted to transform a Jewish day school building with 101 elementary school students into a Bais Medrash and dormitory Yeshiva. The township and its Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the application for a 96-student Yeshiva and a group representing the proposed Jewish boarding school is now suing them.
The 79-page complaint filed on Friday in U.S. District Court claims that the Zoning Board’s denial is a violation of the First and 14th amendments, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Fair Housing Act and accuses the residents of having “hostility and animus to Orthodox Jews.” The complaint also charges that the township’s zoning laws do not accommodate Orthodox Jewish educational institutions.
Mark A. Steinberg, the attorney for the zoning board declined to comment while the township’s attorney, Martin J. Arbus, said he could not comment because he hadn’t yet seen the complaint.
“As far as I’m concerned, the denial was a procedural denial and the Board wasn’t given an opportunity to hear the entire case and make a determination on the merits,” Arbus said.
The Board was unanimous in it’s denial on Dec. 1 after nine public hearings.
The lawsuit said the tried to pack the meetings in order to further delay the application because “unsubstantiated fears of, and prejudice against, Orthodox Jewish men” led them to oppose it. It also says that there were anti-Semitic undertones on social media websites and in the comment sections of news organizations.
One comment on a petition created on change.org said: “I owned property in Lakewood NJ for 24 years,” the commenter wrote. “Orthodox Jewish landlords made life a living hell for me there! I would hate to see this repeated in Ocean!”
Another commenter said, “There are plenty of other places for radical religious schools.”
In public meetings last year residents also complained about things like noise and traffic flow.
One resident feared the Yeshiva would lower his property value.
Residents were still against the proposed school even after their concerns were addressed, partly by restricting the students from leaving the premises.
The lawsuit accuses the Board of allowing the application process to be delayed by the “lengthy, repetitive, irrelevant and improper testimony” of residents in public portions of the meetings.
This is The Yeshiva Gedola’s third application attempt for a Jewish school to move into Ocean Township. Both of the two previous applications were filed in 2010 and were given up on after being met with “similar community resistance,” the lawsuit said.
“This pattern of organized opposition to yeshiva applications demonstrates significant hostility against Orthodox Jewish land uses by Ocean Township residents,” the lawsuit says.
The township prohibits dormitories for students above the age of 18. The township allows private Christian schools, but has not “accommodated Jewish religious practices, as Jewish males traditionally attend yeshivot for longer periods into their early 20s.”
“The Township’s explicit prohibition against dormitories for students above the age of 18 was specifically targeted at Orthodox Jewish educational institutions,” the lawsuit says.
The township allows other nonreligious schools for students older than 18 years of age, like art, dance, and business schools, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit aims to overturn the Zoning Board’s decision and approve the Yeshiva application as well as to be compensated for damages and the full cost of attorneys’ fees.
“This is bigotry masked as a zoning hearing, pure and simple,” said Roman P. Storzer, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing the applicant. “The situation that the Yeshiva has faced here is exactly why Congress decided that RLUIPA’s protections are necessary.”