Agudath Israel to NJ Federal Court: Ocean Township Zoning Board Violates Yeshiva’s Rights


AgudahIn a federal lawsuit pitting a major yeshiva against a local zoning board, Agudath Israel of America is contending that the board’s refusal to grant the yeshiva certain zoning variances necessary for the yeshiva to operate is motivated by a political cave-in to anti-charedi bias.

Yeshiva Gedola Na’os Yaakov of Lakewood, New Jersey, under the leadership of the Rosh Hayeshiva Rabbi Shloime Feivel Schustal, has grown rapidly since its inception several years ago, and has far outgrown its current quarters in Lakewood. To meet its need for a larger space with full dormitory facilities, the yeshiva acquired spacious property in Ocean Township, and applied to the Township’s Zoning Board for the necessary zoning variances.

Elements within the community, however, mounted virulent resistance to the application, organizing an effort around the theme, clearly meant to impart a message beyond this specific application, that the yeshiva should “Stay in Lakewood.” The Zoning Board, apparently sympathetic to that sentiment, dragged out the variance application process for well over a year, ultimately denying the application on nebulous grounds. The grounds for denial were cited as “noise,” “safety,” and the vague claim that use of the three-acre parcel for a yeshiva would be more “intense” than as a single family residence. There was ample evidence, however, that the true motivation for the variance denial was a desire to mollify the anti-chareidi elements who waged a campaign on social media and packed every public meeting in their efforts to keep the yeshiva community out of Ocean Township.

The yeshiva subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Township in federal district court, and has asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the Zoning Board to allow the yeshiva to move forward. It is in support of such injunction that Agudath Israel has now requested an opportunity to make its views known as an “amicus curiae” (friend of the court).

The proposed Agudath Israel brief, written by attorney Ronald D. Coleman, a partner in the firm Archer & Greiner, P.C., argues that the Township’s denial of a variance constitutes a violation of the First Amendment and RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act); that the yeshiva’s application to establish a dormitory-based facility is fundamental to its religious mission and is based on an esteemed and widely accepted tradition in Judaism; and that the “noise” and “safety” pretexts relied on by the Zoning Board in denying the yeshiva’s application have no basis in the record and are plainly discriminatory.

The Orthodox Jewish community has seen this scenario before. When a community grows, needs to expand, seeks to move into new neighborhoods and build new educational and social service institutions, it all too often encounters resistance from a vocal sector of residents in a neighborhood who feel threatened by the influx of Orthodox Jews and claim to speak on behalf of the entire “community.” Such resistance all too often includes vile anti-Semitic and anti-charedi rhetoric, and sometimes even worse.

Agudath Israel has been involved in a number of such cases over the years. Said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the organization’s executive vice president: “This case is just the latest example of the type of challenge our community faces as it grows and is forced to contend with hostile neighbors who are determined to keep Orthodox Jews out of their neighborhoods.

“Of course, it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to co-exist respectfully and peacefully with our neighbors, to be sensitive to whatever legitimate concerns they may have, and to conduct ourselves in a way that will lead to harmonious relations with entrenched communities. At the same time, however, we have rights as do all other American citizens, and we must stand guard against efforts to inhibit our community’s growth.

“We see it as a core mission of Agudath Israel to defend the community’s right to grow and expand, and it is our privilege to help Rabbi Shloime Feivel Schustal’s yeshiva as it continues to develop outstanding Torah scholars in an appropriate yeshiva setting.”

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  1. There is so much information missing from that statement! I grew up in Ocean Township about mile from that location. (Which, btw, is about 20 miles from Lakewood.)

    The first, and most important thing they don’t mention is that site has housed an orthodox school for about 50 years. I went there myself from 1965-1973. So any allegation that this is anti-orthodox or antisemetic is despicably specious.

    There is a large complex just up the road which used to be a conservative temple and now also houses an orthodox school.

    Ocean Township is also home to the Hillel Yeshiva, which includes a massive elementary/high school complex. (The building in question was the first “real” building Hillel had.) As well as at one very large orthodox shul complex and another large shul.

    The school building is an old fashioned classic school building originally designed to house a small elementary school of about 100 students. It expanded slightly over the years, but still maintains the look and feel of a small schoolhouse.

    For about 20 years the school also housed a Shabbos minyan that was a breakaway from our shul that was originally in Asbury Park. The shul is now housed elsewhere in Ocean Township in a large 770 replica building.

    There’s a very nice park across the street from the school with tennis courts, a baseball diamond and a playground. Having 100 teenage boys living across the street could drastically change the dynamic of the park.

    As Ocean Township borders Deal, it has become home a large number Syrian orthodox Jews.

    The bottom line is that Ocean Township was an amazing community for me to grow up in and become religious in. My dad still lives there. The community has generally had wonderful relations with with the orthodox community.

    As far as I know those opposed to this variance were against the idea of housing a dormitory for 100 teenage boys in this quiet suburban neighborhood. If I lived in the area I too would be opposed to such a dorm… whether it housed Jewish or Catholic kids.

  2. M. Lipkin, its certainly nice that you have a pleasant recollection of your neighbors and that you are dan tehm l’kaf zechus. But even if it is just the neighbors might want to keep things exactly the way they were this is true in every neighborhood, that doesn’t mean you have a legal right to do that. Change happens. If someone applies for a permit to do something that is not harmful a city has to give a legal reason not to grant it, not just “we like things the way they are.” If you can use that for a reason strangely enough all of a sudden houses never get sold to people who look too different from you either because you like things the way they are.

    Also you say you know the opposition would be the same whether Catholic or Jewish. Did you read the letter to the court from the yeshiva that has quotes from the people opposing the dorm? You can find it here

    Read the things the neighbors said about the bochrim and see if you still feel the same please M. Lipkin thank you

  3. Mendy, yes I did read the brief. And no, those comments are not “antisemitic”, certainly not obviously so. They represent both fear of change, as you mentioned, and also a very warranted fear of 100 single men boarding in a residential community.

    Also, while things do change, this is not “organic” change. It’s an outside institution insinuating itself into a community. It may have been different had the original Hillel gradually grown into a boarding school.

    Further, even if there is some element of antisemitism involved, and it’s unlikely there isn’t. Is it really the smartest move to call it out? Especially, when it’s likely a small minority. You only create more resistance when you accuse people of doing something that they aren’t.

    I spoke to a Rav of a shul in the community who’s quite an expert at finessing things politically. He told me that this Yeshiva went about things in completely the wrong way. They went in like bulls in a china shop with a “magiah li” attitude. Rather, he said, they should have held parlor meetings in the community, met with the neighbors, explained who they are, and listened seriously to feedback. It probably would have been a good idea from them to bring in some of the bochrum and let them meet the neighbors. Maybe even offer to volunteer in some small way in the community.

    Of course worst of all, and what I was mainly reacting to, is the Agudah involvement. Here you have a complete outsider, no party to this issue, coming in and “screaming” antisemitism. They literally wrote in their friend of the court brief, ” “The Board’s action, the record shows, was motivated entirely by anti-Semitic animus.” ENTIRELY?!? That is a lie and and it’s despicable. And if it were true, that the 1000 people that showed up at the planning board meeting where ALL raging antisemites why on Earth would the Yeshiva want to expose their students to that??? No, this was just another typically obnoxious, bone-headed move by the Agudah.

  4. Mendy, one more thing. Of course the Yeshiva has a “legal right” to pursue an appeal. But no, a town does not have to capitulate to every change, even if it’s not “harmful”. As long as they are applied fairly, zoning laws make sense and are valid way for a town to protect and allocate its resources. The crux of the issue here seems to be whether or not they are being applied fairly. We’ll see.

  5. M. Lipkin I don’t know your agenda but it looks like you have a big chip on your shoulder against the yeshivaleit if you could read the letter (not the Agudah one the one by the yeshiva) and not think these comments were antisemtism. Your very offended by “entirely antisemitism” but the board could not come up with one single legal valid reason why to deny the permission! They said noise from davening – noise from davening? Also cars, in a yeshiva where the buchrim are not allowed to have cars. So what is your explanation.

    And then you say “Of course the Yeshiva has a “legal right” to pursue an appeal but no, a town does not have to capitulate to every change, even if it’s not “harmful”. This isn’t about “every change” M. Lipskin its about a variance with very very specific conditions so please spare us the straw men thank you. And if you will read the letters you see yes the town does have to say once you have a school asking permission they have to say what is the harm. They said noise and cars, all made up. You don’t see antisemitism there, maybe look in a mirror?