LAKEWOOD - After two emotionally charged public meetings, the Jackson, N.J., town council voted to enact an ordinance that bans the construction of dormitories and places severe limits on the building of all schools. The measure has engendered controversy, as many see it as aimed at curtailing the recent influx of Jewish families as the borders of the neighboring Lakewood community rapidly expand.
The proposal was originally set to be voted on earlier in the month, but the decision was delayed after more than 150 members of the Orthodox community attended that meeting to express their dismay over the ordinance, arguing, in the words of one speaker, that it “coveys a message that Jews are not wanted in Jackson.”
In the weeks since, both sides have continued to express their opinions to local media outlets, with many Jackson residents insisting that the law is merely a move to prevent “overdevelopment,” often associated with the congestion of neighboring Lakewood.
“The reality is this ordinance is not against any race or religion, and only a bigoted person would think as much,” Council President Barry Calogero said following the vote. “It’s an ordinance that would preserve our current suburban culture, reduce suburban sprawl and limit unwanted overdevelopment in our township.”
Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey, told Hamodia that the facts contradict this claim.
“This same council has approved mega developments and all the town’s public schools in residential areas, but they’ve been able to convince the public that banning dormitories and schools where students have no cars is the solution. Of course they should address overdevelopment, but this isn’t the way to do it, and it certainly points to some other motivation,” he said.
Several attempts at dialogue between the Orthodox community and the council to discuss the matter went unanswered, said Rabbi Schnall, with the exception of a reply from Jackson Mayor Michael Reina, that he was open to a meeting after the vote took place.
A request for comment from the council by Hamodia went unanswered.
“This bill sets a bad precedent, and it is a very big setback in the relationship between the council and a strong, growing and voting community,” said Rabbi Schnall. “We have to look forward now and keep on trying to find ways to help the community meet its religious necessities as it continues to grow.”
Jackson is currently home to around 400 Orthodox families, and the community is constantly growing.
As more Orthodox families move to towns surrounding Lakewood, the community had hoped that those areas would be able to provide space for additional schools that the population growth will demand.
While the Jackson ordinance does not forbid the construction of schools without living facilities outright, it restricts them to three small, non-residential zones that have very little undeveloped land.
This is not the first time that dormitory construction, which the law completely forbids, has become a point of contention between the Orthodox community and residents of areas surrounding Lakewood. Last year, a federal appellate court overturned a decision by Ocean Township to block construction by Yeshivah Naos Yaakov. The yeshivah had argued that its denial was based on religious animus, supported by a plethora of anti-Jewish statements found on the website of a group opposing the construction.
Attorney Robert Greene, whose firm, Storzer and Greene, specializes in cases involving religious discrimination in land use, wrote in a letter that the township should consider itself placed on notice that its “heavy-handed attempt” to target a particular population could be legally challenged. His past clients include Yeshivah Naos Yaakov, which is now advocating for nearby Toms River’s Chabad House to be granted permission to build new facilities.
“In this day and age of building walls against other people and cultures, fear and panic should not supplant our important constitutional values,” he said.
With reporting by Associated Press