NJ Yeshivah Fights Zoning Denial in Federal Appeals Court

By Mordechai Wincorn

LAKEWOOD – In a case that has garnered much attention, Yeshivah Naos Yaakov’s ongoing battle to build its new campus in New Jersey’s Ocean Township has reached the federal appeals court in Trenton, where the first round of hearings already took place.

While the township vigorously insists that the decision to block construction was based purely on neutral ordinances, supporters of the yeshivah argue that the permit denial was driven by general animus to the increasing presence of Orthodox Jews in towns surrounding Lakewood.

“This is bigotry masked as a zoning hearing, pure and simple,” said Roman P. Storzer, attorney for the yeshivah, in advance of the proceedings. “The situation that the yeshivah has faced here is exactly why Congress decided that RLUIPA’s protections are necessary.”

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 bill, focuses on preventing government from placing “substantial burdens on the free exercise of religion,” particularly as it pertains to zoning laws and prisoners.

The yeshivah, which is led by Harav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, has maintained a dorm in nearby Lakewood since its inception several years ago. However, recent growth made it necessary to acquire larger and more permanent housing facilities, leading to the purchase of a property in Ocean Township on Logan Road.

Shortly after the application process began, though, the project became the target of widespread public opposition that frequently spilled into the use of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox rhetoric.

Naos Yaakov’s legal briefs contain a collection of over 10 pages of such statements, largely gathered from blogs and social media. They are peppered with terms such as “religious zealots,” “locusts,” and “long coat gangsters,” in reference to the Orthodox community.

A website that was founded in opposition to the yeshivah’s application, called “No Dorm on Logan Road,” contains a diatribe accusing religious groups in general of “intolerance, disdain, contempt” of other groups. A subsequent comment reads, “Dirty stinking Jews can’t control who they are, what can you do?”

Zoning board hearings drew crowds that exceeded 1,000 attendees on several occasions, and often became contentious, with spectators interjecting comments as witnesses testified. The plaintiff’s brief says the crowds were an attempt to “pack” and delay proceedings. One such meeting had to be adjourned due to the overflow crowd. Furthermore, it contends that hearings were intentionally drawn out by “lengthy, repetitive, irrelevant and improper testimony and questioning of yeshivah’s witnesses.”

Questions presented to witnesses included inquiries as to sources of funding for the yeshivah, how medical care for students would be provided, and whether staff would “follow the laws set forth in the Constitution … or your own religious laws?”

The hearing process continued for more than a year and a half after Naos Yaakov’s initial application, despite a statutory limit of 120 days. Ultimately, a vote in December 2015 followed the advice of Ocean Township’s attorney Mark Steinberg and denied the application, citing a lack of information about the project.

Mr. Steinberg’s office declined a request for comment from Hamodia. The township’s legal filing flatly denies that any of these factors influenced the board’s conclusion.

“The record is devoid of evidence that the Board was motivated by any discriminatory animus, and the Township has historically accommodated and approved yeshivas at this same site, as well as multiple synagogues, Jewish schools and community centers throughout its boundaries,” says their brief. “The Resolution and Ordinance represent zoning and planning determinations, not religious discrimination and Plaintiffs’ case is based upon meritless and incendiary accusations of anti-Semitism, not the facts and law.”

Mr. Storzer was not able to comment on the case itself while proceedings are ongoing, but said that the phenomenon is one that has repeated itself in multiple recent attempts to contain the Orthodox Jewish presence from spreading beyond Lakewood.

“You don’t have 1,500 people coming to protest at zoning hearings against much more intensive use of property,” he told Hamodia. “It’s a sad state of affairs that these local jurisdictions try to erect walls around Lakewood through land-use laws.”

Rabbi Moshe Gourarie of Toms River is engaged in litigation for his town’s insistence on a variance to operate the Chabad house he has led for over a decade. He, too, is represented by Mr. Storzer’s firm, which specializes in religious land- use cases. There, Mr. Storzer said that facts around the events made it difficult to attribute opposition to the concerns of noise pollution and traffic that have been cited.

“No one says [in reference to Rabbi Gourarie’s case] that it’s about religion or because he’s an Orthodox Jew, but a few weeks ago he had a swastika painted on his driveway. It’s hard to say that that hostility has a secular basis.”