Officials in Jackson Township, N.J., have steadily insisted that the recent ordinance effectively banning the construction of eruvin and a sharp uptick in enforcement of a long-ignored law regulating private objects on public streets are unconnected to the recent influx of Orthodox residents to the township. Yet a set of documents recently made public through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request seems to confirm long-held suspicions to the contrary.
The documents, mostly hundreds of emails, show a small, loosely organized group of residents complaining about the construction of eruvin and other signs of an increased presence of Orthodox Jews in the town which, in turn, sparks a discussion between township officials about the recent code enforcement and changes. The documents initially became public after they were leaked to the Shore News Network.
“There are no surprises here, but it clearly validates our claims as to what their real motive has been all along,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey director, told Hamodia. “We have questioned the [town] council publicly about how obvious these moves were, and this only seems to prove our point.”
Starting in the late spring and increasingly through the summer months, hundreds of violations were issued, some for eruv poles and wires, but mostly to non-Jews who had basketball hoops, hockey nets, or other items on the sidewalks adjacent to their homes. In September, despite an outcry from Orthodox residents and some in the community-at-large, Jackson’s town council passed a revised version of the ordinance governing objects placed in the “right of way,” eliminating a clause that allowed for specific exceptions to be granted.
The OPRA documents show that the discussion over code enforcement seems to have begun in early April with a complaint about construction of eruvin.
“I have noticed that there are poles with wires connected on the public property in the Brookwood One development. I find that to be an eyesore. I would not like that in my neighborhood,” wrote Chris Kisseberth, a Jackson resident. “This kind of thing causes a separation of all the residents in the community. I don’t think it would go over well if a block of homes were roped off with signs that say white section or Christian section. This causes a divide in what is supposed to be a Community.”
In the days and weeks that followed, her message was joined by five other individuals expressing similar sentiments. Several of the letter writers are members of “Jackson Strong,” a grassroots movement focused on discouraging residents from selling to Orthodox buyers, modeled after similar groups in other towns surrounding Lakewood. In several instances, those sending emails copy some of the other five senders, suggesting their complaints were part of an organized effort.
Rabbi Schnall said that the small number of complaints confirmed a claim that he and other community advocates have made that opposition to eruvin was not widespread in the township.
“There were very few complaints,” he said. “We said many times that the average citizen in Jackson doesn’t care about this. It’s upsetting that the council is pandering to a handful of noisemakers, which is not only harming the Orthodox community, but the general population.”
A Jackson resident who has been heavily involved in the matter and asked not to be mentioned by name told Hamodia that another noteworthy point is that none of the six letter-writers live in an area where Orthodox families have bought homes.
The documents also reveal complaints and pleas from residents over the removal and ticketing of sports items in front of homes.
An early response to complaints about eruvin was met with a response from township code-enforcement officer Jeff Purpuro, who said that he saw no violation. Business Administrator Helene Schlegel wrote that the township planned to consult with its legal advisors on the matter before taking a position.
On the same day (April 24) that their messages were sent, council members Robert Nixon and Barry Calogero who, according to Shore News Network, were instrumental in drafting and advancing the revised ordinance, sent responses calling for a clear policy to be pursued regarding eruvin and expressed frustration over the lack of action in response to complaints.
“I respectfully request that we ‘council’ revisit these ordinances and correct the obvious loopholes being exploited,” wrote Councilman Calogero.
The next day, code enforcement officer Ken Pieslak wrote to one of the six residents who voiced complaints over lack of action to remove eruvin that after legal consultation “we will begin enforcing this [a reference to a code cited earlier in his response] as outlined.”
Two weeks later, another email from Mr. Calogero demanded swift enforcement of codes relating to eruvin.
“If there is a violation, I respectfully request emediate (sic) enforcement actions to be taken to the fullest extent permitted,” he wrote.
A sharp uptick in enforcement of the codes continued in the coming months. Mayor Michael Renia and others said that the change was due to the hiring of new code enforcement officers. No such explanation, nor others given at public council meetings, appears in the many documents gained through the OPRA request. The request was made anonymously and used a law allowing any citizen access to all public records including email correspondence sent from government addresses.
A request for comment from Hamodia to Jackson’s legal counsel went unanswered.
The right to construct eruvin has been a frequent and high-profile battlefield between expanding Orthodox communities and longtime residents. Extended legal fights in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach in Long Island both ended in decisions that permitted eruvin to be built and cost townships a considerable amount in legal fees.