New Jersey’s Jackson Township is facing a new legal challenge over its recently passed ordinance that creates a de facto ban on eruvin. The suit was an addition to an already pending action over other freshly instituted laws that plaintiffs say unfairly target the town’s steadily growing Orthodox community.
In summing up events that have recently transpired in the township, the legal filing minced no words in its claim of its leaders’ true intentions.
“On its face, the ordinances have the principal and primary effect of inhibiting religion, in that they prevent the Orthodox Jewish community from providing religious education opportunities for their children and from establishing an eruv where they may choose to reside,” reads the suit in part.
Since this past spring, hundreds of violations have been issued in Jackson, 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. The crackdown was ostensibly an enforcement of a law, which had gone largely unenforced for decades, prohibiting private objects from being placed on public streets. 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.
Town officials steadily insisted that the moves were unconnected to eruvin and not meant to target any specific group. However, a trove of emails uncovered by an OPRA (Office of Public Records Act) request seemed to show a direct correlation between council members’ discussions with four Jackson residents who complained about the town’s inaction over eruvin and the township’s crackdown and new law. The suit presents several of the uncovered documents as evidence of animus against the Orthodox community as the council’s chief motivation.
Attorney Roman Storzer, whose firm is representing Agudath Israel and a local developer against the township over the ordinances, said that in addition to linking the council’s actions to complaints over eruvin, the OPRA documents and the many other statements gathered from social media and town meeting records give important context to the matter.
“The fact that this law was passed at a time of significant hostility towards the Orthodox community is a particularly important aspect to look at in this case,” he told Hamodia.
The lawsuit comes less than a week after the state’s Attorney General’s Office slapped the New Jersey town of Mahwah, which borders New York’s Rockland County, with its own suit over a very similar move, alleging it was motivated by animus against Orthodox Jews.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey Division of Agudath Israel of America, said he was hopeful that the state’s move would encourage Jackson’s leadership to take a more conciliatory approach to the matter.
“I would like to think that any responsible leader who saw a complaint like the one the Attorney General served to Mahwah would be moved to a little bit of introspection if they realize that they’ve been doing the same thing that the state specifically said they want to warn other towns against doing,” he told Hamodia.
Mahwah’s eruv controversy has gained wide national media coverage. Last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, who is heavily favored to win in New Jersey’s upcoming election, penned an op-ed piece condemning Mahwah’s actions and the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has surrounded it at public meetings and, more virulently, on social media.
“The subject of eruvs has been settled by the courts as a matter of religious freedom. But it’s just as clear that our public discourse needs to change,” he wrote.
A statement released by Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino at the time of the suit against Mahwah made specific mention of the message to other municipalities.
“Our message to local officials in other towns who may be plotting to engage in similar attempts to illegally exclude, is the same: We will hold you accountable as well,” he said.
In response to an inquiry from Hamodia as to whether the attorney general planned to take legal action against Jackson, spokesman Lee Moore declined to comment on “litigation strategy,” but referenced the statement quoted above regarding “other towns.”
Mr. Storzer said that he could not speak for whether the state’s warnings would push Jackson to take a more conciliatory route, simply saying that “our goal is to have the community be able to put up an eruv and to live free of discriminatory laws.”
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.
The present legal action against Jackson has been tacked on to a lawsuit that was submitted this past May over ordinances that effectively barred the construction of any schools or dormitories in the township. It claims that as the Orthodox community is the only group with such plans, it is the obvious target of the measure. The argument is backed up by several examples of anti-Orthodox sentiment expressed at meetings regarding the ordinance as well as those expressed on social media and other forums.
The township has filed a motion denying the suit’s claims. Its attorney Jean L. Cipriani has declined to comment to Hamodia on the matter.
Rabbi Schnall said that the legal action, like the one it is attached to, was a last resort which was only pursued after all attempts at dialogue had failed.
“When they passed the ordinance, the council said publicly that they wanted to continue conversation with the community. Multiple members of the eruv committee reached out several times to each member of the council individually and got zero response. That didn’t leave us with a lot of options,” he said.
Jackson is now home to roughly 500 Orthodox families, a spillover from the neighboring Lakewood community.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, emphasized the broader issue of fighting laws intended to block the construction of eruvin.
“The issue of the eruv is not simply a battle to establish neighborhoods where people can carry on Shabbos,” he told Hamodia. “It is a response to those who are creating anti-eruv ordinances for the specific purpose of discouraging Orthodox Jews from moving into their neighborhoods.”