Jackson Proposal Attempts to Settle Bias Lawsuit

LAKEWOOD -

The Jackson Town Council has proposed a bill that would allow for the construction of eruvin in some areas, in an attempt to end a pending discrimination suit which claims several recent ordinances enacted by the town were motivated by bias against the Orthodox community. However, Agudath Israel of America, who brought the legal challenge, says that the move insufficiently addresses the matter and would not be enough to stop the pending case.

Set for a vote in the council Wednesday night, the ordinance states that it is part of an “interim settlement agreement which would temporarily suspend the litigation.”

Agudah’s New Jersey director, Rabbi Avi Schnall, told Hamodia that the proposal is not the product of legal mediation between his organization and the township, which is ongoing.

“We are hopeful to have a real productive outcome and produce a resolution that will take away the harmful ordinances and will allow all residents of Jackson to live and fully exercise their rights as citizens,” he said.

In recent years, Jackson has seen a rapid influx of Orthodox families, a spillover from bordering Lakewood. As in other towns in the area, the phenomenon gave rise to a small movement of residents who united under the banner of the “Jackson Strong” organization, widely seen as dedicated to stemming the Orthodox presence.

Over the past year, Jackson’s town council enacted two controversial ordinances, one a de facto ban on schools and dormitories, another a de facto ban on communal eruvin. Prior to the passing of the laws, the town’s zoning board had denied a permit to a Bais Yaakov School and had received requests for variances from a committee that was working to establish an eruv.

Agudath Israel, together with a local developer, sued the township over the school and dorm ordinance, claiming it was aimed at making the town less hospitable to Orthodox Jews. Last month, the suit was expanded to include the eruv ban as well.

The newly introduced ordinance seems to address both of the controversial laws. It grants permission for “the placement of eruvim/lechis on poles erected by utilities,” pending permission from utility companies and compliance with various laws. The language seems to preclude the construction of any lechis in areas where utility poles do not yet exist. An individual familiar with the Eruv Committee’s plans told Hamodia that this would still significantly limit plans to build a neighborhood eruv.

The proposal also references the original basis of the lawsuit, saying that the township will “consult with the plaintiffs and any applicable experts to consider amendment to zoning to provide for the reasonable development of schools and boarding schools.”

In addition to the pending suit, several factors have placed Jackson’s town council under scrutiny. In mid-October, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino slapped the New Jersey town of Mahwah, which borders New York’s Rockland County, with its own suit over laws blocking eruvin, alleging they were motivated by animus against Orthodox Jews. In a statement released together with the suit, Mr. Porrino warned other municipalities engaged in similar actions.

“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 recent weeks, results from an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request revealed hundreds of emails that seemingly link complaints and lobbying by five members of the Jackson Strong movement to the drafting of both laws that are now the subject of legal action. The documents have received wide coverage in local media and have likely played a significant role in the ongoing mediation between Agudah and Jackson.

Jackson resident Mordechai Bernstein told Hamodia that he hoped the ordinance would herald further willingness to compromise and end the present standoff.

“We are all hoping that this does not have to end up in court,” he said. “The township, now, has begun showing some willingness to talk. We hope that the negotiations will continue to pan out and allow us to build an eruv and live here with the rights that any other resident enjoys.”