State and federal authorities are investigating whether land-use decisions and laws enacted by the town of Jackson in recent years were designed to target its growing Orthodox community. The revelation came at a public meeting which saw the passage of a new ordinance that will allow the limited construction of eruvin, a backtrack from a controversial law enacted this past summer.
The town’s partial about-face comes as it attempts to settle a lawsuit from Agudath Israel of America and a local contractor claiming that the eruv ban and a previous one that forbade the construction of schools and dormitories were discriminatory. The new law makes specific mention of the ongoing mediation and says that the town 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.”
At the public meeting, held Wednesday night, nearly 40 minutes of public testimony was highly critical of the township council’s move, with many attendees voicing animus to the Orthodox presence in the town.
In response, town attorney Jean Cipriani defended the new ordinance, citing ongoing “investigations” by the Department of Justice and the state attorney general as well as high costs in legal fees other municipalities had spent to fight similar claims.
In response to an inquiry from Hamodia, Mrs. Cipriani confirmed that Jackson had received “information requests” from both agencies “in connection with certain land-use issues,” and said that the recently passed measure would be presented to the authorities as well.
“The resolution authorizing the interim settlement agreement and demonstrating the Township’s intention to work in good faith to resolve such land use issues will be provided as part of the response to these requests for information,” she said.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudah’s New Jersey director, said that he felt the DOJ and state’s move was “very significant.”
“I think it shows how much in the wrong Jackson was by enacting these ordinances in the first place; it shows just how big a mistake they made,” he told Hamodia.
In mid-October, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino sued the New Jersey town of Mahwah, which borders New York’s Rockland County, over laws blocking eruvin and limiting the use of public parks, alleging they were motivated by animus against Orthodox Jews. Revelation of the ongoing investigation into Jackson’s actions seems to follow through on a warning issued when that suit was announced that “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.”
In response to an inquiry from Hamodia, Attorney General Porrino would not “confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.”
“We will only reaffirm what is already a matter of public record — that this office has& zero tolerance for towns that seek to close off their borders to families based on their religious beliefs, and is committed to making every effort to put an end to such discriminatory practices wherever they arise,” he said.
Wednesday’s resolution passed by a tally of four to one. The sole opposing vote came from Scott Martin, the only member of the council facing re-election in 2018.
Councilman Robert Nixon was not present at the meeting, but voted in favor of the measure by telephone. He was the subject of a recent controversy regarding a set of emails he sent that seemed to show a concerted effort to find code violations committed by members of the Orthodox community. Mr. Nixon responded to criticism over the emails in a statement he gave at the time to Hamodia saying the messages as presented “don’t tell an honest story.”
The new ordinance still leaves some issues targeted by Agudah’s suit as open questions and mediation is still ongoing. However, Rabbi Schnall welcomed the move.
“It’s a very good step and we are encouraged and hopeful that the remaining issues can be resolved through mediation in a way that will allow all residents of Jackson to exercise their rights as citizens equally,” he said.
While the resolution allows for lechis (beams needed for most eruvin) to be placed on existing utility poles, it does not allow for the construction of free-standing ones, which remains a practical obstacle for those wanting to build a communal eruv.
Mordechai Burnstein, president of the Jackson Eruv Committee, told Hamodia that his group would meet shortly to determine if the present law would allow for eruvin to start going up in some parts of the town and begin discussions with utility companies to gain permission to place the lechis. He, too, was pleased with the council’s latest move.
“We applaud them for doing it,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the township to move forward and show the authorities that they are able and willing to reverse some of the mistakes of the past.”