Clifton Shul Wins Landmark Settlement of $2.5 Million

NEW JERSEY -
Congregation Shomrei Torah in Clifton, New Jersey. (Agudath Israel of America Archives)

After more then a decade of litigation, a shul in the Passaic-Clifton community has been awarded one of the largest monetary settlements in a religious land-use case.
The congregation has long sought variances to build an expanded building, but their efforts have been consistently stymied by Clifton’s city council and zoning and planning boards. After a prolonged legal battle, their plans were approved in 2017 and now, the city has agreed to pay Cong. Shomrei Torah, now renamed Khal Tiferes Baruch, a settlement of $2.5 million.

In recent years, faith groups have been able to effectively fight discriminatory regulations and treatment by municipalities under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUPIA), which was enacted by Congress in 2000. Orthodox organizations have enjoyed multiple victories with court arguments based on the law allowing for the construction of shuls, schools, yeshivos and eruvin in areas where local governments resisted the population’s influx. Yet very few cases have resulted in large financial reparations.

Attorney Yehudah Buchweitz, who has been a leading member of the team that litigated the case, said the prolonged nature of the legal haggling was the primary factor in the settlement.

“RLUIPA cases do not typically stretch over a decade as this one did,” he told Hamodia. “As a result of the excessive delay and arbitrary conditions imposed on it by the City’s zoning officials, the Congregation incurred substantial costs that it would not have but for the City’s obstruction. These included, among other things, excess professional fees, construction costs, and costs associated with the development and occupancy of an alternative site. For these reasons, this case stands as one of the most substantial RLUIPA cases ever as relates to damages.”

Barry Gross, Duvy Gross, Yehudah Buchweitz, Bob Sugarman. (Agudath Israel of America Archives)

Mr. Buchweitz, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, has litigated the case on a pro bono basis together with other members of the firm’s team: David Yolkut, Robert Sugarman, Kaela Dahan, Ben Ritenholtz and several other associates.

Last year, the shul planned a suit to recover some of the losses it had incurred over the drawn-out process of obtaining permission to build, but agreed to enter into mediation with Clifton under the direction of New Jersey’s former attorney general, Christopher Porrino. Toward the end of his term, Mr. Porrino had sued the town of Mahwah over its efforts to block the construction of eruvin and other measures seen as targeting Orthodox Jews from neighboring Rockland County.

According to a source familiar with the proceedings, once it was made aware of the details of the case, Clifton’s insurance provider had urged the city’s attorneys to seek a settlement and not to fight the matter in court. Mr. Buchweitz said that the agreement did not fully compensate his clients, but still called it a positive result.

“It avoids a drawn-out litigation and will greatly help in facilitating the Congregation’s long-awaited construction,” he said.

Passaic has long been home to a large and vibrant Orthodox community with many shuls, yeshivos and other key institutions of Jewish life. For more than 15 years, more and more Jewish families have moved to a section of the neighboring city of Clifton that borders Passaic. The area, a small section of the city itself, is now home to some 400 Orthodox families.

As has become a familiar refrain in New Jersey and New York towns with growing Orthodox populations, the influx was met with opposition from some elements in the city, who in this case formed an entity entitled “Save our Neighborhood Inc.”

Eleven years ago, Congregation Shomrei Torah purchased property in Clifton, a 15-minute walk from its temporary location in Passaic, with the hope of using it to build a shul that would suit the needs of its growing kehillah and to establish a congregation closer to the expanding part of the community.

Dovid (Duvy) Gross, who serves as the shul’s president and co-chair of the Agudath Israel of New Jersey, told Hamodia that their efforts to build quickly met with opposition.

“We purposely bought three lots that would not need any variances to build, but the zoning board started coming up with new interpretations of the codes, more than once telling us about it the day before meetings, and the whole thing got very nasty,” he said. “It was pretty clear that they were doing everything they could to drag out this process, presumably with the hope we would just give up.”

The next ten years saw the two parties square off at multiple contentious zoning meetings and eventually in state court battles. Judges consistently upheld the congregation’s right to build, which along the way was re-named Tiferes Baruch in honor of Mr. Gross’ father. Yet with each victory for the congregation, Clifton officials introduced new requirements that stood in the way of actual construction beginning.

In August 2017, under the threat of a federal suit highlighting what Weil attorneys claimed was clear evidence of discrimination against Orthodox Jews, Clifton agreed to allow the project to begin at the originally requested area and adjacent mikveh.

“We had a clear record, and even recordings, of a lot of the ugliness that had gone on at public meetings, where people made all kinds of inflammatory comments,” said Mr. Gross.

While the path had been cleared to build, attorneys and Mr. Gross felt the costs and a decade of delays entitled the congregation to financial compensation from Clifton for what they alleged was a long record of RLUPIA related violations.

“I hope the settlement will diffuse the situation now,” said Mr. Gross. “We didn’t want to have to dig up all the ugly emails from officials to prove our point or to get a judgment so large that it would drive up taxes. But as it is, this is a win that could be important for communities around the country facing problems like this.”

A request from Hamodia for comment from the City of Clifton on the settlement was not answered.

Tiferes Baruch’s members hope to have final plans for construction soon, and are planning to dedicate a sefer Torah this coming Shavuos in honor of the legal team that has represented them free of charge and that has taken a leading role in similar cases in Tenafly, Bergen County, and West Hampton Beach and Mahwah.

“We are hopeful that with every favorable result we obtain for those on the side of religious liberty, other townships take notice and apply their zoning laws in a manner that does not discriminate against religious uses,” said Mr. Buchweitz. “This result will hopefully serve as a deterrent to those who may otherwise seek to infringe upon religious rights for short-sighted political purposes.”