Jewish Schools to be Built in Jackson , N.J.

By Matis Glenn

The Jackson, NJ Jewish community scored a major victory Monday night, as the town’s planning board approved the construction of three Jewish schools – a first in the seven-year struggle between askonim, residents on both sides, and town officials.

Early attempts at building a yeshiva were met with fierce opposition in 2015, when Yeshiva Na’os Yaakov failed to get approval to renovate an old, unused Jewish day school. A lawsuit was filed in 2016 by Agudath Israel of America and a local developer, on the grounds that prohibiting the building was a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

In the following year, Jackson passed two ordinances which would deal a heavy blow to the burgeoning community; a wholesale ban on dormitories and eruvin, and zoning laws that would “effectively make it impossible to build yeshivos “, according to an askan who spoke with Hamodia. The lawsuits continued, which included additional accusations of discrimination and antisemitism.

Opponents claimed that building yeshivos would disrupt their way of life. “They are living in a quiet, rural area, and they are afraid of losing their homes,” the askan said.

However, some expressed antisemitism. In April 2021, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights filed an additional lawsuit, claiming that Jackson “essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories”, and that Jackson was “bowing to severe anti-Semitic pressure from local residents”.

In May 2021, Judge Michael Shipp of the federal District Court for New Jersey, issued an injunction that temporarily blocked both of the township’s ordinances. “Defendants maintain that the Township Council’s decisions were not motivated by the anti-Semitic animus exhibited by others,” read his statement. “But the record suggests otherwise.”

At the planning board meeting, two elementary schools with a maximum capacity of 600 students each were approved, as well as a high school which could admit 255 students.

“People are very excited about it,” Rabbi Avi Schnall of Agudath Israel told Hamodia. “There are 4,000 kids who travel to Lakewood every day for school. This gives an opportunity for parents to have a yeshiva to send their kids to without having to spend an hour driving them to school everyday,” he said.

Residents’ concerns of noise pollution, traffic and other disruptions to their daily lives, which are routinely raised at these hearings are unfounded, says Rabbi Schnall. “They’re looking for huge swaths of land, not near neighbors; the property being discussed last night is 13 acres in area,” he said.

Parents are very relieved at the decision. “There are people in Jackson who are on the other side of town, far from areas where their kids are going to school, “ Rabbi Schnall said. “There are schools in Lakewood which in four or five years, will be mostly from Jackson families – It’s definitely a relief, the community needs schools,” he said.

Rabbi Schnall explained how the frum community emerged victorious. “Patience and perseverance is critical; there are many communities around the country that are dealing with growth and growing pains, and things take a long time,” he said. “We filed the lawsuit six years ago and we’re not even done yet – It’s a long term game”

Negative feedback from the decision has been unexpectedly low. “There’s been pushback, but surprisingly not as much as we had anticipated,” Rabbi Schnall said. “Only 13 people attended the meeting last night. This was very unexpected, because in previous meetings they would fill up the room with upwards of 400 people,” he said. “I think that people are realizing that there is a community here and that they need to work with the community rather than fight with it.”

The schools are being built in a commercial zone, which according to zoning code permits the buildings of public schools. “According to state statue Njsa 4055 d-66b, you can’t discriminate between a public and a private school,” Donna M. Jennings, an attorney representing the developers told Hamodia.

Jenning’s team tried to be accommodating to the residents and board members who requested changes, even beyond what the law required “We were trying to be good neighbors,” she said. The developers agreed to add a second, Fire Department approved fire exit, and added an additional lane for drive-through access. They added crosswalks and walking areas for extra safety, among other changes that were requested.

Without the 2017 ordinances, the planning board was obliged to grant the request. “Municpal law section 68 says that if an applicant submits a fully conforming application, the planning board ‘shall’ grant approval” she explained.

The win will open the door for additional development. “These are the first Orthodox Jewish schools approved in the town,” she said. “There’s a great need for schools in the community.”

Both Ms. Jennings and Rabbi Schnall agree that it is unlikely that Judge Shipp would overturn the injunction and permit the 2017 ordinances. “A temporary injunction, especially when it’s a zoning issue, is usually an indication of what they’ll actually do in the end,” Rabbi Schnall said. “I think that the decision will not be overturned,” Jennings said. “The township will readopt ordinances that are more in keeping with constitutional law.”

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