Viznitz-Toras Chaim Alleges Religious Animus in Denial of Yeshiva Permit

By Reuvain Borchardt

View of the former campus of Pace University, currently owned by the Viznitz-Toras Chaim chassidic group.

A Rockland-based Chassidic group is suing a village in Westchester, alleging discrimination in the village’s denial of a permit for the group to establish a yeshiva on a campus that had housed secular institutions of higher learning for more than a century.

“Motivated by an indecent animus,” the Village of Briarcliff Manor has “rejected an invaluable opportunity to preserve its open space and historic land-use character,” reads the lawsuit filed last week by the Viznitz-Toras Chaim community and yeshiva against the village. “Instead, it has chosen to protect a very different kind of historic character, one that perpetuates exclusion based on religious practice.”

The 37-acre property on Elm Road housed Briarcliff College from 1905-1977, then Pace University until 2015. At its peak, according to the suit, the campus was permitted an enrollment of 700 residential and 400 commuter students.

Pace sold the property in 2017 to an organization that left it “unused and vacant,” according to the suit, until it was sold to the Viznitz community, which planned to lease the property to its yeshiva, which it estimated would have an annual enrollment of 250-350 students over the next decade.

The “public response” to the proposed yeshiva “was swift and invidious,” according to the lawsuit, with comments posted online “revealing an engrained hostility towards Plaintiffs’ religious sect.” And when the yeshiva applied for a permit to operate on the property, “the Village subjected Plaintiffs to a costly and clumsy performance of kabuki Government,” employing “pretextual legislation and numerous pre-determined administrative proceedings” to deny the permit.

This is the latest religious land-use case that has arisen in various towns and villages in upstate New York and in New Jersey, as Orthodox Jews have moved into the areas for the first time.

Typically, the cases arise after the municipalities deny a permit to erect an eruv, a yeshiva or a shul. The municipal officials, and the residents who support them, refuse these permits on the grounds that they violate local laws — and sometimes the municipalities enact new zoning laws as Orthodox populations grow. These residents maintain that strict zoning enforcement is necessary to prevent overdevelopment and preserve the area’s suburban nature. But the Orthodox communities allege that the residents are engaging in thinly veiled, or at times overt, antisemitic rhetoric and actions, passing and enforcing laws that serve to restrict Orthodox growth.

In nearly all these suits, the Orthodox communities have either won or received favorable settlements, but often only after protracted and acrimonious legal battles.

Viznitz alleges that following  its purchase of the campus, the village proposed updating its code to require that for a “place of worship” (such as a religious school) to receive a permit to operate in this zone, it must be situated on a “collector road” — but then tweaked the definition of “collector road” in a manner that served to bar the yeshiva.

Thus, plaintiffs say, the Village Board  managed “to exclude Hasidic Jews from the Village” in “an act of naked bigotry.”

“Fear is an accelerant,” the lawsuit says, “and the Village worked with lighting speed. In less than three months, it stripped the Campus of a use that had been permitted to other, larger, non-Hasidiceducational institutions for over 100 years.”

In June 2021, after having been denied the permit, the plaintiffs applied for a special exemption, and at “great cost and delay … prosecuted the Applications in good faith.” But in November 2022, the Village’s traffic consultant and building inspector ruled that the yeshiva’s proposal did not comply with requirements, effecting a rejection of the application. The Zoning Board of Appeals then rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal for a variance and concluded it did not even have jurisdiction to consider the variance, which, according to plaintiffs is “contrary to controlling statutory and judicial authority.”

Plaintiffs allege that “the entire application process was an outrageously expensive sham, intended by the Village to erect a façade of good faith.”

Furthermore, plaintiffs say that though there were no violations on the property’s title report  when it was purchased, and the previous owners never received any violations, once Viznitz purchased the campus, the village launched a series of “harassing” inspections resulting in numerous violations, at a rate of $69,000 per month — which “further underscore the religious animus motivating the Village.”

Viznitz has filed a federal suit in the Southern District of New York against the village, its board of trustees, planning board and a host of other officials, alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), constitutional protections of religious liberty and equal protection, and the federal Fair Housing Act.

Briarcliff Manor Village Attorney Joshua Subin, reached by phone, declined to speak with Hamodia about the lawsuit, stating “We’re not making any comments at this time.”

The full lawsuit is available by clicking here

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