In a federal lawsuit pitting a major yeshiva against a local zoning board, Agudath Israel of America is contending that the board’s refusal to grant the yeshiva certain zoning variances necessary for the yeshiva to operate is motivated by a political cave-in to anti-charedi bias.
Yeshiva Gedola Na’os Yaakov of Lakewood, New Jersey, under the leadership of the Rosh Hayeshiva Rabbi Shloime Feivel Schustal, has grown rapidly since its inception several years ago, and has far outgrown its current quarters in Lakewood. To meet its need for a larger space with full dormitory facilities, the yeshiva acquired spacious property in Ocean Township, and applied to the Township’s Zoning Board for the necessary zoning variances.
Elements within the community, however, mounted virulent resistance to the application, organizing an effort around the theme, clearly meant to impart a message beyond this specific application, that the yeshiva should “Stay in Lakewood.” The Zoning Board, apparently sympathetic to that sentiment, dragged out the variance application process for well over a year, ultimately denying the application on nebulous grounds. The grounds for denial were cited as “noise,” “safety,” and the vague claim that use of the three-acre parcel for a yeshiva would be more “intense” than as a single family residence. There was ample evidence, however, that the true motivation for the variance denial was a desire to mollify the anti-chareidi elements who waged a campaign on social media and packed every public meeting in their efforts to keep the yeshiva community out of Ocean Township.
The yeshiva subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Township in federal district court, and has asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction requiring the Zoning Board to allow the yeshiva to move forward. It is in support of such injunction that Agudath Israel has now requested an opportunity to make its views known as an “amicus curiae” (friend of the court).
The proposed Agudath Israel brief, written by attorney Ronald D. Coleman, a partner in the firm Archer & Greiner, P.C., argues that the Township’s denial of a variance constitutes a violation of the First Amendment and RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act); that the yeshiva’s application to establish a dormitory-based facility is fundamental to its religious mission and is based on an esteemed and widely accepted tradition in Judaism; and that the “noise” and “safety” pretexts relied on by the Zoning Board in denying the yeshiva’s application have no basis in the record and are plainly discriminatory.
The Orthodox Jewish community has seen this scenario before. When a community grows, needs to expand, seeks to move into new neighborhoods and build new educational and social service institutions, it all too often encounters resistance from a vocal sector of residents in a neighborhood who feel threatened by the influx of Orthodox Jews and claim to speak on behalf of the entire “community.” Such resistance all too often includes vile anti-Semitic and anti-charedi rhetoric, and sometimes even worse.
Agudath Israel has been involved in a number of such cases over the years. Said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the organization’s executive vice president: “This case is just the latest example of the type of challenge our community faces as it grows and is forced to contend with hostile neighbors who are determined to keep Orthodox Jews out of their neighborhoods.
“Of course, it is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to co-exist respectfully and peacefully with our neighbors, to be sensitive to whatever legitimate concerns they may have, and to conduct ourselves in a way that will lead to harmonious relations with entrenched communities. At the same time, however, we have rights as do all other American citizens, and we must stand guard against efforts to inhibit our community’s growth.
“We see it as a core mission of Agudath Israel to defend the community’s right to grow and expand, and it is our privilege to help Rabbi Shloime Feivel Schustal’s yeshiva as it continues to develop outstanding Torah scholars in an appropriate yeshiva setting.”