This week, the voices of Jackson’s Orthodox Jewish community were heard, as over 150 Jewish residents of Jackson, New Jersey, gathered on Tuesday at the Jackson Township Municipal Building to strongly oppose two new ordinances that had been introduced by the Jackson Township Committee. One ordinance would have banned schools from any residential zone of the Township, even from large lots on major public roads, and despite the fact that all of Jackson’s existing Public Schools are located in residential areas. The other ordinance would have banned dormitories in any area of the Township, even commercial or industrial zones, and was described by one of the nation’s top experts in land use and zoning as a blatant attempt to prevent any Yeshiva from ever locating in Jackson.
Jackson is home to a strong and vibrant Orthodox Jewish community consisting of thousands of residents drawn to its rural character, friendly neighbors, quality of life and affordable housing. Jackson has also changed over time, adding major non-Orthodox developments, including both senior and non-senior communities. These major new developments include what is known as the Mitch Leigh project, on over 1,000 acres, which will add 2,531 new homes in seven new neighborhoods, along with some three million square feet of new commercial and retail space, and which has been called the project for “nice people” with a clear statement on the Mitch Leigh website “if you are not a nice person don’t call.”
Other major projects include large new senior villages, bringing in thousands of new residents.
None of these projects have raised anything like the opposition that developed for the young Orthodox families who have chosen to buy homes in Jackson for its small town qualities. These Orthodox families are drawn to Jackson for the same reasons that others are; it is a great place to live and is within the financial means of young families.
Opposition to the Orthodox led to the township vigorously fighting any effort to open Orthodox schools and to introduce various ordinances designed to discourage new Orthodox families from moving in and to unnecessarily burden the existing Orthodox residents.
The new schools ordinance and the new dorm ordinance were the latest salvos in those exclusionary efforts. When Orthodox members of the Jackson community got wind of the two new ordinances, many saw it as directed to inhibit their own community’s future. Several of these Jackson residents reached out to Rabbi Avi Schnall of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and other community leaders, to ask for their guidance.
In response, the leaders suggested that Jackson community members speak up and voice their concerns to the Jackson Township Committee members. Word of this effort spread, leading to the unprecedented turnout at the hearing, at which the Orthodox residents expressed their concern about the proposals as well as their willingness to engage in dialogue with the Town on what type of ordinances might make sense for all of Jackson.
During the public comment portion of the Township Committee session, several community members stepped up to the podium and articulately explained why the ordinances were unwise and unfairly targeted against the Jewish community. They stressed that they don’t in any way want to alter Jackson’s rural character and the quality of life they deliberately sought to enjoy as well. Nevertheless, Jackson has only a very limited amount of designated commercial zones, making the limitation on schools very challenging. Even more so, the notion that a dormitory – typically used for high school or post high school students – cannot be built anywhere in the 100 square mile municipality seems completely illogical and unprecedented if not aimed squarely at inhibiting Jewish community growth. They also noted the importance of the Township working amiably as a team with the community when it seeks to build shuls, schools or other structures and together ensuring that all structures have the highest standards of safety and minimum impact on surrounding residents.
Some Jackson Orthodox residents noted among themselves how counterproductive such ordinances are. Banning schools and dorms might create situations where groups of students simply rent homes on their own, as had happened in other municipalities. Those facilities would be less safe, and potentially more detrimental to quality of a life than a modern new dormitory with proper exits and fire sprinkler system.
The Jewish community’s unity and engagement clearly took Township officials by surprise. At the meeting the township officials hastily announced that ordinances would not be put up for a vote at the session, but would be reconsidered at the next session, on Tuesday, March 14th, either in its current form or in a refined version.
Rabbi Schnall explains that this is not a battle, rather an opportunity for civic engagement and for the community to now come together. “Compromise and mutual respect will ensure that the needs of the Orthodox residents are met, along with the needs and wishes of the overall town,” said Rabbi Schnall. “This is an opportunity for Jackson’s governing body and residents to forge a constructive long term working relationship. There are no hardened lines, and positive dialogue is very much within reach – if the groups work together they can ensure a blueprint that works for all,” another local leader added.
Rabbi Schnall stresses the importance for the Jackson community in particular to remain actively involved as future discussion of such ordinances continues, and beyond. “Show up on March 14th (the next hearing date), demonstrate the same respect and openness as you did during the first hearing and you will set the tone for the future,” he noted. “Reach out individually to the township officials too – share your point of view, and how you want to see reasonable compromises for the town. Let them know that you believe that such solutions can be found, and that the alternative of fighting and litigation is bad for all.”
Township officials know that if they pass such discriminatory ordinances they will get sued and that they face the likelihood of losing in court, which would waste millions of taxpayer dollars of all residents. They know that most likely this would result in legal fees, penalties and fines. Rabbi Schnall adds that much rhetoric has been directed against the Orthodox Jews who moved to Jackson in recent years, and you can expect some residents to show up at future hearings and try to force these ordinances into law. “The Orthodox residents of Jackson are wise to speak up, so that their voices are heard” he concluded.
Yossi C., an Orthodox resident in Jackson adds one more point: “if this is resolved peacefully it will allow our community to address its needs, such as Shuls, Mikvahs and Eruvs without drawn out battles. The respectful and yet firm way we all spoke up creates this opportunity for the township and we all hope that the Orthodox residents and township will start a real dialogue.” He added that Jackson can avoid the long drawn out battles that tore apart Fairlawn NJ over an Eruv, the Hamptons over and Eruv and many communities in Rockland County over ordinances seeking to ban Yeshivos. In all those battles efforts to keep Orthodox out ultimately failed, the cost was strife, taxpayer money and the glue that keeps a community together.
Yossi explained that “We don’t want to ‘take over.’ We want to live side by side; in our own neighborhood we have a mix of residents and we all look out for each and care for each other. I myself have a large snow-blower and I clear both of my neighbors’ driveways – they are not Orthodox, but are my friends. They look out for my kids and one of them helps me with my leaf work and they have an emergency key to my home too. This is what community is about – mutual respect and no one forcing their lifestyle onto another.”
Following the latest developments, there is a sense among residents that Township officials are now more open to working with the community to strike the proper balance between maintaining Jackson’s quality of life and accommodating the needs and rights of all residents. The Orthodox residents look forward to the creation of proper planning procedures and a mutual desire for compromise, through which the needs of all Jackson residents can be addressed. With proper dialogue and respect, Jackson’s future can be a bright one for all.