Roosevelt Yeshiva Gets to Keep Enrollment – For Now


rooseveltSarah Morrison of The Jewish State reports:

A ruling handed down Nov. 13 from New Jersey Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson stated that a yeshiva in Roosevelt, in western Monmouth County, may continue to operate through the end of the academic year at its current capacity, after several years of controversy over its effect on the neighborhood.

Yeshiva Me’on Hatorah started with 12 students when it opened in the now-defunct Congregation Anshei Roosevelt in 2005. It has since grown to 31 students, and with its growth came complaints from town residents.

“They are an imposition on the neighborhood,” said Bert Ellentuck, president of the Roosevelt Preservation Association and a neighbor of the yeshiva. “The yeshiva has established a school, which the Planning and Zoning Board says they cannot do without getting a variance…. They have refused to apply for a variance and they have continued to pursue this through the courts.”

Ellentuck explained that Roosevelt originally allowed for a 12-student yeshiva, but the town’s Planning and Zoning Board was not consulted about the near-tripling of the student population, creating problems such as safety hazards and noise.

“[Judge Lawson’s] original decision was that they had to reduce the present population of the school to 12, which was the population of the school at the time the zoning officer inspected the building,” Ellentuck said. “The yeshiva appeals that they are in the process of a scholastic year and that it is difficult to close. Judge Lawson said they may continue with 31 students, not a student more, until the end of the present scholastic year.”

Bruce Shoulson, the lawyer for the yeshiva, does not believe that a variance is necessary because the yeshiva is based on a preexisting use: its current building served as a synagogue since the 1950s. Shoulson acquired testimony from a prominent rabbi that affirmed that Torah study was normal use that goes hand-in-hand with an Orthodox synagogue, testimony used in a similar case in Deal in the 1990s. Since Me’on Hatorah lost the court battle, Shoulson is seeking to use the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) for defense.

“Under that law, it is forbidden to interfere with the free exercise of religion, except for compelling governmental purpose and only in the least intrusive manner,” Shoulson told The Jewish State in a phone interview Nov. 29. “If you violate that law, the government there is liable for damages, including counsel fees. We took the position that the town is [in] violation of RLUIPA.”
Federal courts do not want to hear the case unless and until Me’on Hatorah applies for and is denied a variance, but Shoulson said that the yeshiva does not feel the need to apply for a variance under RLUPIA.

“We don’t believe we need to get a variance because we’re arguing that this is preexisting use,” Shoulson said. “If the city provides for alternate means for the religious group and its activities, it is acceptable under RLUIPA, but they changed the ordinances to say go build the yeshiva over there. That’s an irrelevant issue. They don’t have to go someplace else!”

“They have been told they need to apply for a variance,” Ellentuck said. “They need to appear before the planning board.”

Lawson’s ruling included three verified statements from Roosevelt residents that testified that the yeshiva has had no negative effect on the community and should still be allowed to operate from the synagogue. One of those statements came from Roosevelt resident Robert Clark. In his statement, Clark discussed the ordinance that Roosevelt passed that would have given the yeshiva 10 acres on the outskirts of town to build a yeshiva and a dormitory, but Clark said that the area does not receive water or sewage services.

“It’s ghetto-like because the town goes about its business and the religious institution is relegated to the farmland with no services,” Clark said.

Clark, who served as borough administrator from 2005-2006 — the same time Me’on Hatorah started its school — said he resigned because of the council’s hostility toward establishing a yeshiva at the synagogue’s site.

“I resigned because I did not want to continue in that position with the council taking policy positions with regard to the yeshiva with which I disagreed,” Clark said. “My belief is that there is no tolerance on the council for a yeshiva in the synagogue of any size.”

Clark specifically noted a noise ordinance passed around one year after Me’on Hatorah came. Clark explained that although it may not appear like an immediate reaction to the yeshiva’s opening, it was simply a delayed process because the town is not run by full-time staff.

“They did not introduce an ordinance and say, ‘this is an ordinance to deal with yeshiva boys,’ but I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Clark said. “However, as far as I know, no complaint under that ordinance has ever been made against anyone. There’s never been, presumably, any noise that was so disruptive of the peace and quiet of the neighborhood that it warranted even a complaint under the brand new noise ordinance.”

Clark spent time observing the Me’on Hatorah students when they first located to the neighborhood, and did not find any disturbances involving their basketball hoop, extra cars in the road, or excessive traffic — the biggest concerns for Roosevelt residents.

“If you’re talking about a burden on a neighborhood, you have to compare what the burden from yeshiva students is to what the burden is by youth in any residential neighborhood,” Clark said. “Since the yeshiva students are boarding students, they don’t have cars, they don’t have access to their parents’ cars or motorcycles, while other high school kids in town do. I never even saw one waking a dog, let alone failing to curb it. But I have seen other high school-aged young people doing all those things many times…. They are less burdensome of the neighborhood when you talk about traffic, noise, or any interference like that.”
Ellentuck, who lives next door to the synagogue, disagrees. He told The Jewish State that even though his main concern remains the yeshiva’s lack of variance, the noise produced from basketball games, and the extra cars parked on narrow streets are disrupting the status quo for those who live on Homestead Lane.

“The basketball hoop in the road has affected my neighbors primarily more than me because they are directly opposite their homes that are occupied by elderly people, and their basketball is noisy,” Ellentuck said. “This has been a quiet residential neighborhood. The rabbis all arrive in their cars, so they are always parked (on the street)… the streets are generally 25 feet in width or a little less, [so] any parking for any reason impedes traffic. Granted, there is not a lot of traffic, but all park on their driveways or lawns.”

Clark, however, has seen no issues with either basketball or parking. He said that basketball hoops are present on every street in the neighborhood in the same manner that the yeshiva’s is placed. He further explained that when concerned residents “complained bitterly” and approached the town to remove the hoop, the then-borough administrator told them that he would not do so unless all hoops were affected by his ordinance. The basketball hoop issue was left alone.

“They’re yeshiva students — most of the time, they are using the synagogue or studying,” Clark said. “Obviously, then, they are not playing basketball, and yet, if you listen to their neighbors on Homestead Lane, you would think, and indeed at least one has said, that they are playing basketball 24/7. We know, of course, [that it] would be impossible, given just who they are.”

During his observations, Clark noted that he did not see any excessive cars or traffic around the yeshiva.

“There’s an obvious reason for that — the boys all walk,” Clark said. “The rabbis all live within easy walking distance of the synagogue. The most vehicles you have are those that rabbis or some secular instructors drive to the synagogue to participate in the events there… most of the time when I pass by the yeshiva related houses, no vehicles have been in the street out front, and often, there are no vehicles or just one vehicle in the driveway.”

Residential houses have been used as dormitories for the 31 students, another legal issue that Ellentuck is concerned with.
“They have a dormitory in a residential neighborhood and dormitories are not allowed in the residential neighborhood,” Ellentuck said. “That will be brought before Judge Lawson within the next couple of months.”

Clark acknowledged the dormitory issues, and explained that all the houses have been inspected and any problems fixed.
“The only problem is where they’re going to live… are too many boys in a single dwelling?” Clark said. “State officials indicated that there are no safety violations. If there were any issues, the yeshiva took care of [them].”

Although the most recent court settlement may have calmed the storm for now, there is still a long journey ahead for Me’on Hatorah and the residents of Roosevelt.

“I’m not saying they get to have a dormitory the size of the Empire State Building or have 1,000 boys and violate safety requirements, but the capacity of the synagogue is 118 people sitting at tables, so 31 boys is no big deal,” Clark said.

{The Jewish State/ Newscenter}