A federal judge last week approved the creation of a Talmudic Academy to house college-age students at an existing school on Logan Road Ocean Township’s Wanamassa section.
U.S. District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson ruled that the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment violated federal law when it unanimously voted on April 26 to deny a use variance to Yeshiva Gedola Na’os Yaakov to provide housing for up to 96 college-age students The judge did, however, limit the number of students to a maximum of 80.
Mayor Christopher Siciliano said he knows the judge’s decision is a “shocker” to residents and that the township had hoped she would agree with the zoning board’s decision that the site was an overuse of the property.
He said residents are upset that the court made its decision on the RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and not based on zoning in the township. A federal law created in 2000 grants houses of worship and other religious institutions broad protection against discrimination in zoning and land use laws.
Siciliano said that the township will not appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court because the case is not just about the zoning issue and will carry a large financial liability.
“Everybody’s enthusiasm and concern over this case and their actions, particularly online and even by some people outside of the township, created an atmosphere that gave the applicant enough of a framework to use anti-Semitism as part of their RLUIPA case. If it was only a zoning case then we would appeal it all the way but this mostly online feedback from so many residents kind of put us in handcuffs,” he said.
As detailed in the lawsuit, Orthodox Jews were referred to in some online comments as “locusts,” “dirty,” “religious zealots” and “long coat gangsters” who belonged to a “cult.”
Siciliano said the judge’s ruling “now gives the yeshiva the upper hand and a lot of freedom.”
“And there is not much we can do about it. Everything has shifted in their favor. They have agreed to adhere to the original site plan,” he said.
Siciliano said the township tried to put itself in a good position but that appealing the case seems useless and will cost a lot of money.
“The risks are too high and damages are too serious financially,” he said.
He said that the yeshiva’s request to seek $1 million in damages will be settled through mediation. According to court records, Yeshiva Gedola requested approval for temporary occupancy at the Logan Road site, $900,000 in monetary damages, reimbursement of legal fees, and waivers of site plan approvals and building permits
Siciliano said he is also requested an apology from the yeshiva’s lawyer over posting a website and other comments that portray Ocean Township as being anti-Semitic.
“It went too far and I am demanding an apology. To portray us as small-minded and bigoted is totally not true. They won their case but they don’t have to slam us besides,” he said.
In a prepared statement, Roman P. Storzer, the Yeshiva’s attorney, said about the judge’s ruling: “We are grateful for this wonderful result that will permit our clients to operate their distinguished institution in Ocean Township. Zoning regulation should never be used as a tool to accommodate the unreasonable fears and prejudice of small-minded individuals desperate to keep a certain population out of their neighborhoods.”
Siciliano said Rabbi Shlomo Lesin and Storzer did subsequently apologize for the comments made, with Lesin saying he was appalled and embarrassed by the statements labeling Ocean Township as “small minded” and offered his sincere apologies to the mayor and the town.
“I am confident that we can build a solid relationship with this community which is comprised of dedicated family-minded individuals, based on understanding values. We believe what we honor is that the name of Al-Mighty will resonate with our neighbors and foster unity and fellowship,” he said in a statement.
Siciliano said the rabbi has “intentions to be a good neighbor and get along with the community.”
The mayor said he still wants to see the township enforce off-site regulations pertaining to the school.
“I am expecting all of us to live in harmony here,” he said.
After the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the application late last year, Yeshiva Gedolah Na’os Yaakov, Inc., based in Lakewood, filed a 79-page complaint on the denial of its application is a violation of the First and 14th Amendments regarding Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and Fair Housing Act.
The Lakewood-based school, which specializes in Rabbinical and Talmudic studies, sought a use variance to house 96 male students, ages 18 to 22, and who would live on-site, which is a 2.9-acre parcel with 336-feet of frontage on Logan Road.
The Logan Road site was originally approved as an elementary school in 1989 and a dormitory use was granted in 1997 that allowed for the boarding of students in grades 9 through 12, with no student being older than 18. A maximum number of 50 people, including students and staff, were permitted on site between midnight and 6 a.m. This boarding use was eventually discontinued but still remains in effect, with the original conditions.
The Talmudic Academy’s dormitory for adult-age student was not a permitted use in the zone. To approve a college-age boarding school use, the zoning board had to look at each condition and, in this case, these conditions were not being met which is why the matter was before them. The zoning board was being asked to approve the relief the yeshiva needs- in this case, more and older students.
Hundreds of people attended the 11 public hearings on the yeshiva’s application and hundreds of white and red “No Dorm On Logan Road” signs, which are privately-printed and funded, were distributed and displayed throughout the township, but mostly in the Wanamassa section.