BRICK – Representatives of an illegal high school being run for ultra-orthodox Jewish boys appeared before the Board of Adjustment with an application for a Use Variance and a Preliminary and Final Major Site Plan.
The school operated for some 30 to 45 days this summer at the site of the former Beth Or Temple on the corner of Van Zile Road and Route 70 before it was shut down by Judge Craig L. Wellerson for not having the proper permits or inspections for work that had already been completed.
The judge ordered the owner to prepare a plan that would require township Planning Board approval for a change in use from a house of worship to a private school.
Attorney Adam Pfeffer represented the applicant, David Gluck, who owns the 4.1-acre property being operated by Congregation Kehilos Yisroel, Inc. (CKY) of Lakewood. The attorney called it “a straightforward application utilizing an existing house of worship as a ‘starter school.’”
The school currently has 80 students enrolled and Pfeffer said there would never be more than 100 students at any time.
“The uses are permitted,” Pfeffer said. “The township has already decided that this is an appropriate zone for both the house of worship and for the school – that’s in your own ordinances.”
The attorney said that RLUIPA (The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) applies to the Board decision as to whether or not the congregation may operate its school on the property.
RLUIPA is a federal law that prohibits local governments from enforcing land use regulations that infringe on religious freedom. As a federal statute, RLUIPA takes precedence over conflicting local and state laws.
Board of Adjustment Attorney Ronald D. Cucchiaro agreed that RLUIPA would have bearing on the application.
Pfeffer said that the application is protected by RLUIPA because adding a religious school to an existing synagogue does not affect its status. He said that the students could not exercise their religion as a result of the school being shuttered.
The high school administrator Rabbi David Pollak – who said he has experience in the workforce but no experience as a school administrator – said that in addition to the 80 enrolled students, there are 12 staff members onsite and one maintenance worker.
The hours of the school are 7:50 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Friday. The school calendar year runs from August to June.
In addition, some 20 to 40 people use the temple for prayer, twice a day, he said. The synagogue is a separate entity, he added.
When the school first opened, students were being bussed in, but that didn’t work out, Pollak said, due to “the logistics of the property,” making it difficult for the buses to turn around, and Van Zile Road being narrow.
Students were then (and would in the future) be brought to school by carpools and vans, he said. About 90 percent of the students are from Lakewood and about 10 percent are from Jackson, Pollak said.
In addition to the 16,850 square-foot main building where the synagogue and illegal school is located, there is also a 1,950 square-foot building and a 2,500 square-foot building on the property.
Board of Adjustment Engineer Brian Boccanfuso asked what the intent was for the two smaller buildings.
Pfeffer said one is boarded up and would probably eventually be rehabilitated by the congregation. The second structure is a single family house that would be used as a parsonage for the rabbi.
Board member Dawn Marie White asked if the school is registered with the state. Cucchiaro said registration is not required for the private religious school. Pfeffer was asked if the school is required to have any state licenses or if there is a state required curriculum to be followed.
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Pollak. “The school teaches mostly Talmudic study so that the students there would become learned Jewish people.”
Cucchiaro cautioned the board to keep the meeting focused on land use issues. “This line of questioning could violate RLUIPA,” he said.
Traffic engineer Justin Taylor discussed the traffic circulation and traffic impacts, which he said would be below the threshold for major impact to surrounding roads, but Township Planner Tara Paxton said there is “a potential of failure at those intersections,” taking into consideration morning drop offs, evening pick-ups, and the nearby public schools and administration building.
“A full traffic analysis should shed light and provide more information,” she said. “It is a site plan requirement.”
Judge Wellerson ordered that the outcome of the application be determined in one hearing, but due to the required traffic study and other issues, a second hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday February 16 at 7 p.m. to be held at the Civic Plaza, 270 Chambers Bridge Road.