By Jennifer Peacock & Bob Vosseller
JACKSON – First it was dormitories. Now it’s eruvin, according to an amended lawsuit filed by a New York-based Orthodox Jewish advocacy group and New Jersey-based school-building company against Jackson Township.
The Lakewood Scoop reported that Agudath Israel of America and WR Property LLC filed an amended lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in New Jersey.
The civil action against the township sprouts from two ordinances, one which bans schools from residential zones, and dormitories in the entire town, and another which the suit describes as the “eruv ordinance,” which states “[no] person shall encumber or obstruct any street or public place with any article or thing whatsoever.”
The ordinance amended Chapter 372 of the municipal code, which had previously allowed for encumbrances or obstructions with written permission “from the Township Committee.” The new ordinance language was adopted in September by the Jackson Township Council.
Reporters from The Jackson Times attempted to contact Reina, his administrator Helene Schlegel, council president Kenneth Bressi and attorney Jean Cipriani for comment on the amended lawsuit for this article. No one responded by press time.
A letter dated Aug. 8, 2017 from the Jackson Eruv Association to the council, signed by association president Mordechai Burnstein, alerted the township of its plans to work with utility companies to affix eruvin to poles and other utility-owned areas.
“To be clear, we are not asking the Jackson Township for permission to put an Eruv on the utility poles that are in the jurisdiction of the utility company. Rather we are requesting that the township allow us to work in conjunction with the utility companies and rent the right from them directly for our needs, and to confirm that the township will have no objection with this most practical arrangement,” the letter stated.
On the Jewish sabbath, Shabbat, prohibits activities that are considered work, or the mundane. Of the activities forbidden by the Law, carrying items outside the home in public is one. This includes carrying keys, walkers or strollers, prayer books, and even children who are not able to walk on their own, according to myjewishlearning.com. The Talmud, the collection of rabbinic teachings in both the Mishnah and the Gemara, allows for a way to carry items without breaking the Law: enter the eruv.
Eruvin are thin wooden or plastic strips most commonly attached to utility poles. The Jackson Eruv Association said in its letter it would work with utility companies to ensure those companies’ safety and aesthetic standards.
The association told The Jackson Times it is considering filing its own lawsuit against the township. It released a brief statement Oct. 31 to the newspaper.
“The Jackson Eruv Association calls upon Jackson Township to respond to our repeated requests to meet with them to reach a mutually acceptable solution that protects the rights of all Jackson residents. We applaud Agudath Israel of America for standing up for the rights of Orthodox Jews by challenging the ordinance that limits our ability to build Eruvs. Time and again, state and federal courts have determined that actions similar to those taken by Jackson Township violate constitutionally protected religious freedom rights. We implore our hometown to reconsider and find an amicable way to keep our protected freedoms intact in a way that will have virtually no impact on its non-Eruv using residents.”
Agudath’s amended lawsuit contends these ordinances are “the latest action taken by the township in a long campaign to erect a wall on its border with Lakewood Township, where many Orthodox Jews live, in order to discourage them from moving into Jackson.” The ordinances discriminate against the Orthodox Jewish community based on their religious practices, it said.
Specific to WR Properties, described only as a “domestic limited liability company formed under the laws of the State of New Jersey in 2014” in the document, the company owns acreage on White Road in Jackson, property owned R-3. Under Jackson’s law now, the company cannot build an Orthodox Jewish school on that property.
“We made serious efforts to communicate with the Township Council and even after bringing 300 people to the last township meeting to show how important this is to us, they continue to ignore our respectful ask,” Rabbie Avi Schnall of Agudath Israel told The Lakewood Scoop regarding eruvin in an article published Oct. 31. “At this point, we reluctantly concluded that our only recourse would be in a court of law.”
Although Reina could not be reached for comment, he addressed the ordinance governing roadway obstructions in September. He said then that he disagreed with statements made by residents that the ordinance in question was very rarely used. “The ordinance dates back to 1964, approximately 50 plus years on the books. Over the years code enforcement would issue an NOV (notice of violation).”
The mayor also said that in the last year “there has been a cry to increase code enforcement from our residents, new and old, as well as direction from the Council itself. That being said, complaints were coming in for items in the right of way with examples such as hockey and soccer nets, basketball hoops, skateboard ramps, furniture, tires, brush and grass not being cut.”
The mayor said while his office does not write laws “as we are in this form of government the Administrative branch, Council is the legislative branch and they are the ones who adopt new or amend existing ordinances (laws).” Reina added that his office has not requested any changes to any of those laws. “However, we are legally obligated to make sure that laws currently on the books are enforced equally and fairly.
“My main goal and objective is to maintain everyone’s safety and quality of life first. So, there is absolutely no truth in saying that we are requesting that the ordinances already on the books be changed or amended to suit ones needs and not the other. For anyone to say that we did undermines the integrity of my office and that will be defended to the end,” Reina said in September.
A large turnout of Orthodox Jewish community residents living in the township came out to a Sept. 12 council meeting to object to the ordinance. The ordinance had been introduced on Aug. 22 just weeks after the Jackson Eruv Assocation presented a plan to erect the eruv.
Mayor Mike Reina has stated that the vote amending the ordinance was not a passage of a new policy but a move by the Council to change the wording from “Committee to Council” to reflect the change in government and to remove the language of an appeal.
That ordinance amended the township code entitled “Streets and Sidewalks.” The ordinance, which was unanimously passed, prevents a variance that would allow for the creation of an “eruv” which can be made of string and tubing and is used in regard to the orthodox Jewish observance of the Shabbat, the Saturday holy day.
Resident Chava Lowy, spoke against the ordinance during the Sept. 12 meeting. He explained the need for young parents in particular to have the eruv in place to allow for carrying items such as inhalers that would serve to benefit their children. “This (eruv) is not a loophole of law but how it allows us to carry certain things that are important.”
Lowy said 22 towns ranging from Cherry Hill to Fair Lawn permit areas to be used which allow for placement of the eruv. “I call for you to recognize your 2,000 Orthodox Jewish constituents in your community.”