The Ocean Township Zoning Board of Adjustment voted for a second time to turn down a Lakewood yeshiva’s appplication to convert a Jewish day school into a boarding yeshiva.
Yeshiva Gedolah Na’os Yaakov had applied to convert the building at 1515 Logan Rd., which is now being used by Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore, into a yeshiva and dorm for 96 men ages 18-22.
The April 25 decision came after a federal court overturned the board’s Dec. 1 denial because the board had allowed hearings on the yeshiva’s use variance application to go on for 511 days, exceeding the state maximum of 120 days.
The case had generated a massive turnout of residents opposing the Lakewood yeshiva’s plans, most claiming that opening the dorm would change the residential nature of their neighborhood, place a burden on municipal services, and drive down property values while offering no services to the community.
Others voiced concerns on a Facebook page and at meetings about the yeshiva students using an adjacent park frequented by young children.
The yeshiva’s attorney, Roman Storzer of the Manhattan and Washington law firm of Storzer & Greene — which specializes in religious liberties cases —previously told NJJN there appeared to be some bigotry behind the local opposition.
But that charge was vehemently denied by two Jewish residents contacted by NJJN, both of whom opposed the application and noted that a number of others in opposition were also Jewish.
“The legal firm representing the applicant always claimed anti-Semitism,” said Paul Meyerowitz. “They never focused on the zoning issue, which was the real problem. Ocean Township was simply enforcing the zoning ordinance.”
He said the township has about 10 Jewish institutions and schools “from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform” and two mikvas.
The building, now used by the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore, has housed several other Jewish schools over the years. At one point, it was a boarding high school.
“My parents helped build that building and I attended school there,” when it was the site of Hillel Yeshiva, said Meyerowitz. “Believe me, that building cannot accommodate 96 men.”
He said the structure has always been used over the decades as a Jewish institution; Congregation Sons of Israel used it to hold Shabbat services for those who lived nearby and didn’t want to walk to the main synagogue, then in Asbury Park.
“The charge of anti-Semitism is absurd,” said Meyerowitz. “I was even accused of being anti-Semitic and I’ve been on the boards of five synagogues and have been president of one.”
Resident David Nussbaum said he worried the implication that anti-Semitism played a role in the denial would drive a wedge between Jewish and non-Jewish residents.
“I’ve always felt this is a zoning issue and the choice made to turn it into a social issue was ill-advised,” he said. “I hope hard feelings are not exacerbated by outside forces for those of us who live here and all get along pretty well.”
Storzer said the yeshiva had not yet decided on whether to appeal the second denial to federal court and declined to comment on the anti-Semitism issue.
The yeshiva’s complaint charged that some of the strenuous opposition voiced at the hearings and on line was motivated by “hostility and animus” toward the Orthodox community, which it said was referred to as, among other things, “locusts, religious zealots, a cult, [s]cumbags, dirty,” and “long coat gangsters.” Storzer said many of these remarks were pulled from comments on the Facebook page started by Christine Schmitt of Ocean.
Most of the 550 Facebook comments on the issue focused on concern about so many young men being around children in the area and the burden placed on municipal services,
In its appeal, litigation was filed against the board and Ocean Township, claiming they had violated the First and 14th amendments of the Constitution, as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Fair Housing Act, by placing an undue burden on the yeshiva.
The RLUIPA is designed to protect religious institutions and adherents from an “undue burden” resulting from certain zoning laws. Using the act shifted the burden of defending the denial onto the municipality, said Ocean Mayor Christopher Siciliano, who believes the board correctly weighed all considerations.
“The whole essence of this application is that they wanted to put a yeshiva there, which is an inherently beneficial use,” he told NJJN. “However, what is bad is that it does not fit that area. It is an overuse for that site.”
About 20 years ago the zoning ordinance was changed to ban students 18 years or older from being housed at any boarding school, which, Siciliano said, was taken to prevent nearby Monmouth University from building dorms in the township, which “could have opened up the floodgates” for others.
“The denial was for land use and permitted land use,” he explained. “They made it a religious case that kept it in play.”
Yeshiva Gedolah Na’os Yaakov vice principal Rabbi Shlomo Lesin had previously testified that the facility would be for men training to become Torah scholars. He testified that they would not have been allowed to leave campus nor have cars, cellphones, and television. Dating and alcohol use would be banned.
The application process began in the summer of 2014, and hearings have sometimes drawn crowds of more than 1,000 residents opposing the school.