A Lakewood yeshiva, which has encountered stiff opposition to its plans to build a dorm for young men in Ocean Township, will be given new hearings after a federal court overturned the Dec. 1 denial of its application.
The March 17 order by the federal court for the District of New Jersey resulted from litigation brought by Yeshiva Gedolah Na’os Yaakov against Ocean and its zoning board of adjustment, 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 Fair Housing Act, by placing an undue burden on the yeshiva.
Because the board allowed hearings on the yeshiva’s use variance to go on for 511 days, exceeding the state maximum requirement of 120 days, Judge Freda L. Wolfson ordered hearings be held April 5 and 25, when another vote must be taken on the yeshiva’s application. The meetings will be held at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst at 7 p.m. and will run no later than midnight.
Yeshiva vice principal Rabbi Shlomo Lesin had previously testified that the facility for 96 men ages 18-22 who are training to become Torah scholars is needed because there is limited space at its leased Lakewood location. He testified that the residents of the planned dormitory in Ocean would not be allowed to leave campus nor have cars, cellphones, and television. Dating and alcohol use would be banned.
While a parochial school is a permitted conditional use in the area, since the Lakewood yeshiva is for post-high school students, it legally falls outside that category.
The application process began in the summer of 2014, and hearings have sometimes drawn crowds of more than 1,000 residents opposing the school at 1515 Logan Rd. in a residential neighborhood.
The yeshiva’s attorney Roman Storzer of the Manhattan and Washington law firm of Storzer & Greene — which specializes in religious liberties cases — said there appeared to be some bigotry behind the local opposition.
“The local community has raised great opposition and stretched out the hearings with redundant and irrelevant testimony, causing this application to go on way beyond the limit set by law,” Storzer told NJJN.
The yeshiva’s complaint said the board allowed opposing residents “to delay the application, shut down proceedings because of capacity limitations, and prolong proceedings with lengthy, repetitive, irrelevant, and improper testimony and questioning of Yeshiva’s witnesses.”
Moreover, the complaint charged that some of the vociferous 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 a now-closed Facebook page started by Christine Schmitt of Ocean.
The page also contained a letter directed to Marianne Wilensky, Ocean’s director of community development and planning administrator, that stated: “We are concerned for the well-being of our children and the preservation of our family-oriented community should the addition of almost 100 men be allowed to stay in such close proximity to our homes.”
It went on to claim the dorm residents would also overcrowd a nearby park. “Dave Dahrouge Park, which is maintained with taxes paid by our residents, would be utilized,” read the letter. “Children and their families would be uprooted from a place of comfort and enjoyment because of the sheer volume of people now living in such a small area of our town….”
Although the majority of 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, others were overtly hostile.
“Look what they did to my hometown of Lakewood. Stop the locusts from spreading throughout the state,” wrote Jefrey Roseff of Brick.
George Kerr of Oakhurst wrote, “tI [sic] live in the town and I want the religeous [sic] zealots stopped from bringing in more adult students. They can cgo [sic] to the catskills and build there, or go to Isreal [sic] if they want.”
The court also placed additional restrictions on the hearings, including that the zoning board be prohibited from presenting testimony from professional witnesses, that the attorney representing several opposing residents be limited to no more than three professional witnesses, and that no unrepresented member of the public be allowed to cross-examine witnesses. In addition, the court is requiring that testimony from unrepresented members of the public will be limited to no more than five minutes each and total no more than two hours over the course of the two meetings. Residents living within 200 feet of the property will be given first priority to speak.
Storzer said he “was hopeful the zoning board would do the right thing,” but left open the option of returning to federal court should it again be denied.