NJ town gives up legal fight over Jewish boundary installation
JACKSON — When the Township Council meets on Wednesday night one of the items on the agenda is a resolution aimed at settling one part of an ongoing legal battle with members of the orthodox Jewish community.
The agreement would allow an eruv, a kind of religious boundary, to be erected in the town.
Eruvim are boundaries that allow orthodox Jews to do everyday things like carry keys or groceries, or push strollers on the Sabbath or high holidays. Typically they include string or wire that is enclosed in PVC pipe attached to utility poles. They have been implemented on utility poles in numerous communities across the state.
The agreement would settle a lawsuit by Agudath Israel of America, which argued that a township ordinance discriminated against Jewish residents by effectively banning eruvs.
According to the resolution being voted on Wednesday, the township will agree to allow eruvim to be erected on utility poles, "provided the utility company consents to such placement," and is in line with all applicable safety requirements for public right-of-ways."
Jackson Eruv Association President Mordechai Burnstein told the Asbury Park Press that Jersey Central Power & Light gave their permission to use their utility poles for the eruv over the summer, and that Verizon's approval was contingent on township approval.
"Our goal was to have an eruv," he told the Press. "If this gets us an eruv without going to court, we're all for it."
The resolution also notes that a settlement on the eruvim will "prevent the further expenditure of exorbitant amounts of legal fees."
Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director of Agudath Israel, said that while not all the legal issues between the community and the township have been resolved, Wednesday's resolution is "definitely a step forward." Schnall said his organization is still fighting ordinances in the township that ban the construction of schools and dormitories, but said the fact that the two sides are now communicating is "definitely a very positive step forward."
"We are very appreciative and it's a positive step forward," he said. "We're hopeful to continue mediation until there is a positive resolution on the entire lawsuit."
The resolution calls for the township to "consult with the plaintiffs and any applicable experts to consider amendment to zoning to provide for the reasonable development of schools and boarding schools in the township."
Eruvim have been a point of contention throughout the state with municipalities taking varying stances on the issue. In neighboring Toms River, the township decided to not fight the erection of an eruv after seeing attempts to block them in other towns fail in court.
"It's not a fear of litigation," Business Administrator Paul J. Shives said at the time. "It's basically just a (question of) why would we venture into the area knowing that the courts have already determined that municipal regulation is not feasible."
On the other side of the spectrum, the governing body in Mahwah has decided to go to court to fight an effort to have an eruv in its town. An existing Eruv has been vandalized on more than one occasion after approval was given by the local utility companies to put the eruv up.
Mahwah is being sued by a local Jewish organization as well as the state Attorney General's Office, which argues that that the eruv ban amounts to housing discrimination.
"The Township Council in Mahwah heard the angry, fear-driven voices of bigotry and acted to appease those voices," Attorney General Christopher Porrino said at the time of the filing of the lawsuit this fall.
The lawsuit seeks to reclaim more than $3.4 million in Green Acres funds that the township has used for its parks, which the town tried to prevent out-of-state residents from using.
The state says that Mahwah police received reports of people who looked like Orthodox Jews using local parks, but not doing anything illegal.
The neighboring municipalities of Montvale and Upper Saddle River also are being sued by the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association over their eruv bans.
In Ocean County, meanwhile, Jackson officials have been accused of unfairly targeting the Orthodox Jewish community. A report originally in the Lakewood Scoop claimed that former Council President Robert A. Nixon was involved in an effort to find illegal houses of worship in the township.
Business Administrator Helene Schlegel said in an email obtained by New Jersey 101.5 that the township was "wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in," and that officials "can't keep chasing ghosts."
Nixon told New Jersey 101.5 that the township was not targeting the Orthodox community, and that "there is a huge difference between referring resident concerns to code enforcement and targeting residents. "
Schnall said he was encouraged to see some progress made in working with the township and hopes it helps in efforts outside of Jackson as well.
"The bottom line is fighting eruvim has proven to be a losing battle time and time again," he said. The fact that Mahwah is resistant in continuing its fight, the question is what is its thought process."
Echoing the resolution, Schnall said the fight against eruvim, which have been in towns across New Jersey for decades, "could cost the taxpayers of this town millions of dollars, and to believe that they're going to be successful is foolish."
Phone calls and emails to Jackson Mayor Michael Reina and Councilman Nixon seeking comment were not returned.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.coM