When Antisemitism Hits Home: Orthodox Jews in Jackson, NJ, Fight to End Discriminatory Ordinances, Bans, and Official Behavior
Most Jews in the New York tri-state region think of Jackson Township, NJ, as only the bucolic home of the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park; but, for the past four years, it has been the focal point of a major controversy, centering on the town’s growing Orthodox community’s charges of antisemitism and discrimination at the hands of the local municipal government.
In recent months, the surge of antisemitism, violent and sometimes more subtle, throughout the country and the world has been a reminder that, for centuries, Jews have been the “canaries in the coal mine,” harbingers of danger who, like the birds coalminers took with them to check for poisonous gases, often were the first to suffer from the effects of the looming peril of racial and religious hatred. If that describes the Jewish community in general, then the ultra-Orthodox community, hareidim, those who reside in enclaves such as Lakewood, Monsey, Brooklyn, and elsewhere, and are known for their distinctive garb, including black hats, sheitels, and modest clothing, serves that same function for all Jews.
For the past three years, the US Justice Department and the NJ State Attorney General’s Office have been investigating whether Jackson Township has discriminated against Orthodox Jews on issues ranging from land-use to laws against prayer groups in private homes. There is current litigation on the part of the Jewish community against the town on the issues of private and community-wide eruvs, a ban on the establishment of any school as well as dormitories, and a policy that allows the surveillance of Orthodox Jews praying in their homes.
Jackson’s Orthodox-Jewish community and its supporters are convinced the township’s efforts represent an attempt to stem the rapidly growing number of Orthodox Jews moving to the area, which is contiguous with Lakewood.
With the population of Lakewood skyrocketing (up from 38,000 in 1980 to 102,000 today, 70,000 of it Orthodox Jewish with an annual birthrate of 4,000) along with the high prices of homes, many Jewish families, eager to remain near Lakewood and its yeshivas and businesses, have ventured to some of the nearby towns, which, besides Jackson, include Brick and Toms River.
Jackson, whose population is 56,000, is now home to about 1400 Jewish families.
While things have not always gone smoothly for the Orthodox newcomers in other communities, Jackson seems to be the worst. For example, in June 2014, the township’s zoning board rejected plans for an all-girls yeshiva high school, a ruling that has been upheld by a local court for zoning laws but which is being litigated at the state level for violation of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), which prohibits land use laws designed to discriminate based on religion.
The township has since banned the construction of all schools, except in a few tiny areas, which have been deemed unsuitable for such use.
Dormitories are another bone of contention. Orthodox-Jewish residents of Jackson argue that a comparatively new township ordinance against all dormitories “designed or converted to contain living quarters” used by schools, colleges, or religious groups, is a thinly disguised attack on the Orthodox-Jewish community.
“I cannot see this as anything else but targeting the Jewish population. Nobody else in Jackson wants a dormitory,” said Aryeh Margolis at a town council meeting at which the issue was discussed.
Chaim Borenstein, another Jackson resident who spoke up at the meeting, argued that the ordinance’s “motive” was “a clear message to the public: Jews are not wanted in Jackson.”
“Ordinances like these, which specifically target the youth of our community, are insulting. It’s not Jackson-like and, frankly, it’s un-American,” he said.
The township’s only justification for the ordinance seems to be that it is based on “residents’ complaints” about wanting to “preserve the quality of life.”
“When I go to Lakewood, I see overpopulation…and a lot of traffic. I don’t want that coming here,” said Jackson resident Bob Skinner at a meeting, adding that “to use that ‘religious bias’ thing is getting really old and unacceptable.”
The debate over the ordinance’s legality continues. Some say the rule is legally sound because it does not specifically target yeshivas. There are no extended-stay hotels or group homes in Jackson that, it could be argued, might have a similar impact on the area as a dormitory. Only the housing units operated by Six Flags Great Adventure for its seasonal employees come close.
Nevertheless, the Orthodox community and its supporters say the dormitory ordinance and the concomitant zoning regulations to block the establishment of all new schools (but especially yeshivas) are evidence of discrimination.
Ordinance Passed for the Orthodox
Rabbi Avi Schnall, NJ director of Agudath Israel of America, has noted that large areas of Jackson are already heavily commercial, such as strip malls, which attract significant traffic. He pointed out that there has never been a suggestion that a yeshiva and dormitory should be located “in a resident’s backyard.”
However, while all new schools have been banned from 95 percent of Jackson’s town limits, the township’s two existing public schools are both located in residential areas.
“Jackson passed its ordinance prohibiting new schools from the same zones its public schools enjoy only after Orthodox-Jewish families began moving in,” said an Orthodox-Jewish community activist who asked for anonymity to protect his family.
He pointed out that, with no yeshiva in Jackson, the Orthodox community’s 1,850 schoolchildren must be bussed to Lakewood. Transporting Orthodox students costs the town $1.85 million that could be saved if schools could be built locally.
Although his home in Jackson is only six miles from his young daughter’s school in Lakewood, traffic conditions make it necessary for her to be picked up at 8am to be at school by 9:15.
In 2017, feeling stymied by all efforts to resolve the issue amicably, Agudath Israel of America, which frequently advocates for the religious and civil rights of the Orthodox-Jewish community in the United States, instituted a suit against the township.
“Jackson Township has definitely introduced some ordinances over the past few years that are quite questionable, and we are sort of comforted in knowing that the attorney general is looking into it,” said Rabbi Schnall.
Fighting for an Eruv
A few months after the lawsuit against land-use ordinances was initiated, the community and Agudath Israel added another issue to the lawsuit: Jackson’s reaction to the community’s efforts to build an eruv.
According to the Orthodox community activist, most of the fledgling Jackson-Orthodox community felt from the beginning that, given the hostility with which they were greeted, it would be futile to seek permission to erect a communal eruv, a ritual enclosure which, according to Jewish law, permits Jews to carry beyond the confines of their homes on the Sabbath.
Therefore, many Jewish homeowners began building private eruvs around their properties, using poles placed on the grassy linings separating the street from the sidewalk, often called right-of-way. Sometimes Jewish neighbors linked their eruvs, creating larger areas for baby carriages to be wheeled or children to play outdoors on the Sabbath.
“Throughout all of Jackson, we had maybe four or five of these private eruvs, using about nine or ten poles,” said the activist.
Eruvs and Basketball Hoops
Nevertheless, in the activist’s words, “the town went crazy.” Local officials began going door-to-door, insisting that all poles on right-of-way grass be taken down.
According to the activist, members of the Jewish community wondered if the rule being used against Orthodox Jews would apply to the more than 300 basketball hoops standing on right-of-way grass that line residential areas throughout Jackson.
Feeling hoisted on their own petard, Jackson officials found themselves compelled to order all residents of the town to dismantle private basketball hoops along with the eruvs.
“Although the town received letters from Jackson children, begging them to leave their basketball hoops intact, the town saw the basketball hoops as collateral damage in order to get rid of the eruvs,” said the activist.
Jewish residents explained to the local officials that if a communal eruv could be erected using utility poles, some of the private eruvs might become unnecessary. When utility poles are used, the resulting eruv is virtually invisible.
A perusal of the pertinent Jackson ordinance made it appear that all the Jewish community needed to erect the communal eruv was to ask for and receive the township’s permission.
But when the Orthodox community approached them, local officials insisted the law had been changed since it was first written, precluding permission for an eruv. What changed? When it was first passed, Jackson’s government had consisted of a “committee.” In 2017, when this issue arose, Jackson had a “council.”
By this point, Agudath Israel had had enough and added to the lawsuit against Jackson the issue of the township’s refusal to allow either private or a communal eruv. In virtually every case in the United States in which a local government has tried to prohibit an eruv, the community seeking the enclosure has been victorious in court.
In 2018, after a year-and-a-half of legal wrangling as the court case against Jackson proceeded, the presiding judge instructed the parties to attempt mediation as a way to expedite the matter.
At a public meeting, Jackson’s then-attorney, Jean Cipriani, said if the local officials persisted in their attempt to prohibit the eruv, the litigation, to say nothing of subsequent appeals, would bankrupt the township.
Therefore, Jackson agreed to begin mediating the issue, but the township understood that negotiations would not be completed until after the upcoming November elections.
Agudath Israel and the Orthodox community agreed, and, to show “good faith,” Jackson allowed the communal eruv, using utility poles, to be erected. Private ones were still prohibited, pending mediation, and that presented a problem for the community. To enclose the entire Jackson-Orthodox community, the communal eruv using utility poles needed supplementation. A few other poles would be needed to complete the enclosure.
That November, Jackson’s Mayor Michael Reina, 62, won his third term in office, and the Orthodox-Jewish community felt certain that the settlement, whose exact terms had not been disclosed to the public but which were acceptable to Agudath Israel and had been agreed upon during the mediation meetings, would be signed into law by the local government.
Instead, Mr. Reina and the council rejected mediation and hired another attorney. In an email to the township’s new attorney, Mr. Reina said: “Game on. Gloves off.”
Agudath Israel refiled its case against Jackson, and it was accepted by the presiding judge. The trial is scheduled for May 2020.
In the meantime, because the communal eruv was permitted, some areas of Jackson are enclosed, but without the private ones to supplement it, many members of the Jackson-Orthodox community cannot carry at all on the Sabbath.
“It’s a real hardship for many people,” said the activist.
In August 2015, the Jackson Township council strengthened a “no-knock” ordinance after some residents complained that Orthodox-Jewish would-be buyers tried to convince them to sell their properties. The township went further a year later, filing a “blockbusting” complaint with the State and Federal Justice Departments. Blockbusting was a practice that became known in the 1960s and ‘70s when unscrupulous buyers would frighten white homeowners into selling their homes at drastically reduced prices with visions of African-Americans moving into the neighborhood.
Accompanying the complaint from Jackson was a video clip showing a rabbi suggesting that Orthodox Jews seeking to move to Jackson rather than Lakewood should not be afraid to become “shtickle pioneers.”
In light of the fact that would-be Jewish buyers were offering above-market prices for homes (the opposite of blockbusting techniques), the township’s complaint was rejected by the Departments of Justice.
According to Agudath Israel, these and other offenses stand as evidence to the charge that Jackson and its officials are “outrageously targeting” the Orthodox-Jewish community.
The lawsuit singles out Robert Nixon, then-Jackson Council President, for allegedly saying that it would be “reprehensible” and “not acceptable” for Orthodox Jews to move into Jackson.
The lawsuit also charges the township with violating the religious rights of Jewish residents by issuing code-enforcement violations for constructing sukkahs. Township Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Purpuro testified that he was directed by township officials to investigate those complaints.
Refusing to Sell
At one point, Mr. Nixon was accused of telling residents of Jackson not to sell their homes to Orthodox Jews, saying “the threat [of Orthodox Jews] can be eliminated if people held their ground and refused the offers being made on their properties and remain committed to Jackson Township and their neighbors.”
At a township council meeting in July 2016, after some residents criticized members of the council for not being sufficiently tough on the rapidly growing Orthodox-Jewish community, Mr. Nixon reaffirmed his position to block Orthodox Jews from moving to Jackson. “Everyone in this room is on the same page,” he announced.
Ironically, in 2018, Mr. Nixon sold his Jackson home reportedly to an Orthodox-Jewish family. The same seems to be true of virtually all members of a group that had called itself “Jackson Strong.” At one point, they placed signs on their lawns as an indication they would not sell to Orthodox Jews.
There is evidence that most of these actions have been prompted by Jackson Township officials, including Mr. Reina, who was recently caught on tape admitting that the town has been intentionally discriminating against the Orthodox-Jewish community. In that audio clip, former Ocean County GOP chairman George Gilmore asked Mr. Reina if Jackson would be fighting against the establishment of churches the way synagogues are being opposed.
“If these were churches, would we be fighting them?” Mr. Gilmore asked.
“Absolutely not,” replied Mr. Reina.
It took until early 2018 for Jackson to get approval for its first Orthodox synagogue, Royal Grove Shul. Because the shul is not yet built, its members still meet in a nearby private home, a system practiced by many other Jews in Jackson who do not reside close enough to walk to Royal Grove.
Officials in Jackson, prompted by some of their most outspoken constituents, have been known to go on the warpath against these private-home prayer meetings, authorizing stake-outs during services and interrupting the davening.
According to some of the residents, these stake-outs included looking into home windows while men were praying, walking onto residential properties to determine if Jews were praying in a backyard pool house, checking license plates of parked cars, and using a cell-phone application indicating Jewish prayer times so surveillance of several homes could be undertaken with the aim of “catching many Jews in the act of praying together.”
In 2016, Mr. Nixon emailed Jackson’s code compliance supervisor, Ken Pieslak, asking him to observe the home of Isaac Tawil where, Mr. Nixon said, there were “14 cars in the driveway.”
Mr. Pieslak informed Jackson officials that there were no violations at Mr. Tawil’s home or any of the others targeted for observation. Mr. Pieslak said the large groups of people did not gather “on a regular basis,” and, he said, there were no noise complaints. Further, he said, since Mr. Tawil’s residence was a single-family home, there was no code violation for maximum occupancy.
After Mr. Pieslak’s report, Jackson business administrator Helene Schlegel criticized the stakeouts. “We are wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in. We can’t keep chasing ghosts. It’s the same people and addresses every week,” she wrote in an email, adding that while she understood that “possible shuls are a serious issue, but other issues are life-threatening.”
Nevertheless, the surveillance operation continues even now, although the pace of the activity varies.
“Some weeks, the code-enforcement officers come around a lot; other times not so much,” said the activist.
Until relatively recently, code-enforcement officers, who generally work only five days a week, would often come to private Orthodox-Jewish homes on the Sabbath to take photographs, even though this meant the officers were paid extra.
“We have emails that show they were paid overtime to work on Shabbos,” said the activist, adding that the Sabbath visits seem to have stopped.
“They don’t appear to be coming around on Shabbos, but they still engage in questionable activity,” he said.
He recalled a recent incident in which, on a Friday afternoon, a member of the Orthodox community carrying food for the next day’s kiddush, was stopped by an officer who insisted the home he was about to enter was “vacant and, therefore, being used illegally.”
“He knew the home was occupied by a family who lived there. This was just harassment,” said the activist.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Tawil charged that “the repeated presence of …officers had a chilling effect, was intimidating, and became a form of harassment.” He said he “was being denied his right to pray at his home.”
In November 2019, Mr. Nixon resigned from his position on the council.
Social media statements from residents and other Jackson officials have reflected the bitterness. On Facebook, there have been posts from Jackson residents referring to Orthodox Jews as “crooks” who “should be deported.”
In a Facebook post of her own, Jackson GOP chairwoman Clara Glory argued that those disparaging remarks did not constitute “stereotyping” because, she said, they represented the fear Jackson residents have concerning the growing Orthodox-Jewish community. In another post, Ms. Glory argued that members of the Jewish community “break the laws of the town.”
Whenever the eruv issue was discussed, public meetings in the township often devolved into screaming matches, and outrageous emails followed.
“Why would anyone remain in this town when we are all sitting ducks to a religious takeover,” wrote one resident.
John Burrows, a Jackson resident who, as a member of the council, voted against the Orthodox girls’ school and then resigned in 2015, referred to Lakewood’s Orthodox community as “filthy (expletive) cockroaches.”
In 2015, Jackson GOP Club President Todd Porter suggested that local Jackson residents should consider blasting heavy-metal music during daylight hours as a means of keeping Orthodox Jews from visiting the town’s parks.
“Rise Up Ocean County”
On Facebook, a notorious page called “Rise Up Ocean County” has allowed comments such as “We need to get rid of them, like Hitler did,” “I live on the edge of Toms River and Lakewood, and the gang war has begun. I have my mac 11 loaded,” and “I’m knocking out the first person I see from Lakewood at the meeting tomorrow. Again, not a threat. It’s a promise.”
The site has been denounced by many NJ local and state officials, including Governor Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gubir Grewal. In 2019, Lakewood’s Township Committee passed a resolution labeling the site antisemitic and “an effort to discredit the Jewish population” and “incite ill will.” But Jackson, while passing a measure criticizing hate speech in general, did nothing about “Rise Up Ocean County.”
The anonymous administrators of the Facebook page have argued that its focus is on “overdevelopment and issues related to rapid population growth in Lakewood” and that posts on the page are not antisemitic.
On Friday, January 3, 2020, the “Rise Up Ocean County” page temporarily disappeared, prompting Messrs. Murphy and Grewal to issue a statement celebrating what they thought was the page’s demise. Mr. Grewal issued a statement about the “serious concerns” he and Mr. Murphy shared about “racist and antisemitic statements on the page, including an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County.”
But later that same day, when the page reappeared, its anonymous administrators said they had taken it down in the face of a “coordinated attack.” When that threat was averted a few hours later, they said, they resumed publication.
An infuriated Mr. Grewal tweeted: “It’s outrageous that just as our Jewish brothers and sisters are gathering to celebrate the Sabbath, ‘Rise Up Ocean County’ decides to reinstate its page. Is this really the kind of online community that @Facebook wants to cultivate?”
Antisemitic themes have also worked their way into election campaigns in Jackson. In 2018, while the council engaged in mediation with Agudath Israel, rival campaign fliers were distributed, many playing on antisemitic themes, promoting fears of Jews moving into town.
One campaign mailer accused Mr. Reina of having “sold us out to his developer friends,” a trope alluding to those who favor multi-house units, which are popular in Lakewood.
Another flyer, which emanated from a group calling itself “The Jackson Taxpayer Alliance,” featured Mr. Reina posing with two Jewish Lakewood Township Committee members plus a local rabbi, a Jewish building developer, and Yaakov Wenger, who owns the Lakewood Shopper newspaper.
A third campaign flyer, which was distributed anonymously, showed a digitally altered image of Mr. Reina standing behind a sign saying, “Welcome Lakewood Developers” and giving a thumbs up.
“How is that anything but antisemitism?” said Mr. Reina at the time, accusing his political opponents of “spreading more misinformation about me than I’ve seen in the 12 years I’ve been doing this.”
Tracie Yostpille, the Democrat running against Mr. Reina that year, denied that the flyer came from her campaign. She claimed she, too, had been the target of antisemitic attack ads, paid for by the “Committee to Elect Reina” and his running mates. Those ads labeled Ms. Yostpille and her running mates as “puppets” for “Lakewood Democrats.”
“Say no to Lakewood Democrats,” read one of the flyers.
“It is truly the most disgusting dishonest campaign using the Jewish population in Lakewood to scare voters,” Ms. Yostpille said at the time.
These statements and others have prompted a growing list of NJ state Republican officials to condemn the antisemitic remarks in Jackson, but, to date, no action has been taken to remove any of the offending officials from their posts.
One Republican party activist has decided to take action. Dr. Richard Roberts, a Lakewood-based philanthropist and prominent donor to national Republican causes over the past 20 years, said he became concerned about antisemitism in Jackson after he was approached by Jewish residents of the township who were clearly suffering.
Dr. Roberts, 62, and his wife, Dvorah, have donated over $5 million to Republican causes since 2001, making them among NJ’s top donors to any political party. In 2016, then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump named him vice-chair for Israel affairs. For Dr. Roberts, helping Jews in Jackson overcome antisemitic behavior is as important as working for Jewish causes anywhere else in the world.
On January 14 of this year, he wrote to Mr. Reina, demanding that the mayor take steps to overturn all ordinances and behaviors targeting the Jewish community or risk public exposure and presumably condemnation of the official antisemitism in the township.
“One data point doesn’t mean anything, but with two data points, you can draw a line. When you get a whole cluster of data points around bigotry against Orthodox Jews, then you say, ‘That’s a real picture,’” he explained. “If you took any of the situations in Jackson and replaced the words ‘Orthodox Jews’ with ‘African-Americans,’ there would be a national uproar. They wouldn’t dare to do it. Can you imagine: Jackson Township Encourages Surveillance of People of Color Who Want to Pray in Their Homes.’ There would be protests in the streets and condemnations. I’m hopeful those things are all coming now when the targets are Jews.”
Power of Repentance
In making his request, Dr. Roberts made clear to Mr. Reina that Orthodox Jews believe strongly in the power of repentance, which requires “undoing any wrong that was done in addition to committing to not doing it again.”
“If you demonstrate that the accusations against you are false, or if you reverse the discriminatory acts and commit to not allow new ones in the future, then I will defend you in the Orthodox-Jewish community and I believe that the Orthodox community will again support you,” he told the mayor, adding that he would gladly “stand down” if the mayor agrees to reverse the offensive ordinances as well as ordering the end of the inappropriate surveillances and harassment.
In his letter, Dr. Roberts stressed that he was not interested in a perfunctory statement opposing antisemitism or anti-Orthodox Jewish bigotry.
“We are well past that,” he wrote.
Repeated attempts to reach Mr. Reina were ignored by the mayor. Similarly, the township’s attorney, Gregory McGuckin, did not respond to requests for comments.
If there is no action from the mayor, Dr. Roberts intends to “shine a national spotlight on the atrocious actions reportedly committed by some members of Jackson Township’s government.”
“Everyone I spoke to in Washington—Democrats and Republicans, Congressmen and Senators—were incensed and incredulous. When I showed them the emails, they said, ‘This doesn’t happen in America.’ ‘Yes, it does,’ I told them. ‘It happens in Jackson, NJ,’” he said
If necessary, he intends to bring “a tsunami” of national news media personalities, national civil rights groups, national anti-bigotry social media thought leaders, and US Congressmen and Senators representing both parties.
His goal is to make the environment sufficiently unpleasant such that the Jackson mayor and township council will say, “Enough. We shouldn’t have done this. We’ll reverse it.”
He explained that he is motivated by the traditional Jewish concept of hishtadlus (personal effort or duty). “Our job is to do our duty and then we recognize that what happens in the end is up to G-d. I’m doing my duty by trying to bring this pressure to bear. I think it’s going to be very unpleasant and I’m sorry to have to do it. I wish Jackson hadn’t behaved as it has. But the township and its officials have left themselves unbelievably open for criticism,” he said.
He pointed out that while Jackson is 176 years old, the offensive ordinances and behaviors were enacted only as Orthodox Jews began moving to the township.
“Only over the last four years has the township banned schools, dormitories, and eruvs and conducted surveillances of Orthodox Jews praying in their homes,” he said.
Light of Friendship
In his letter to Mayor Reina, Dr. Roberts recognized that, throughout Jackson, there are many examples of neighborliness and friendships between Orthodox-Jewish families and their non-Jewish neighbors.
For example, it was reported that, during a recent electrical storm, when the power in Jackson failed, a long-time resident faced the loss of frozen meat and vegetables worth hundreds of dollars. The Orthodox-Jewish family who had recently moved across the street offered to share their generator with him, allowing him to connect his refrigerator and lights.
When asked by a reporter why he had made the offer of the generator, the Orthodox Jew said he thought he had merely done the right thing. “I didn’t think I did anything major. In a Jewish neighborhood, it would be a normal thing, but here people mostly keep to themselves.”
Since then, the two neighbors have become friends.
In neighboring Toms River, a group of Orthodox women organized a gathering called “Knead Kindness” in which they showed their non-Jewish neighbors how to make challah. About 100 women attended the event, which was as much about fostering understanding as it was about baking.
One of the leaders of the effort, Tova Hershkovitz, said she dislikes the “stereotypes” she has sometimes encountered at public meetings.
“They had this idea in their head of who we are and how we thought about the world, but the people I know are proud to be Americans, follow politics, and know a lot more about pop culture than you think. They think we live in a bubble, and while that’s true for a small minority, that’s not the general community,” she said, adding that, sometimes, the narratives on Facebook and Twitter are different from “the day-to-day reality of neighbors getting along.”
Dr. Roberts agreed and recalled the case of an elderly Christian woman in Lakewood who refused to accept a very high price offered for her home by Orthodox-Jewish would-be buyers. Asked why she did not take the offer, she replied, “If I move, who will take care of me?”
Dr. Roberts explained that her Orthodox-Jewish neighbors looked after her every day. Without asking for any financial compensation, they took care of her garbage, and their children brought her cookies and shoveled her walkway when it snowed.
“She knew she was in a safe environment. Orthodox Jews make great neighbors,” he said.