Toms River, New Jersey – Readers may already be familiar with the news that Toms River has implemented a law aimed at putting an end to what many of its residents and leaders labeled overly aggressive tactics by realtors. Some observers suggest the measure is part of a campaign to block an increasing migration by members of the neighboring Orthodox community of Lakewood. Against this backdrop, tensions have simmered over comments made by Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher.
In an interview with Bloomberg News Service regarding the recent influx and his town’s reaction to it, Kelaher was quoted as saying, “It’s like an invasion. It’s the old throwback to the 1960s, when blockbusting happened in Philadelphia and Chicago with the African-American community — ‘I want to buy your house. You’ll be sorry if you don’t [sell it to me].”
In the wake of its publication, Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller penned an open letter expressing deep offense over the use of the term “invasion,” which he said implied a takeover by a malicious group, and demanded an apology.
Now in the latest twist, representatives of the Chabad Jewish Center filed suit Tuesday in federal court against Toms River and its Zoning Board of Adjustment alleging its refusal to allow small weekly prayer services in Rabbi Moshe Gourarie’s home is a civil rights violation spurred by a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” in the community.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court, asks the court to overturn the December decision of the zoning board rejecting the Chabad’s request for an interpretation that its activities were permitted and that Gourarie did not need a use variance to continue them.
The lawsuit, filed by Roman Storzer of Storzer & Greene of New York, in conjunction with Christopher Costa of Kenny Chase & Costa, accuses Toms River officials of violations of the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. It also alleges violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the Fair Housing Act.
More than 1,200 residents attended the board’s hearing on the Chabad’s application, which had to be moved to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.
“These recent actions to shut down the Chabad took place during a rising tide of anti-Semitism among the Toms River government and population, fearful that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community located in adjacent Lakewood Township will extend into Toms River,” the complaint says.
It cites the statement by Mayor Thomas Kelaher and the recent carving of the words “Burn the Jews” into playground equipment at Riverwood Park.
Kelaher, at a press conference last week, said the comments were simply a recitation of sworn testimony given when the township was considering implementing that ban, which took effect last Friday, March 18. He and others emphasized the conflicts were of a legal nature, not religious.
But the complaint also cites a number of statements made in various places on social media “regarding the Chabad and ultra-Orthodox Jews describing them as “cockroaches,” “trash,” a “cult,” “he-brews and she-brews,” a “Jewish conspiracy,” “disgusting phonies,” a “joo school,” “damn jews,” “dirty,” and a “disease.”
The result, the complaint says, was a collaborative effort between Toms River officials and residents with respect to various efforts to prevent ultra-Orthodox Jews from adjacent Lakewood Township from moving into Toms River.
“This cancerous movement targeting a specific religious minority has spread into Toms River,” Storzer said. “The use of local ordinances and land use regulation to build a wall around Lakewood should not be tolerated.”
Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a prominent Lakewood askan, said that, based on his experience with Kehaler in the past, he did not believe that his statement, nor other actions aimed at limiting Jewish buyers in the community, was motivated by anti-Semitism, but by “populism.”
“He’s pandering to what he thinks will work well for him politically,” he said.
“What’s the invasion? It’s a town, people are buying and selling,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey division.
He said that aside from the comments themselves, the mayor’s encouragement of “Toms River Strong,” a grassroots movement discouraging residents from putting their homes on the market despite rising values, was “troubling.”
“Toms River Strong is being encouraged from the top; he’s giving them a platform,” said Rabbi Schnall. “He called a town meeting about this, not about crime or any other problems. This shows where his priorities are.”
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