JACKSON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Mordechai Burnstein remembers the Saturdays when a Jackson Township code enforcement officer sat in his car outside Burnstein’s home counting the number of men coming and going. A neighbor had reported to the township that “men in black suits with shawls” were visiting Burnstein’s home, according to an email sent by a zoning officer to other township officials.
“They came three weeks in a row, just sitting in front of my house watching, counting how many people were coming into my house,” said Burnstein, 32, a Jackson resident and a leader in its Orthodox Jewish community.
The code enforcement officers never knocked on his door and no violation was found. Burnstein was holding a prayer group at his home. In one report, one officer wrote: “Observed a total of 28 pedestrians exit the house from rear door between the hours of 6:25 p.m. and 6:32 p.m. This included mostly adult Orthodox men and a few Orthodox male juveniles. The walkers then left the residence going in several different directions.”
The surveillance of Orthodox Jewish homes in Jackson Township, Ocean County, was among the complaints detailed in a civil rights lawsuit filed last month by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office against the township, alleging it discriminated against the Orthodox Jewish community through targeted zoning ordinances and enforcement practices.
Jackson Township, which neighbors Lakewood, spans about 100 square miles. The suburban community is better known as the location of the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park, and since 2015, the Orthodox Jewish community there has been growing, with some residents moving from the congested, more urban township of Lakewood.
Leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community estimate that one out of every six residents in Jackson, with a population of about 60,000 residents, is Orthodox, and they say the number is rising.
Lakewood has a population of more than 100,000, and an estimated two-thirds are Orthodox Jews. It spans about 25 square miles, a quarter of Jackson’s size. With the second largest yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish religious school, in the world behind Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Lakewood has attracted an increasing number of Jewish men and families to study and live there.
Nowadays, Lakewood has kosher supermarkets, synagogues, and religious schools, and it’s common to see men and boys wearing the traditional black hats and long black coats walking its streets.
With the influx of Orthodox Jews into Jackson, a vocal group of residents has complained on social media, in e-mails to township officials, and at public meetings, expressing fear and disgust, saying Jackson would become a “subdivision of Lakewood,” using hateful rhetoric, and framing their concerns as “quality-of-life” issues, according to the Attorney General’s lawsuit.
And certain township officials have openly sympathized with them, the suit says.
The lawsuit, filed in state Superior Court in Ocean County, names as defendants Jackson Township, its council, the zoning and planning boards, and Mayor Michael Reina.
Reina, Business Administrator Terence Wall, and the township’s attorney, Greg McGuckin, did not return requests for comment on the lawsuit.
In addition to the surveillance campaign, the council in 2017 passed an ordinance prohibiting religious schools in nearly all of Jackson’s zoning districts. Since its passage, no yeshivas have been built.
Jackson’s 3,100 school-age Orthodox children now attend Lakewood’s religious schools, Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group, said in his Lakewood office.
Also in 2017, Jackson’s council passed another ordinance effectively prohibiting the installation of an eruv, a symbolic enclosure created by stringing thin wires or pipes along utility poles to extend the boundaries of home and allow observant Jews to do activities forbidden on the Sabbath, such as carrying things in public or pushing a stroller. The township later modified its rules to allow an eruv to be established along utility poles if the utility company consented.
Burnstein’s home was under surveillance in 2016. That September, the township’s then-business administrator wrote by email to Reina: “We are wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in. We can’t keep chasing ghosts.”
Still, the township continued its surveillance program for several years, the Attorney General’s Office said.
Yehuda Tomor, 28, another Jackson resident, held Saturday prayer groups from 2016 to 2017 in the garage of his home on a quiet cul-de-sac. About 10 to 30 men attended.
Code enforcement officers drove to his home and counted the number of people who entered and exited, Tomor said. “They never knocked on my door. … I always saw them coming and roaming around” in an effort to intimidate, he said.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit is the second complaint filed by the state against a New Jersey municipality in recent years to stop discriminatory zoning practices targeting Orthodox Jews. In 2017, the state sued Mahwah Township, in Bergen County. That lawsuit was resolved through a settlement agreement.
Jackson has also been sued by the U.S. Justice Department, which last year alleged discriminatory enactment of ordinances barring yeshivas and their dormitories. The suit is pending.
In 2017, the township was also sued in federal court by Agudath Israel and a property developer, WR Property LLC, which had purchased land in hopes of building an Orthodox Jewish school in Jackson.
Earlier this month, the plaintiffs won a victory when U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Jackson from enforcing its ordinances against the building of religious schools and the installation of an eruv.
Still, Schnall said the fight is not over.
“It’s only a preliminary injunction … ” he said. “It took four years to get to this point, and we’re still not at a final judgment. So these things can drag on for a very long time.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, for his part, has vowed to press forward with his lawsuit and push for change. “Bias and hate have no home in New Jersey,” he said in a statement, “and we will not allow some vocal residents’ intolerance to drive local government decisions.”