c. 2008 Religion News Service
ROOSEVELT, N.J. _ Bert Ellentuck watched the adolescent boys with tzistzis and yarmulkes shooting hoops next door and sighed.
“The people who settled this town were Jews; oh, they were socialists, communists and anti-religion, but they were Jews,” Ellentuck said. “I’m a Jew, those kids are Jews, and the biggest problem facing this town in years is about Jews.”
Difficult times have come to historic Roosevelt, the only municipality in the state where the only house of worship is a synagogue. In the past year, the tiny borough has been embroiled in lawsuits that have eaten up more than 10 percent of the total municipal budget.
All involve Yeshiva Mo’en Hatorah, an Orthodox high school that opened three years ago in an old synagogue in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Borough officials said the yeshiva is not following proper building and zoning regulations; Yeshiva officials say they are the target of religious persecution.
Before the yeshiva moved in, the synagogue membership had declined to the verge of collapse, its board said. Now, 52 students from around the country attend classes 14 hours a day, six days a week and live in “dormitories” that are single-family houses within walking distance.
Aside from natural exuberance and some kosher candy wrappers left on the lawn, the boys have caused little trouble, neighbors say. That does not mean, however, that they or the fervently Orthodox rabbis who run the school are welcome.
“We heard about the tolerance and the beauty of Roosevelt and thought it would be a perfect place to get our boys out of the city,” said Joshua Pruzansky, spokesman for the New York-based yeshiva. “I guess we were wrong.”
Most people in town will no longer talk openly about the yeshiva; not since more than 25 people out of an adult population of barely 600 were named in lawsuits. Ultimately, however, several locals confided, the conflict comes down to the fear that “the yeshiva will take over and push us out.”
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Cultural and religious clashes accompanying Orthodox Jewish expansion into suburban New Jersey are not new. Nearby Lakewood is home to one of the largest populations of fervently Orthodox Jews in the nation. They, like the members of the yeshiva in Roosevelt, are extremely insular.
In Lakewood, the separatism resulted in violent racial tension. Roosevelt has not seen any violence. The situation here is significant because of the borough’s size and history.
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Roosevelt was founded as a utopian community for out-of-work New York Jewish garment workers during the Great Depression. In 1936, nearly 1,000 Jews were given identical houses in rural Central Jersey, where they cooperatively worked a farm and a garment factory.
The farm and the factory failed, but artists did come and stay, and now the town is a national historic district. Jews now make up only about 35 percent of the 900 people in town, the mayor said, but Roosevelt is still known as an extraordinarily close-knit, liberal community.
“Roosevelt is unique, for its beauty, its seclusion and its tolerance,” Mayor Beth Battel said. “Also for its arguments. The joke is, there are 933 residents and 2,000 opinions.”
Opinions turned ugly when the yeshiva came to town in 2005.
“The yeshiva coming has changed my life, not in a good way,” said Helen Barth, who moved to Roosevelt in 1936 when she was 3.
The 320 houses that compose the entire borough are close together, backed by wide belts of protected open space. There are few roads and no room for expansion. For anything to move in, something must move out.
Residents say they fear the yeshiva population _ up 350 percent in three years _ will overwhelm the town. They said the students are packed into single-family houses _ all Roosevelt has _ violating density and safety regulations.
Pruzansky said they rectified previous violations, which was confirmed by inspectors. There have not been any inspections since 2007.
Barth remembered walking past protesters the night in 2005 when the synagogue board decided the yeshiva contract.
“I felt threatened by the people standing there. For the first time in my life, I felt anti-Semitism among my friends,” Barth said. “My husband now can’t sit at service holding his granddaughter on his lap,” she said, because yeshiva rabbis insist sexes must be kept separate. “I feel betrayed by my synagogue. I’m crushed that the community I loved is so divided.”
In 2006, zoning officials decided the yeshiva had grown so much it needed a variance to continue at the synagogue. Four yeshiva properties also were cited by state officials for illegally converting single-family homes into dormitories and for insufficient sprinklers and alarms. They are now occupied under a settlement agreement that limits occupancy to five lodgers.
Ellentuck claims he has documented 30 students in the house next to him. Pruzansky denied this but would not say how many boys are in the house.
The yeshiva administrators did not apply for a variance. Instead, records show, they filed a federal civil rights suit against the town, the mayor, council, zoning and planning boards, a neighborhood group called the Roosevelt Preservation Association and six individuals, claiming they were discriminated against for religious reasons.
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Among those sued individually was Ellentuck, whose house lies between the synagogue and one of the dormitories. Ellentuck is the founder of the Roosevelt Preservation Association and is the father of councilman Jeffrey Ellentuck _ who was sued. Both Ellentucks have also filed legal action against the yeshiva.
“It doesn’t matter that the students don’t like us or that the yeshiva is out of sync with the community,” Bert Ellentuck said. “What matters is that, instead of obeying the law, they sue us into bankruptcy. This is about zoning, not religion. These are not the actions of people who want to get along.”
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In court papers, yeshiva lawyers accused the neighborhood association of attempting to “eliminate” the yeshiva by perpetuating “an atmosphere of intolerance in the borough towards Orthodox Jews.”
The yeshiva suit sought monetary damages and reversal of the zoning decision. In August, a district court judge dismissed the suit as premature because the yeshiva never applied for the variance. Last week, attorneys for the yeshiva appealed the federal decision and filed an additional lawsuit on the zoning issue in state court.
In the past year, Battel said, Roosevelt has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees. The total municipal budget is only $1 million. The yeshiva continues to operate, pending the outcome of the court challenges.
Pruzansky said the legal battles have not changed their plans: “We took a synagogue that had fallen on hard times and helped revitalize it. Yes, we must remain separate, but that is our right. I think people prejudged us coming into town and created an atmosphere that could have been avoided, but we’re not going anywhere.”
(Judy Peet writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
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