The Teaneck Jewish organization that last year won approval from the township’s board of adjustment to partially turn a private home into a house of worship filed suit against the board last month, challenging the “offensive conditions” placed on the synagogue.
According to the lawsuit, filed in mid-December in New Jersey Superior Court, the modern Orthodox congregation Etz Chaim “is not able to proceed as a fully-operational Orthodox Jewish house of worship” and requests that the court overturn the BoA’s conditions on the variances, which the suit argues are ambiguous and restrictive.
The BoA imposed more than two dozen conditions on Etz Chaim when it granted the requested variances in August. While Etz Chaim accepts the stipulations related to maintaining good relations with its neighbors, according to the suit, the organization takes issue with limitations on how often the group may use the house and how much of it may be used.
The conditions violate Etz Chaim’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, according to the lawsuit, as they “impose a substantial burden” on Etz Chaim’s rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and due process.
“This can be resolved very quickly if the board realizes their errors in judgment and fixes them,” Robert Erlich, Etz Chaim’s president, told The Jewish Standard.
Approximately 40 families attend weekly services at 554 Queen Anne Road, while Etz Chaim has a membership of about 35 families.
Rabbi Daniel Feldman and his family rent the property from 554 Corp., which operates as Etz Chaim and bought the house in October 2007. The corporation hired Feldman as rabbi that fall. Feldman soon began holding Shabbat prayer services in the home. In May 2008, Etz Chaim finished a renovation of the house’s living room, which included conversion of a garage into a kitchenette. According to the complaint, Feldman and Etz Chaim’s leadership informed the township of the plans and received the necessary permits.
Shortly after, Griggs Avenue resident Raphael Campeas and some 70 neighbors filed a petition alleging a “change of use” of the property.
That summer, Teaneck’s construction official and zoning officer sent a notice to Etz Chaim to “cease and desist from using the premises as a house of worship/place of public assembly.”
After several often heated hearings, the board granted the variances in August with several conditions limiting use of the property, to which Etz Chaim at the time agreed.
“Those stipulations that were agreed to during testimony were done after intense pressure from the board,” said Akiva Shapiro, the attorney representing Etz Chaim.
Shapiro’s New York firm, Gibson Dunn, has taken on the case pro bono.
Etz Chaim would be open to an out-of-court settlement, added Shapiro, who is also a member of the synagogue.
The township insisted Etz Chaim seek out the variances to become a house of worship, and the synagogue has embarked on this path solely because of that insistence, according to Shapiro.
“Etz Chaim was and has always remained quite happy to have their prayer services be a private prayer group hosted by Rabbi Feldman in his house,” he said.
The synagogue is not asking to expand beyond the house’s living room and wants only fair treatment, according to Erlich.
“Since they made us go through the process of being a house of worship,” he said, “we expect to be treated as a house of worship is treated.”
Campeas, who led opposition during the adjustment hearings, told the Standard that he has seen “no evidence” that Etz Chaim is trying to cooperate with the township.
His own children are awakened Saturday mornings by noise from Etz Chaim children playing in the yard, he said, and the lawsuit is proof the synagogue’s leaders are not being open about their intentions.
“They wasted a lot of time and money on the part of Teaneck and any attempt of an out-of-court settlement on this ridiculous suit is just an encouragement for other people who don’t get what they want,” he said.
A call Tuesday to township attorney Harold Ritvo was not returned by press time.
Teaneck has 30 days to respond from the time the suit was served.
Josh Lipowsky can be reached at Josh@Jewishmediagroup.com.