Two years after the Justice Department weighed in on a long-running zoning conflict between the Borough of Woodcliff Lake and Valley Chabad, the lawsuits have been settled and Valley Chabad has received the town’s go-ahead to expand.
In 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his office was going to bat for Chabad in a talk he gave to the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s Annual Leadership Mission in Washington.
“We allege that over an eight-year period the town stopped every effort by the group to purchase an alternative worship site, and then denied it permission to expand on its property,” Mr. Sessions said. The case was filed under the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
At the time, Woodcliff Lake denied the charges.
“We maintain that our Borough is non-discriminatory and welcoming for people of all faiths,” Ronald Dario, the town’s attorney, wrote in an email to the Jewish Standard.
“Lastly, we are saddened by the response of the Valley Chabad in their choice to take this action against our quiet New Jersey town, comprised of hard-working people of all faiths, that welcomed them into our community,” Mr. Dario wrote. “We merely requested that they conform to the rules and regulations as required within our Borough borders.
“We are confident that both Valley Chabad as well as the Justice Department will conclude that the evidence supports non-discriminatory actions of the Borough and the Zoning Board,” the email concluded.
Despite that confidence, last month the Justice Department announced that it had reached as settlement with Woodcliff Lake, and that a parallel settlement had been reached between the town and Valley Chabad. The settlements seem to represent a complete victory for Chabad and the Justice Department.
Under the settlements, Valley Chabad will be allowed to build a new building on its property — and Woodcliff Lake will pay Chabad $1.5 million for damages and attorney fees.
The borough, meanwhile, must educate its employees about the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and report back to the Justice Department regularly on whether anyone has raised any complaints under the act.
Woodcliff Lake and Valley Chabad issued a joint statement after the town council approved the settlement.
“The Borough of Woodcliff Lake and Valley Chabad look forward to continuing a relationship that has spanned more than 20 years,” the statement said. “True to their mission, Valley Chabad has long created ‘light for the sake of creating light, just by doing good for the sake of doing good,’ and the Borough of Woodcliff Lake, always a willing home and partner, has provided space and support. We are all better off when we work together.
“The Borough’s goal is and always has been to engage in sound planning, common sense development, and beneficial environmental practices while fully respecting the constitutional right of religious freedom. The voluntary settlement with Valley Chabad strikes this important balance and provides us with a path forward unencumbered by costly legal action.”
“On behalf of the entire Valley Chabad community, we are humbly grateful to have reached this settlement with Woodcliff Lake and we thank G-D for all the blessings,” Rabbi Dov Drizin, head of Valley Chabad, said in the statement. “We are looking forward to a beautiful future in Woodcliff Lake.” Citing advice from counsel, Rabbi Drizin declined to speak to the Jewish Standard directly, as final approval of the settlement by the federal court is still pending.
In the statement, Mayor Carlos Rendo said, “Tonight’s vote comes after more than two years of careful deliberation and consideration, and is one that has been thoroughly considered. It also sets Woodcliff Lake on a positive path forward, protects our taxpayers, and allows us to build upon what has traditionally been an important relationship with our neighbors at Valley Chabad.”
A week after the settlement, the Department of Justice marked the twentieth anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the RLUIPA. It issued a 33-page document reviewing the history of the law and subsequent court rulings. According to the document, the Valley Chabad suit was one of only 25 cases where the Justice Department filed a suit on a land use issue. (The law also prevents prisons and other institutions from discriminating against religious practice and has been used to force a Florida prison to allow a Muslim prisoner to grow his beard.) There were another 123 cases where the Justice Department opened an investigation without filing a suit.
While the majority of the cases involved Christian groups, 23 percent concerned Muslim groups and 10 percent Jewish groups. The reported noted that “The investigations involving Muslim and Jewish groups have significantly exceeded the percentage of the Muslim and Jewish U.S. population.”
Among the cases cited in the report was a 2006 suit against the Village of Suffern in Rockland County, which had denied a zoning variance to a group seeking to operate a “Shabbos House” near Good Samaritan Hospital. The case was settled in 2010, and permission was given for the Shabbos House operated by a bikur cholim organization.
The final case cited in the report was the suit filed in May against Jackson Township, in Ocean County, alleging the township had broken the law with zoning ordinances restricting religious schools and barring religious boarding schools. That case is still pending.
Meanwhile, nine miles to the west, the Chabad Jewish Center of Northwest Bergen County in Franklin Lakes is poised to expand — and so far, at least, it’s not having any problems with the local zoning authorities.
“They’ve been very cool,” Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan said.
Rabbi Kaplan mused that the different attitudes in the towns may reflect that Woodcliff Lakes is closer to the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of Rockland County.
“I think here there’s just enough distance that perhaps it wasn’t felt as keenly as it was felt in Woodcliff Lake,” he said.
Rabbi Kaplan’s Chabad is two-thirds of the way through a $6 million capital campaign, which will pay for a building expansion and set up an endowment for programs including a Hebrew school. The Hebrew school, which has 100 students, has been endowed by Marc Goldstein, whose initials will become part of the school’s name.
“He was never involved in a Jewish community,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “He does not have a Jewish family. Through us he’s become a regular shul goer, a very committed Jew. At our first high holiday services 20 years ago, he was there. He’s been a steady presence. A very warm individual. He decided this was the way he would create a Jewish legacy.”
The planned expansion will increase the building from 6,000 square feet to 21,000. “Right now, we’re a small building on a big property,” Rabbi Kaplan said.
The planned building will include an expanded social hall, a teen lounge, an entertainment center, a commercial kitchen, and room for the Chabad preschool to grow.
“We’ve kept the cap at a very low number,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “We’ve been kind of holding off until we have the new building.”
The new building will also house a mikvah; now the nearest mikveh is about nine miles away in Fair Lawn.
“It’s a mitzvah that is neglected in the broader world,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “We feel having a mikvah will increase awareness around it and increase use of the mikvah.”