JACKSON – Two civic leaders from the township’s growing Orthodox Jewish community have been appointed to the planning board – key roles as developers continue to push for new housing and business development projects.
Jackson’s mayor Michael Reina named Mordechai Burnstein and Tsvi Herman to the panel last week. Both have been active in civic affairs in the township.
They become the only Orthodox Jews to sit on Jackson’s land use boards. Their selection also comes as the township rejects lawsuits that it systematically deployed its land use laws to discourage Orthodox Jews from settling in Jackson.
An estimated 2,000 Orthodox Jewish families reside in Jackson, up from 500 in 2017.
“When you are elected, you make the decisions that best suit the community as a whole,” said Reina. “There is diversification to a level that we have never seen before, and it’s good to have perspectives from all sides.”
Herman, 32, resigned last week as a member of the Jackson Township Board of Education in order to accept his deputy role on the planning board. He was elected for an unexpired one-year term in 2020, but failed on a bid for reelection this year.
“With all the construction going on in the city, I think I can bring a solid perspective to be able to keep Jackson the way he is,” Herman said.
Burnstein, 33, led the Orthodox Jewish community‘s campaign for an eruv to be built in or around Jackson. Eruvim serve as a ceremonial extension of the house, symbolically allowing observant Jews to carry items – from house keys to inhalers or strollers – on the Sabbath and certain holidays. He is also chaplain of the commune.
As president of the Jackson Eruv Association, Burnstein opposed a 2017 ordinance banning all new construction on the lawn of the right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street, including eruvim building or even fixing them ( with authorization) to existing electricity poles. .
“There is a growing Orthodox community in Jackson, and I think people want to get involved, they want to help the city because we all have a vested interest in the city – both Orthodox and non-Orthodox.” Burnstein said.
He added, “I think it sends a powerful message that Jackson isn’t about religion or race, it’s about who can do the best job for the township.”
The eruv ban has been part of the basis of broad religious discrimination lawsuits filed against the city by the Department of Justice, the New Jersey attorney general’s office and an advocacy group for Orthodox Jews, alleging that the officials gave in to “widespread animosity towards the Orthodox community moving to Jackson.”
This animosity has manifested itself in land use decisions, including orders banning the construction of schools, dormitories and erouvim, according to the claims. At one point, council members ordered code enforcement officers to watch private homes during Sabbath prayer services.
The backdrop to these actions was a mine of rude and anti-Semitic remarks – sometimes made by former board members themselves – targeting Orthodox Jews.
The comments appeared on social media and were sometimes made in public, including before neighborhood group meetings where barriers to development were discussed, with a focus on burgeoning Orthodox Jewish communities.
Burnstein and Herman’s nominations have been met with derision on social media.
Facebook users accused Reina of “selling our city to the highest bidders” and making the nominations only to have the discrimination lawsuits dismissed.
Others warned that the appointments would lead to “overcrowding, congested roads and garbage everywhere” – positioning Jackson to become the “next Lakewood,” an oft-repeated claim.
The fifth largest municipality in New Jersey, near Lakewood, saw its population increase 46% between 2010 and 2020, from 92,843 to 135,158, according to the census. Orthodox Jews make up about two-thirds of the population.
Jackson is said to have essentially revised his development master plan to match Lakewood’s growth spurt. Herman said he doesn’t see this in the future.
“We didn’t move here to cause traffic jams. It’s not our plan or our goal,” Herman said. “If they get to know us, people will find that we have a lot more in common than we realize.”
Burnstein and Herman attended their first planning board meeting on December 6. They will not be able to vote on existing requests – hearings often last several meetings over several months – but can vote on new proposals.
“To sit on the platform and watch from that position, instead of sitting in the crowd, it was a good sign that the city is moving in a positive direction,” said Burnstein.
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering local New Jersey news, marijuana legalization, transportation, and a bit of everything in between. He has won a few awards that make his parents very proud. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.