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Letter to the Editor: Supporting the Chai Center

Former Millburn resident urges Township to work with the Center to avoid possible appeals and federal legal claims.

Millburn Township will always be home to my family.  We moved to Florida in 1999 from Short Hills, but have kept in touch with many close friends and family in Millburn and Short Hills these past 13 years.  In 1994, I ran for Millburn Township Committee – as a Democrat.  (Running for Township Committee in 1994 as a Democrat truly reflects the love I had for the Township.)  I also had the pleasure of practicing law for several years at a firm in Short Hills. While living in first Millburn and then Short Hills, my family never missed a Forth of July celebration or Halloween parade.

It is with profound sadness that I learned this morning (February 14th) that the Millburn Zoning Board denied the Chai Center’s application for a variance very early this morning. Rabbi and Mrs. Bogomilsky became a much welcomed, valuable asset to the Township long before I moved to Florida. Their struggle to establish a Jewish institution within the Township has been made unduly troublesome and difficult, and has become needlessly costly for both the Chai Center and the Township. This is unfortunate.

Part of the charm of Millburn is the way in which houses of worship are peppered throughout the community.  

The February 14th ruling forces the Chai Center to look to the Federal Courts for assistance under the law known as The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.  In very simple terms, this Federal law limits a municipal government’s right to impose land use regulations in a manner that burdens exercise of religion. Since Federal law takes precedent over municipal codes and state law, a court’s ruling applying RLUIPA would be controlling over the Zoning Board. Importantly, under a RLUIPA claim, the courts have the authority to award attorneys fees.  

Litigation such as this can have a protracted and expensive life cycle.  It may also have the detrimental effect of polarizing a community. For a RLUIPA claim, a Zoning Board’s decision is just the first step setting the stage for further litigation. Residents may not realize this and believe that a Zoning Board’s decision brings with it a sense of finality. Not so with a RLUIPA claim, and the Township attorney is likely keenly aware of this.  

As an attorney, I typically take offense to commentary on cases such as “the only ones who win are the lawyers.” However, considering the totality of the facts and applicable law governing this issue, the Chai Center has a real RLUIPA claim. At the end of the day, they may ultimately prevail at much unneeded expense that could be borne by the Township.  

I hope that the Township recognizes the February 13th/14th decision for what it truly is, an opportunity to sit with the Chai Center and forge a mutually agreeable resolution. If that does not happen, I have no doubt that there will come a day that this letter will be presented at a Township Committee meeting and someone will ask why this issue was not properly addressed and reasonably settled before things truly got out of control.

Daniel A. Kaskel, Esq.

Actual Resident February 21, 2012 at 02:40 PM
(1) The February 14th ruling forces the Chai Center to look to the Federal Courts for assistance.... WRONG. The February 14th ruling "forces" nothing. Perhaps the Chai Center will look elsewhere. If that reduces the "charm" of Millburn, I guess it's good that you moved out over a decade ago. (2) In very simple terms, this Federal law limits a municipal government’s right to impose land use regulations in a manner that burdens exercise of religion. Since Federal law takes precedent over municipal codes and state law, a court’s ruling applying RLUIPA would be controlling over the Zoning Board. Importantly, under a RLUIPA claim, the courts have the authority to award attorneys fees. INTERPRETIVE OVERSIMPLIFICATION and FACTUALLY INACCURATE. Thanks for distilling this down to "very simple terms" for us non-attorneys. While I know your revelatory "letter will be presented at a Township Committee," the fact is that you did not define what is meant by "limit[ing]" the exercise of religion. And don't forget, counselor, that no land-use restrictions were "imposed" by the town. Rather, the Chai center sought a variance. The town merely upheld its prevailing zoning. Does not sound like limiting. If you feel so strongly about this, why don't you come up to Short Hills and represent the Chai Center on a pro bono basis? You clearly don't have anything better to do other than provide arrogant commentary on town issues...a town that you haven't lived in for 13 years.
SusieQ February 21, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Actual, you have oversimplified the issue: the limiting of which Mr. Kaskel speaks is the zoning law that required the Chai Center to apply for a variance itself. The law requiring a minimum of 3 acres for a house of worship is most likely a violation of RLUIPA because it does limit the use of land and where a religious entity can be established. Therefore, the federal law will probably allow the Chai Center to build what it wants, where it wants within the town. I think that the Chai Center was trying to play by the local rules in order to "make nice" with the "powers that be", but if they want to further the establishment of a formal house of worship at the Jefferson Avenue location, they will be forced to go the federal route, which will override any local zoning laws.
Cham February 22, 2012 at 01:05 PM
I think Actual Resident would prefer that the Chai Center, the author of the letter, and all other supporters of Orthodox Jewry move out. Too bad. We're not going anywhere.
SH February 27, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Dear Cham, Wow. I think the nasty tone of your letter, and the arrogance implied - that just because you're Orthodox Jews (God's chosen?) you can do whatever you want - pretty much sums up why I, as a fellow Jew, can't distance myself far enough from you and your ilk. Although now that I think about it, many Orthodox don't view non-Orthodox as even Jewish so I'm sure if your twisted worldview, our views don't count anyway. Please, take your nasty and divisive rhetoric elsewhere.

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