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Orthodox Rabbi Takes N.J. Zoning Spat to Court

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - Tension between the small town of Toms River and its Orthodox Jewish community has spurred a federal complaint accusing local officials of anti-Semitism and illegal use of zoning laws to effect a modern-day Exodus.

Rabbi Moshe Gourarie says the fracas began when he tried to use his residence as a religious meeting place for children's Hebrew study and small weekly prayer meetings. Gourarie's house is adjacent to a Christian church and American Legion hall.

After a contentious town meeting drew more than 1,200 people late last year, the town's zoning board ruled that Gourarie would need a variance to operate the Chabad out of his home. The zoning board relied on a 2009 revision to the town's zoning ordinances.

Some in the Toms River community had concerns about the Orthodox Jewish community's move into the town from adjacent Lakewood Township.

Resisting condemnation by the Anti-Defamation League, Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher has refused to apologize after he was quoted earlier this month describing the move as "an invasion."

Gourarie slapped the township and its zoning board of adjustment with a federal complaint Tuesday, saying they improperly labeled his residence a place of worship and not a clergy residence. The suit claims the zoning board's actions violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, as well as the Fair Housing Act.

The zoning board's efforts "to shut down the Chabad took place during a rising tide of anti-Semitism among the Toms River government and population, fearful that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community located in adjacent Lakewood Township will extend into Toms River," the lawsuit states.

Lakewood is considered one of the highest concentrations of Jewish people in the United States.

The lawsuit also notes various online petitions and websites by members of the town that referenced the Chabad and Orthodox Jews as cockroaches, trash, a cult and "disgusting phonies." Many of the public comments regarding the Chabad also expressed concern about Gourarie and his family living for free without paying property taxes and general worries about the high-pressure real estate tactics employed by some Orthodox Jews.

The suit also references an incident earlier this month in which "Burn the Jews" was scratched into playground equipment in one of the town's parks.

Gourarie's Chabad - which is has been in operation for 12 years in two other locations without incident - is part of the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement. One of the movement's core beliefs is that Chabad houses must be established wherever Jews live, and Chabad houses typically are used for outreach to nonorthodox Jewish communities.

Gourarie purchased his Toms River home at 2001 Church Road in 2011. Since then he has offered high-holiday services and other gatherings, and his wife offers weekly Hebrew classes in the property's garage for five children.

Gourarie attempted to classify the property as a "home professional office," which Toms River allows given certain stipulations. The town nixed his prayer groups, however, under a zoning code that prohibits gatherings of 10 to 15 people in a single-family house.

"Under the township' code, a homeowner could host weekly football parties, book club gatherings, or other groups of people of a size similar to the Chabad's activities on a regular basis without violating its provisions," the lawsuit states. "The code treats plaintiff's religious use differently and worse than secular gatherings."

According to the lawsuit, the town has attempted to stymie the Chabad in other ways, such as losing the Chabad's application for tax exemption in 2012 before finally granting it in 2014. The town also issued several municipal zoning violations against the Chabad.

Another zoning board meeting has been scheduled for April 14.

Toms River Attorney Kenneth Fitzsimmons has not returned a request for comment.

Roman Storzer, an attorney for the rabbi with Storzer & Greene, has called the town's reaction to the Chabad a "cancerous movement targeting a specific religious minority."

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