Mike DavisAsbury Park Press

JACKSON – Plans for the first authorized Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Jackson hit another snag Wednesday after zoning officials sent the project back to the drawing board. 

WSNP LLC was instructed to come back to the zoning board with more details about its proposal to turn a single-family home on South New Prospect Road into Bais Medrash of Jackson. It would be the town’s only authorized and operating synagogue for its growing Orthodox Jewish community. 

The synagogue, operating from a large home on the property since 2017 but without approval, is under contract to purchase an adjacent parcel, required because the place of worship technically sits on both parcels, a fact that only became known when surveys were completed for its township application.

But by acquiring the second piece of property with an additional single-family home, applicant WSNP is now technically seeking a more stringent “D-1” variance, which requires a more detailed site plan, zoning board attorney Sean Gertner said. 

Satellite image of a house on South New Prospect Road whose owner is asking permission to convert it into a synagogue.
Site of Jackson Shul

Notably, synagogue leaders must decide what to do with the additional house, Gertner said.

“You have to make a decision as to what you’re going to do with that other structure,” he said. “It’s right in front of us. You can’t miss it.”

Tzvi Herman, a Jackson school board member who sits on the synagogue’s board, said Tuesday that the congregation “really needs to be able to plan for our future.” 

“We need a proper structure. The town wants us to have a proper synagogue, and we want to have a proper synagogue,” he said. “This is the perfect property to place a synagogue with the least negative effects.”

Orthodox Jewish tradition requires a quorum of at least 10 Jewish men, known as a “minyanim,” for a traditional prayer service. If a synagogue or shul is not within walking distance — driving is forbidden on the Sabbath — then congregants will often meet at a neighbor’s home for the services. 

This proposed site plan shows Beth Medrash of Jackson, the township's first official synagogue for its growing Orthodox Jewish community.

The proposal comes as the township continues to contest lawsuits — including those filed by the federal and state government — alleging it used ordinances and zoning laws to discourage Orthodox Jews from locating in Jackson, in violation of religious rights protected by the Constitution and a federal statute barring governments from enacting land-use laws that place a substantial burden on houses of worship. 

Included in the lawsuits’ allegations are a series of investigations in 2016 and 2017, when council members asked the township’s code enforcement officers to stake out homes where neighbors had reported prayer services on Friday nights and Saturdays — the Jewish sabbath.

The Township Council also adopted ordinances banning the construction of any new schools or dormitories — commonplace with Orthodox Jewish yeshivas — or eruvin, wires that symbolically allow practicing Jews to carry objects on the Sabbath and certain holidays. Those ordinances were temporarily struck down by a federal judge overseeing one of the lawsuits.

Township officials have said the township would defend itself against the allegations.

The home on South New Prospect Road was the subject of one of those stakeouts. Township zoning officer Jeffrey Purpuro investigated the site in July 2017 and determined there was “no evidence that anyone … was ever living there,” according to court documents. 

Instead, Purpuro found “an unusually high number of folding tables and chairs for a single family home” and a podium on the back porch, according to court documents.

Purpuro’s investigation and the subsequent violations issued to WSNP, the synagogue’s holding company, kicked off a lengthy court case, resolved only when Superior Court Judge Michael Collins ruled the synagogue “was only required to submit an application to the Jackson Planning Board in order to convert the primary use of the property from single-family dwelling to a place of worship.”

The only other township-approved Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Jackson is the Royal Grove Shul, approved by the Planning Board in February 2018. But the East Veterans Highway project has only recently broken ground. 

“Shul” is the Yiddish word for “school,” and is the term used by Orthodox Jews to refer to a house of worship.

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