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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

The City That Has Problems With Synagogues

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My congressional campaign is over, but one of the main reasons I ran remains. What first impelled me to seek public office was the feeling of powerlessness to stop Muammar Gaddafi from coming to stay in the home immediately next door to me in Englewood, NJ, in the autumn of 2009. And though we ultimately succeeded, with G-d's blessing, in pushing him out, I could not persuade my city to challenge the tax exemption of an international terrorist which forced me, and all the other residents of Englewood, to be complicit in evil in having to subsidize a murderous government's compound in our midst. (The staff living there did not have the decency to even once lower their flag to half-staff in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.)

If only my city were to treat me with the same courtesy they accorded Gaddafi.

For the past year my congregants and I have been locked in a bitter struggle with Englewood to get our home properly zoned as a Synagogue. We have hosted prayer, religious services, and educational events for more than 13 years, but the city continues to cite us as requiring a variance in order to host communal worship. The same city that could not, for three decades, muster the courage to challenge the Libyans' tax-exempt presence in our town has obstructed a fair hearing of our congregants' right to establish a house of worship. As the Chairman of our Board, Michael Fromm, has put it, "It's an outrage. We have had hearings canceled for nefarious reasons, the rules have been changed mid-game, city officials have abused their power to thwart us, board members have publicly displayed prejudice against us, and we have been held to a higher standard than international terrorists."

The city's efforts to block our Synagogue application have been brazen. First, they canceled our hearing at the Board of Adjustment -- for which we had prepared for months at considerable expense -- on the very same day it was to take place on October 24, 2011. Then, after having our hearing unlawfully canceled by one Board, we spent thousands more to ready ourselves for a hearing at the Planning Board, appointed and overseen by the City's mayor, Frank Huttle. Unbelievably, they too found a legal loophole to deny us from even being heard. The full video of the hearing is available here and you may draw your own conclusions as to the fairness of their arguments and vote.

So, thousands of dollars later we were back at the Board of Adjustment for a hearing scheduled for May 21, 2012. Then, just a week before the hearing we were forwarded a letter, authored by Ken Albert, the City Engineer, dated March 27, 2012, that demanded, for the first time, a host of new improvements in order for us to even qualify for the hearing. Bizarrely, the city stamped his letter April 24th, 2012, suggesting they had sat on the letter for a full month prior to forwarding it, thereby making it impossible for our hearing to go ahead as planned.

We acquired a new date of June 25, 2012 only to have that hearing canceled by Chairwoman Rosemary Byrne a mere four hours before it was scheduled, wasting thousands more of our organization's money. Was the city's strategy to have us squander all our funds without even a hearing so that we would throw in the towel?

We finally decided to go public about the many obstacles and cancellations thrown in our path for the creation of a House of Worship, while leaving the Libyans to live peacefully at Englewood taxpayer expense. We also prepared a Federal lawsuit against the city under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Once the newspaper reports appeared, we were granted a hearing.

We've had two since. Unfortunately, the hearings have been characterized by what would seem to be a predetermined outcome. A simple read of the transcripts provides a great deal of illumination, with one board member in particular, Harry Reidler, seeming particularly vexed by our application.

Reidler, who is a member of the local Democratic Municipal Committee, several times raised my Congressional bid in the district (Republican) even though it was never germane to our Synagogue's application. When, for the first time, he brought up my race for Congress he was interrupted three times by the Chairwoman and told, "Wait." Still he objected, saying "...I mean, we know that this Rabbi is running for Congress."

Englewood has an unfortunate history of making life difficult for Houses of Worship receiving proper zoning. The highly successful East Hill Synagogue, for example, had to sue the city in Federal court just to be built. It then had to sue again for the ability to put up and use outdoor tents for Jewish celebrations like Bar Mitzvahs, which presumably are not as dangerous as Kaddafi being your neighbor.

The City of Englewood's 2013 master plan, contained on its official website, actually states that it will look in depth at "how many," "where," and any new "plans for expansion (including in people's homes)" of any and all houses of worship. It will also study what the "impact on City revenue" will be based on places of worship.

The city, one might presume, is concerned about its revenue base being compromised by Houses of Worship. But then, why was it not similarly concerned at the immense loss of revenue from the Libyan house of terror for three decades? Why did the city not sue Gaddafi to pay his taxes even after he started slaughtering his own people and was declared to be an illegitimate government by the Obama administration?

Then there is this. On November 15, 2011, the Englewood City Council actually voted (you can't make this stuff up) on whether to take nearly a million dollars of back taxes owed by the Libyan Mission in Englewood -- which accumulated from 1985 to 1998 -- off its books. For now, due to a tie-breaking vote cast by the Mayor, the debt has not been canceled, pending a further meeting of the city council.

Our Synagogue has another hearing coming up with the Board of Adjustment. Our Attorney has told us that, given the hostility to date, we should not expect much fairness. But for the people who attend our services, many of whom are new to regular Synagogue attendance now that they have found a more intimate environment within which to worship, the fight goes on for religious liberty and expression, whatever the obstacles.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls "the most famous Rabbi in America," is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish "The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging G-d in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering." His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.