THE BLOG

Where Synagogues Are Treated Worse Than Terror Houses

01/30/2012 09:51 am 09:51:30 | Updated Mar 31, 2012

We in Bergen County, New Jersey, were very grateful to the authorities for apprehending teenage Jew-hater Anthony Graziano for the attempted murder of Rabbi Nosson Schuman and his family in a Synagogue fire-bombing in Rutherford and three other Synagogue attacks. Having had my own home firebombed in Oxford years ago with all my children asleep, I was ever so relieved to hear of the arrest.


Sadly, my community, the very same day, experienced a bizarre encounter over our own Synagogue in Englewood, which, though far less serious, raised disturbing questions.


The synagogue where I personally serve as rabbi applied to the city for approval as an official house of worship but was denied even a hearing. And this was the second time an Englewood land-use board had managed to cancel a hearing under suspicious circumstances. Could it have something to do with my three-year campaign against my city for allowing Kaddafi's terror house to exist in our midst tax-free?


Eleven years ago I moved into Englewood and in my capacity as a Rabbi immediately began hosting thousands of people per year for Sabbath meals and services. A constant stream of elected officials were also our guests, including Governor Jon Corzine, my dear friend Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, our city council members, and Mayor Michael Wildes and the current Mayor Frank Huttle. Many friends told me that in light of the regular religious services I should apply for a property tax exemption for which we were amply entitled. After all, the tiny city of Englewood had about eighty official houses of worship that were exempt, many of which were not nearly as active as ours. Instead, I chose over more than a decade to pay almost $900,000 in taxes, even though Englewood's citizens are gorged with some of the highest taxes in the nation caused by out-of-control spending and glaring conflicts of interest, like the fact that our tax assessor and city-appointed "independent" real estate appraiser are siblings, a clear conflict that Mayor Huttle promised to end but did not.


All these years in Englewood we remained a functioning, albeit unofficial synagogue, that allowed me to teach and our congregants to learn and pray. Our Sabbath meals brought together people of every religion and persuasion creating something truly unique in our city.


What changed of late was two things: Most important was the desire on the part of our community and congregants to make the prayer services, classes, and communal meals permanent, including having an assistant rabbi lead services when I lectured at other locations. Second, my battle with the city over the Libyans' tax-exemption got me and the Board of Trustees of our organization thinking. Why should a terror-sponsoring government be exempt from taxes when not only have they done nothing for the city, but they actually killed New Jersey residents without incurring a single challenge in thirty years from Englewood for their tax exemption. It got downright laughable when the City Council recently voted on the issue of forgiving the Libyans for a million dollars in back taxes.


So we made our application with one of the best land-use attorneys in all of New Jersey and were due to go before the Board of Adjustment on October 24, 2011.


Before the hearing, having not missed a tax payment in a decade, I told the city that I refused to subsidize Kaddafi's government with my tax money once the Libyan government started bombing its men, women, and children. President Obama himself had declared Kaddafi's government illegitimate. Surely this was no longer a legitimate embassy. The city could not force us to subsidize the Libyan government's murderous campaign against its citizens. The city responded by telling us that we would not be granted a hearing unless the taxes were current on the day of the hearing. So we paid in full only to discover that we had not been put on the board's agenda in the first place.


We suspected something was up. Still, our attorney made a new application, this time to the Planning Board, most of whose appointments were made by Mayor Frank Huttle. Surely the city would not punish its citizens who wished to pray because their Rabbi had criticized its officials for granting safe harbor to terrorists? Surely, even in New Jersey, a state synonymous with corruption, and even in Englewood, where construction code official Peter Abballe -- who had incidentally worked with the Libyans on their construction permits -- had just been arrested by the FBI in a bribery scheme, the city would not do something so blatant as to go against the law and deny the creation of a Synagogue.


This was, after all, the same city that had not challenged Kaddafi's tax-exempt status since 1985, even though Kaddafi had, in April, 1986, bombed the "La Belle" nightclub in West Berlin, a venue frequented by American soldiers, killing and wounding 79 American servicemen and then blew up Pan Am 103 in December, 1988, killing 270 people, including 30 New Jersey residents. Surely they would not treat a Rabbi and his Jewish congregation worse than terrorists?


Yet two days before our hearing on 26 January, our attorney received a bizarre phone call from Michael Kates -- the Planning Board attorney hand-picked by Mayor Huttle -- who told him that there would likely be a challenge to the jurisdiction of our application from a member of the board. He would not say whom the person was or give details of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers. Our attorney protested vigorously. The law was on our side. But sure enough on the night of the hearing -- one that consumed thousands of dollars in preparation -- the Planning Board attorney found a technicality so obtuse that arguably only he and our attorney could even understand it. Over a thirty-five year period no Englewood attorney could find a single technicality upon which to force Kaddafi to pay his taxes. But in a unanimous vote our Synagogue was denied even the right to be heard. Our stunned attorney told a local newspaper that the decision was political and "Where we go from here, I'm not sure." You can watch the hearing, taped by one our congregants, on YouTube.


More bizarrely, a member of the Planning Board who is also a member of our congregation, who insisted on recusing himself but requested the right to testify on our behalf, was advised by Kates that he should not even be in the room during the hearing.


Is it only synagogues that get the book thrown at them? Is there any hope that our application will ever be heard by the City? And can they at least accord a Synagogue the same courtesy they extend to terrorists?


My readers will remember that as far back as the beginning of my successful battle with the City of Englewood over Kaddafi's plans to pitch a tent next door to me in September 2009, I said I would think about running for public office. Englewood, both on a local and Federal level, has become a one-party system controlled by Democrats. History has shown that any time a single party controls everything, corruption is the natural result. Running for public office, whatever the outcome, would show our officials that they cannot act with impunity and will be held accountable to the people. The denial of our Synagogue amid the protection afforded Kaddafi and the Libyans may have finally pushed my hand.


Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls 'the most famous Rabbi in America,' was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and received the American Jewish Press Association's Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The international best-selling author of 26 books, this week he will publish "Kosher Jesus." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.