TRI in the News


Group Says They Pray 'By the Book'


,
August 29, 2008

From New Jersey Jewish Standard

By Daniel Santacruz

Private prayer group or house of worship? That's the question neighbors and the township of Teaneck are asking about what goes on in the family room of a house on 554 Queen Anne Road.

Many of the neighbors have signed two petitions that were submitted to the township asking it to look into the activities of the prayer group, which they say violates zoning regulations.

But a constitutional lawyer involved in the case, Michael Daily, said that "what you do in your house is not the government's business, unless there is some type of criminal activity going on. If you are entitled to view sexually explicit books and videos in your home, you are entitled to worship there."

Rabbi Daniel Feldman -- who lives in the house with his wife, Leah, and their two small children -- and those who attend services in the room argue that they are entitled to hold religious services as part of the use of the residence. Some 20 to 25 families pray regularly in the family room, said Robert Erlich, a representative of the group.

Feldman said he believes the prayer group is "among the most above-board and responsible, and we have taken every appropriate step to do everything by the book."

The family room has an Aron Kodesh, a mechitza, and a platform from which the Torah is read, both of which are moved to the side when not in use, said Feldman. The day a reporter visited the house, between Van Buren and Griggs avenues, toys were strewn about the room.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, addressed to Feldman, Steven M. Gluck, the township's construction official and zoning officer, asked him to "cease and desist from using the premises as a house of worship/place of public assembly within 20 days from the date of this decision."

Feldman pays rent to 554 Queen Anne Road Inc., a not-for-profit organization that bought the dwelling on Oct. 30, 2007, for $820,000. Services were held in the living room from Nov. 3 until July 18. The organization, which does business as Etz Chaim of Teaneck, hired Feldman in the fall of 2007 as its spiritual leader.

Etz Chaim runs a minyan on Sundays at the CareOne Rehabilitation Center, 544 Teaneck Road.

On July 22, Griggs Avenue residents Rif Campeas and Janet Abbott filed a five-page petition asking the township to "implement enforcement procedures requiring the issuance of permit for a change of use with respect to the family room."

Campeas and Abbott note that the petition was written on behalf of the same 78 residents who signed a similar one on Nov. 1, 2007. The latter asks the township "to enforce all necessary rules and regulations regarding the operation of a House of Worship at this property [554 Queen Anne Road]."

Most of the 78 residents live on Queen Anne Road and Griggs, Van Buren, and Sherman avenues.

The July 22 petition -- which also contains photographs of people entering the house, presumably to pray, statements and copies of documents, among them e-mails, a membership form, and davening schedules for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur -- says that on July 18, the family room began to be used for religious services and that a "change of use" has occurred, which requires the appropriate permit from the township.

The petition's arguments are based on sections of the Teaneck code, which says that "after a change of use has been made on a lot or in a building or structure, a zoning permit shall be required and no certificate of occupancy shall be issued without the required zoning permit."

The code adds: "Change of use shall be deemed to include any change in the utilization of a building or lot or part thereof where the resulting use is subject to bulk, dimensional, special, or other zoning regulations which are different than those impressed upon the prior use."

The rabbi disputed the change-of-use argument, saying that of the 168 hours in a week, only five are devoted to religious services at the house, which are held Friday night and Saturday morning and afternoon.

"That's 3 percent of the time," he said. "It is our understanding, confirmed in two meetings with the township, that [a] prayer group in the house is a permitted residential use. Thus, we do not believe that the use has been changed in any way."

Erlich said the group had filed an appeal to the zoning board to challenge "the interpretation of what they [the township] say is going on at 554 Queen Anne Road. They call it a house of worship [and] place of assembly [but] we call it a private prayer group."

He added, "We were always upfront with the town about what would be taking place [there] and agreed that if anything changed, we would have a dialogue before taking any official steps, but instead we got this cease-and-desist order."

Daily, a pro-bono attorney provided by the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.- based civil-rights organization, will represent the rabbi before the township.

In the cease-and-desist letter, Daily said, "the position of the zoning officer is vague [because] he said they are using the premises as a place of worship, but what is a place of worship? There is no definition of that."

Most synagogues and churches started in people's homes, he said.

Daily said the immediate neighbors of 554 Queen Anne Road will be notified of the appeal.

No date has been set for the hearing, but it reportedly will be in the fall or early winter.

The current law regarding private prayer groups in New Jersey, added Daily, was made by the 1985 case of Farhi v. Commissioners of the Borough of Deal, where a zoning commission attempted to enforce an ordinance to prevent a rabbi from conducting religious services in his home.

On Nov. 9, 2007, Feldman met with the township's Gluck to tell him that a private prayer group would meet at the residence.

On May 28, the rabbi and Joel Glucksman, his lawyer, met with Gluck to inform him that the plans for the prayer group had not changed since the first meeting.

At the request of Stanley Turitz, the township's lawyer, Glucksman forwarded Gluck a letter dated June 20 "memorializing the activities that take place at the above-referenced address."

According to the letter, "[W]hen Rabbi Feldman first decided to have a private prayer group in his home, it was of the utmost importance to him that everything be done above-board and in accordance with local ordinances."

The letter also explains that services are held on the "Jewish Sabbath and on Yamim Tovim/holidays."

"We told the town from the beginning what we were doing, and they confirmed that it was acceptable," Feldman said. "We were not trying to hide anything."

In the Aug. 8 letter to Feldman, Gluck acknowledges that "a packet of information" dated July 22 was submitted to the Building Department by residents in the vicinity of 554 Queen Anne Road and says that after reviewing Glucksman's letter of May 28, "it is my opinion that the facts demonstrate that the above premises are now being used for a second principal use as a house of worship/place of public assembly without first obtaining a zoning permit in violation" of the township's code.

If the services continue and the decision is not appealed to the zoning board within 20 days of the date of the letter, "summonses will be issued for each day the violation continues."

Referring to the cease-and-desist order, Campeas, one of the two authors of the petition and who has lived on Griggs Avenue since 1988, said he was "glad to see that the town has taken that step. The town has been studying the situation for some time and I'm confident they will look at the facts and draw appropriate conclusions."

A neighbor who doesn't object to the existence of the group is Lily Steinberg, who has lived on Van Buren Avenue for 22 years and whose house sits diagonally to the rabbi's.

She said she was "saddened" to hear that the prayer group has been asked to stop holding religious services and that she and some of her neighbors did not sign the petition because they did not object to having the group in the neighborhood.