In Englewood, Freedom of Worship Denied
You know your city might be out to stop your Synagogue when one of its most powerful officials testifies that its creation might bother the Libyan embassy that is your neighbor. But that was the testimony of City Engineer Ken Albert at a recent hearing where he said that our Synagogue may not have enough “landscape buffering” to protect the Libyans next door.
And here I was more concerned about Gaddafi owning the house next door to me and possibly stockpiling arms as he reportedly did with embassies all over the world and God forbid harming my family. And what did the city do protect us? Nothing. Zero. Gornisht.
Over thirty years they even forced me, and the rest of Englewood’s residents, to subsidize Gaddafi’s murderous regime by refusing to challenge his tax exemption. But as soon as we apply for a Synagogue, the city Engineer, whose full salary remains undisclosed despite it being paid from the public purse, is concerned that we might interfere with the rights of the Libyans. It has suddenly taken on great importance that our Libyan neighbors – who pay no taxes – be protected by requiring planting of evergreens capable of growing to 106 feet within one year, 25 feet from the property line. It seems that landscape buffering has now been added to our national policy of cooperation and trust building between our two nations! Perhaps they are trying to play out “and they shall turn their swords into plowshares….”
Our hearings before Englewood’s Board of Adjustment have been farcical. Harry Reidler is a member of the board who is also an active Democratic Council member in Bergen County. He has repeatedly brought up my Congressional candidacy (Republican) in the hearings, although they were never germane to the application. His hostility has been glaring and undisguised. In the last thirteen years our Synagogue has hosted thousands of people of every denomination, religion, color and creed, including Mayors of our City, Governors, Senators, and world-renowned personalities. For many, especially secular Jews and non-Jews, it is their first introduction to the beauty of Judaism and the peace and serenity of the Sabbath. But that did not stop Reidler from a bizarre insinuation in the last hearing, by some strange comparison, that our Synagogue might be something of a scam. This loathsome and slanderous suggestion, bordering on the anti-Semitic, was, mercifully, quickly objected to by the chair but only on the grounds that it was off topic. That Reidler seems to have made up his mind about our application before it was heard and does not even evince a pretense of objectivity is evident from the hearing’s transcripts, which are all part of the public record. Another board member, Elliot Fuld, seems only slightly behind Reidler in animus and opposition.
Hearings that are supposed to be fair and objective have instead been characterized by deep hostility, making a mockery of Englewood justice. Albert, for example, did not even reveal, as he should have been required to at the beginning of his testimony, that about eight years ago, after he and the city tried to strong-arm me by appropriating part of our property for a traffic light and offered us $1000 in compensation (in Englewood, when your home is assessed for tax purposes it is Versailles, but for condemnations it suddenly becomes a trailer park), I sued the city with Albert as its main witness. They paid me a settlement and Albert’s plan was revised. They did not take the land. Surely a lawsuit in which Albert played a central role should have been mentioned by him as part of full disclosure.
Nor is the board beyond intimidation in order to try and get us to back down and withdraw our application. Ken Albert is supposed to be simply the City Engineer, however well compensated. But in our hearings he suddenly decided to play the role of City code enforcer, suggesting to the board that because we have employees (he mentioned four, there are actually fewer) we are in violation of city statutes. (Interestingly, the last City code enforcer, Peter Abballe, with whom I clashed over the Gaddafi home next door to me, was arrested by the FBI in a sting operation and pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Those present at the hearing began to imagine a frightening scenario of a city doing random spot checks for inconsequential violations on the part of citizens that run afoul of city elders.
And why is the city so opposed to us receiving simple variances for our Synagogue? It cannot be that they are afraid of losing tax revenue because this is the same city that refused to challenge the Libyans’ tax exemption and even voted on 15 November, 2011, believe it or not, on whether to forego the nearly one million dollars owed in back taxes by the Libyans.
No, it is far more likely that my community and I are being punished for having had the temerity to publicly slam the city and its elected officials over its coddling of the Libyans and granting Gaddafi the permits to renovate his home that would have allowed him to move in next door to me. Moreover, my running as a Republican did not endear me in a city in which every single elected official is a Democrat. Englewood, as with other parts of New Jersey, has a way of dealing with those who challenge its authority. And we as a community, seeking the simple right to worship in peace, are learning that the hard way.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books. On 8 January, 2013, he will publish The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.