Jackson Township Settles Federal Lawsuit Claiming Anti-Semitism, Civil and Religious Rights Violations

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JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – Five years ago, Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina stood before a group of residents at his monthly ‘Meet the Mayor’ session at town hall and told residents to ‘Stay Strong and Don’t Sell’.

Reina was referring to a trend of residents exiting the town and selling their homes to Orthodox Jewish families seeking to live in the town. What happened over the next few years is something that probably should never happen again in America.

Reina, the last remaining elected official still in office since that time, oversaw a series of laws and ordinances passed in an attempt to discourage Orthodox Jewish families from coming to Jackson. There was an eruv ban, a dorm ban, and a school ban. There was even a house of worship ban to dissuade Jewish residents from relocating to the town.

On top of that, Reina’s administration was accused of excessive and unconstitutional code enforcement actions against Orthodox Jewish families. Township officials and workers were accused of spying on Jewish families to see if they were violating a plethora of ordinances, leading then business administrator Helene Schlegel to advise town officials to cease the actions and concentrate township resources in a more productive and constitutional manner.

Eventually, the Department of Justice stepped in and filed a civil rights and religious land use lawsuit against the town.

Action by the town came to a boil when Reina declared, “The Gloves Are Off!”

“But in one particularly shocking and disturbing email, Reina promised harsh reaction to legitimate everyday basic Jewish needs, writing that it was time that Jackson took the “gloves off’ in regards to its local Jews and their requests for reasonable religious accommodation,” the Lakewood Scoop, an Orthodox Jewish based online news blog reported at the time. “What those emails appear to show is that Jackson’s negotiations with the Jewish community were conducted in bad faith, without any actual interest in reconciling their differences.”

In the aftermath, Council President Rob Nixon, a NJ State PBA lobbyist, and Councilman Barry Calogero, a Trump FDA appointee, both resigned from office during the battle between Reina’s administration and the Orthodox Jewish Community in the greater Jackson area.

In 2020, Lakewood Philanthropist Richard Roberts spent $250,000 to produce commercials and newspaper advertisements criticizing Reina and the township officials. They were aired daily on Fox News and other local channels. That led Reina to challenge Roberts to a physical fist fight publicly. The elder Roberts, a martial arts expert, agreed to Reina’s challenge, but Reina never followed through with his threat.

In the years that followed, Orthodox Jewish leaders in Jackson, led by Mordechai Burnstein, went after Reina at every turn. He was never formally re-appointed to his six-figure job as a supervisor with the Ocean County Bridge department, a public job bestowed to him for his political status, despite not meeting the qualifications for the position. Jewish community leaders kept the pressure on the Ocean County Board of Commissioners to keep him from officially being reappointed.

Last week, it became apparent that Reina had made amends with the Jewish leaders. They participated in a takeover of the Jackson Township Republican Club to oust Reina’s opponents, Clara Glory and Todd Porter, among others. In their place, Orthodox Jewish residents won over 30 seats on the local GOP municipal council. The Lakewood scoop this year announced Reina had been nominated for a prestigious award which they referred to as the “Nobel Peace Prize” in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Reina began to see the light. He became a champion for the rights of Jewish school children and lobbied the school district to meet with Jewish leaders to ease woes for private school buses. He began meeting privately with Jewish leaders at his home and with developers building massive residential community projects designed primarily to provide more housing for relocating Orthodox Jewish families.

The plan all along was to ‘cage the tiger’ according to one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in Lakewood, and by the spring of 2022, the tiger had not only been caged, but he had also been thoroughly tamed.

This week, Reina announced the township is settling Reina’s long-running feud with the Jewish community.

No longer is Reina urging residents not to sell their homes, usually at a premium, to Orthodox Jewish families and preaching that everyone in town should live together as one.

“This township council welcomes and embraces people of all faiths, races and ethnic backgrounds,” Reina said in a press release prepared by his public relations consultant Steve Dnistrian. “It’s time for Jackson Township to move forward. This governing body is committed to ensuring that we will do just that in order to foster one, united community, respectful of all people who call Jackson home.”

That settlement comes with a hefty price tag. The Department of Justice will be installed as a monitor of Jackson Township governmental affairs, but stopped short of removing local control from the municipal government.

Under the settlement agreement, the federal government will ensure all land use regulations comply with federal and state laws, and will amend or introduce ordinances that permit schools with dormitories as an accessory to private, parochial and public schools in certain zoning districts; require the township to submit reports to the DOJ detailing the township’s compliance with terms of the settlement agreement, per agreed upon details and timelines for submission; require notification to the DOJ about any amendments or modifications to the township’s zoning code, rules, laws or ordinances that affect land uses for schools, residential schools, houses of worship or other religious uses; allow the DOJ to inspect public government records upon request; and require the township to retain all land use, law nforcement and associated records directly related to or coming from members of the Orthodox community.

Additionally, the township will have to create a policy for residents to file formal complaints regarding religious discrimination, pay a $45,000 fine to the Department of Justice and to create a $150,000 victims fund for victims of civil rights violations during Reina’s administration.

“By settling this matter, the township retains control over its planning and zoning functions instead of running the risk of ceding control of those essential functions to the court,” Reina said in a prepared statement. “The settlement also gives us the opportunity to ensure that our planning and zoning framework complies with all controlling federal and state laws. And, very importantly, the settlement allows us to put an end to this costly and lengthy litigation.”

On Tuesday, the township council voted unanimously to enter into the agreement but did not speak publicly about the agreement.

The township is still facing a civil rights discrimination suit by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and a private civil rights lawsuit by Agudath Israel of America, led by Avi Schnall, the organization’s New Jersey executive. Schnall is now a political supporter of Reina’s re-election in 2022 and helped to organize the effort to oust Reina’s opponents in the Jackson Republican Club.