JACKSON-For decades, Jackson Township had one chaplain, Captain “Chaplain” Dan Schafer who also serves as the police chaplain for Brick Township, Stafford Township, the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department, Jackson’s four firehouses and the Jackson First Aid Squad.
Now, joining Schafer are Rabbi Jan Rosenberg, Rev. John Bambrick, Rev. Dan Schafer, Joseph Tiedemann, Rabbi Mordechai Burnstien, Rabbi Israel Burystn, Shmulie Naparstek and Rabbi Yaakov Wenger.
At the second council meeting of April, Jackson Township Mayor Michael Reina expanded the official public clergy by appointing eight more chaplains, four of which being Orthodox Jewish rabbis.
After over two years battling the local growing Orthodox community in town, which has led to nothing but lawsuits against the township and once vitriolic media campaign against Councilman Robert Nixon, viewed by many in the township’s Jewish community as the “ringleader” against them, the town’s elected officials have apparently seen the light in recent weeks.
Appointed to the clergy staff was Jackson Township resident Mordechai Burnstein, founder of the Jackson Eruv Association who has for the past year been fighting the township to build a public eruv within the borders of Jackson.
Also appointed were Rabbis Yaakov Wenger and Israel Burstyn, both of Lakewood.
Wenger operates a weekly newspaper in Lakewood, the Lakewood Shopper and Burstyn runs the Lakewood Civilian Safety Watch.
Several years ago, Jackson Mayor Michael Reina was at odds with the Lakewood Civilian Safety Watch after the civilian-based community organization was cited by residents, including Councilman Robert Nixon as operating a quasi-police force within Jackson’s borders. The public battle put the mayor and councilman at odds with the LCSW and Jackson Township Police Chief Matthew Kunz. What this means for the future of LCSW operations in Jackson is uncertain as the head of the organization is now ordained a police chaplain in the township.
The fourth rabbi to join the Clergy is Rabbi Shmulie Naparstek, also of Lakewood, who operates the Jackson Chabad, located on Cross Street in Lakewood. Naparstek has initiated a community outreach project for residents of all sects of the Jewish faith and has been active in the Jackson community for the past year.
Being a municipal chaplain is a volunteer position and there are no requirements of local residency, in fact, there are no references to the position at all in the township codebook. In 2006, Chaplain Schaffer was awarded the honorary title of police captain within the Jackson Township Police Department by then Director of Public Safety Christopher Dunton.
How did we get here?
The road to religious acceptance in Jackson has been a complex one for Orthodox Jews in town. For over two years, the township council and Reina have been at odds, in public at least, over the growing pains associated with the rapidly expanding Orthodox Jewish population base in the township.
In efforts to curb activities, the township enacted ordinances against real estate solicitors, anti-dormitory ordinances and trailer bans, culminating with a public battle over eruv poles and wires, which Agudath Israel of America, a Jewish rights group claims were all motivated by antisemitism. AIOA filed a lawsuit against the township after township code enforcers began enforcing a decades-old and rarely enforced right of way ban, which also targetted families with curbside basketball hoops.
After tensions heated between the township and the local Orthodox community, Orthodox based newspapers and online news websites began targeting Councilman Rob Nixon, which the community viewed as the protagonist, even calling for his job as a political lobbyist for the New Jersey State Police. A letter writing campaign ensued.
Things came to a boiling point when hundreds of Jackson and Lakewood Orthodox Jewish residents lobbied New Jersey State PBA President Patrick Colligan for the termination of Nixon’s position with the PBA in early December for what they deemed were antisemitic actions by a local publicly elected official.
Things boiled over when residents in both Jackson and Lakewood successfully lobbied the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General and the United States Department of Justice to investigate antisemitism at the hands of Reina and the council. State and federal authorities descended upon Jackson, scouring through boxes of documents, confirmed by both the NJ OAG office and the township’s attorney Jean Cipriani. Jackson was cooperating fully with the investigation. The heat got too hot in the kitchen for the local officials and they turned the flames off.
By the end of the month, the township had agreed to an interim settlement with Burnstein and the Jackson Eruv Association. Jackson’s first public eruv network received the green light from the mayor and council but had to be built using existing public utility poles to service many of the estimated 500 or so families now residing in the township.
Jackson also agreed to mediation talks regarding the high school zoning denial.
Then…silence for months as the parties negotiated off camera during the mutually agreed upon cease-fire agreement. No public documents reference the appointments of new chaplains, the appointment appeared on the April 24th township council agenda.
What happened next was a series of unofficial meetings between local officials and members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
On December 21st, Reina appeared at the kickoff celebration of the “Lakewood Neighbors” program in Lakewood Township alongside Shmuel Lefkowitz, who coined the term “schtickle pioneer”, Rabbi Aaron Kottler, president of Beth Medrash Govoha. The purpose of the three-hour event was, “to build a new coalition to change what some see as a negative public image of Lakewood Township.”
It was also attended by Asbury Park Press Hollis Towns. JTOWN Magazine was not invited to attend the event. Reina pledged his support for the Lakewood Neighbors initiative, spearheaded by public relations firm Princeton Strategic Communications Group. Since its public launch, lakewoodneighbors.com has produced a handful of press releases for the community.
In 2015, Lefkowitz urged the settlement of Jackson and surrounding communities by the Orthodox community. He encouraged those “pioneers” to establish a rapport with the local public officials to break the stereotypes and antisemitism that often follows the Orthodox community.
“It’s how people see our community and we have to get out from under this. We have to learn how to counter this by better messaging,” Lefkowitz said. “There’s nothing like having an elected official who is not just familiar with your community, but he’s part of their community. They can be a champion for you.”
With the hostilities beginning to draw down in Jackson between the municipal government and the Orthodox community, several lawsuits remain active against the township.
AIOI is suing the township for discrimination over the dormitory ban and the zoning board’s rejection of an all-girls high school on Cross Street, claiming discrimination in both cases.
In January, Pitney Lane resident Isaac Tawil filed a lawsuit against Township Council Vice President Robert Nixon, claiming Nixon ordered code enforcement officers to spy on his Sabbath prayer service he holds at his home on Friday nights. Tawil’s gatherings have drawn criticism from local watchdogs who even sought to enact a township-wide port-a-potty ban to prevent Tawil from using one on his property. The ordinances were never considered by the township council because by the time it was proposed, the OAG and DOJ had already been looking into the township’s activities. Tawil claims the overzealous enforcement directed by Nixon against him hindered his constitutional right to freedom of religion. During the stakeouts, Business Administrator Helene Schlegel urged an end to the nearly non-stop flood of complaints against Orthodox homeowners holding services in their homes.
“We are wasting valuable time and money checking every complaint that comes in. We can’t keep chasing ghosts. It’s the same people and addresses every week,” she said in an email which was released through an Open Public Records Act request by the township.
Whether it was realizing their overstepping of Constitutional freedoms and rights, or just finally, “seeing the light”, the township has begun to embrace the local Orthodox community, even if it may be the unpopular public opinion in town.
At the last meeting, Councilman Nixon, once the protagonist, offered a proclamation to Rabbi Naparstek as the town celebrated Education and Sharing Day in honor of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
At the most recent meeting, Reina welcomed four rabbis, one a Jackson Resident and three prominent Lakewood Rabbis into the fabric of the community as new chaplains.