Libyan rebels 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Has the city of Englewood, New Jersey, denied the synagogue where I serve as
rabbi recognition as an official house of worship due to my three-year campaign
against the city for allowing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s terror house to
exist in our midst tax-free?
I moved to Englewood 11 years ago. Since then, I
have hosted thousands of people for Sabbath meals and services. A
constant stream of elected officials were also our guests, including Gov. Jon
Corzine, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, city council members and
Although it appeared that our home should qualify for a property
tax exemption, I chose over more than a decade to pay almost $900,000 in taxes,
even though Englewood’s citizens are saddled 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
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. But my battle with the city over
the Libyans’ taxexemption 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 actually killed New Jersey
residents, without incurring a single challenge in 30 years from Englewood for
their tax exemption?
The situation got downright laughable when the city council
recently voted to forgive the Libyans for a million dollars in back
On October 24, 2011, our application was due to be heard by the
Board of Adjustment. After having not missed a tax payment in a decade, I told
the city before the hearing that I refused to subsidize Gaddafi’s government
with my tax money once the Libyan government started bombing its men, women and
children. President Obama himself had declared Gaddafi’s government
illegitimate. Surely this was no longer a legitimate embassy, and we argued that
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? 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, it
was unthinkable that a city would 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 Gaddafi’s tax-exempt status since 1985, even though
Gaddafi 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 blown up Pan Am 103 in December, 1988, killing 270 people,
including 30 New Jersey residents. Surely they would not treat a rabbi and his
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
Over a 35-year period no Englewood attorney could find a
single technicality upon which to force Gaddafi 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 said, “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 Gaddafi’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 Gaddafi and the
Libyans may have finally forced my hand.The writer’s newest book, Kosher
Jesus (Gefen), examining the Jewish life of Jesus, will be published on February
1. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.