When shuls are treated worse than terror houses

Denial of our synagogue amid protection afforded Gaddafi, Libyans may have finally forced my hand.

Libyan rebels 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 mayors.
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 did not.
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 taxes.
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 understand it.
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.