To walk through certain Teaneck neighborhoods on Shabbat is to think that everyone is Orthodox. Nary a car disturbs the serenity of curving, tree-lined streets and private homes. Synagogues are standing-room only. Shul lobbies and stairwells are filled with smart, well-dressed women, children who all attend Jewish day schools, and the bonhomie of successful men with silver-jangled collars on their woolen tallitot.With at least six Orthodox shuls — more than the Conservative and Reform combined — it’s easy to forget that the Orthodox are still a minority in this New Jersey town of 40,000. One rabbi proudly says that the Orthodox are one-eighth of Teaneck.
But if there is one-eighth of “us,” there are seven-eighths with other allegiances.In a vote that sharply drove home that point, Jewish Theological Seminary
the Teaneck Township Council voted 5-2 last month to appeal the tax-exempt status of the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls. Orthodox council members cast the two votes against the measure. Two council members affiliated with a Conservative synagogue voted for it.Ma’ayanot, which was founded three years ago, now faces a crippling tax bill of $160,000 annually. That, says Ma’ayanot president Sheldon Chanales, will almost certainly bankrupt the school.Chanales, who by providence is a real-estate lawyer, says: “We’re trying to get the deed and we’re trying to settle” for $30,000, “and we don’t think, at this point, the town is dealing in good faith.”
According to New Jersey law, to be exempt from property taxes, the school must have a “confluence of use and ownership.” Ma’ayanot does not own the 2.5 acres of land beneath its 55,000-square-foot building on Palisade Avenue near the railroad tracks.The two-story property, assessed at $4.2 million, is owned by Bittenden Associates, a commercial entity to whom Ma’ayanot pays $33,000 rent per year. Under its lease, Ma’ayanot is responsible for the property taxes.
In the Jewish spectrum, Ma’ayanot is “centrist Orthodox,” says Chanales, offering “a progressive curriculum.” The school has 130 students, with some 25 percent from New York. This semester is the first in which the school will fill all four high school grades.Almost overnight, though, the school’s proud numbers were subsumed to the blunt docket number 4681-99 in state tax court.On Sept. 25, New Jersey filed court papers to intervene in order “to protect the public interest which may differ from the interest of Teaneck … to defend the rights of all of the other taxpayers … who would have to absorb any assessment reduction [with] ramifications beyond this case.”
At an impassioned Sept. 7 public hearing that attracted roughly 100 Orthodox citizens, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of the township’s Bnai Yeshurun synagogue warned the council that Teaneck’s Orthodox were “a sleeping lion” best undisturbed. Rabbi Pruzansky, who was speaking independently rather than as a representative of Ma’ayanot, suggested that the Jewish neighborhoods might secede from Teaneck, taking what Chanales estimates is their $500 million of taxable property with them.Chanales told The Jewish Week that what he deemed particularly unfair was that the Bergen County Board of Taxation had ruled for the school twice in three years, and on the basis of previous assessments Ma’ayanot had invested $2.2 million in acquiring the building and renovating the property.
“We have potential claims against the town,” Chanales says. “Technically, assessors could review the status of a property every year, but we assumed that wouldn’t happen because the facts didn’t change.
”But two facts did change. Teaneck’s tax assessor died, and the town, which did not appeal the county’s original decision on the tax issue, brought in a new tax assessor who pressed the matter. And over the summer, the yeshiva rented out part of its building to the Teaneck Community Charter School. That rental awoke a “sleeping lion,” all right — not the Jewish one, but Teaneck’s political and educational leaders.Chanales acknowledged that “leasing to the charter school was not a very popular thing with the officials of Teaneck. The Teaneck Board of Education fought the charter school tooth and nail.
”The charter school operates under a state charter allowing it to be administered independently of the Teaneck Board of Education. Nevertheless, the district must give the charter school a $902,000 bankroll. The charter school, under a one-year lease, is paying Ma’ayanot $220,000 in rent.One letter writer to The Record of Hackensack asked Ma’ayanot: “Why can’t you afford to pay the $160,000 in taxes, since … you receive $200,000 a year of Teaneck taxpayers’ money?
”Before the matter became so visible, Chanales said he explained to Mayor Paul Ostrow that the tax squeeze on Ma’ayanot was creating an “explosive” atmosphere within the Orthodox community.“The one thing that just about every Orthodox family in Teaneck agrees on is that we pay high taxes for [public] schools that we choose not to use,” Chanales said. “On top of that we pay huge tuitions. If [Teaneck] is now going to tax our yeshiva, then they’re putting another tax on top of the taxes we pay, and that makes people angry.”Ostrow did not return phone calls seeking comment.Said Rabbi Pruzansky: “The public schools are a monopoly that doesn’t want competition. They resent the charter school and they resent the religious schools, as well.”Chanales played down suggestions from some in the town that the problems stemmed from Jewish denominational feuds.“We knew that Rabbi David Feldman of the Teaneck Jewish Center, a Conservative shul, was supportive of our situation and tried to help,” Chanales said, “but we didn’t want to put him in a difficult situation because the mayor and the deputy mayor are both members of his congregation.”Moreover, he said, the nondenominational Jewish Community Council of Teaneck “issued a statement supporting our position.”So this is not an Orthodox-liberal divide?“Oh, no,” said Rabbi Feldman. “All of us want Jewish education, and we don’t want the school to go under because of a technicality.” Jonathan Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.