FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP, NJ — In an unusual move, the attorney for a rabbi accused of running a house of worship out of his home wants the Zoning Board of Adjustment to subpoena township officials, including former Mayor Dorothy Avallone, to testify.
And in an effort to clear up confusion, zoning board members Thursday asked that the rabbi himself testify on whether he is holding religious services in his home.
During a zoning board meeting Thursday filled with contention and controversy, attorney Gerald Marks of Red Bank continued his cross-examination of Paul Sweda, a township man who has asked the zoners to decide whether his neighbor, Rabbi Avraham Bernstein, is using his Stillwells Corner Road home as a house of worship. This would be a violation of zoning ordinances, because Bernstein does not have a use variance to do so in a residential neighborhood.
Thursday’s meeting, at the Freehold Township Senior Center, was the second held on the matter. The board scheduled the next hearing on the issue for April 10.
Marks asked Sweda Thursday about counts Sweda said he took of people going to Bernstein’s house on three Saturdays last year, which ranged from 40 to 49 people. When asked, Sweda could not say how many of the people were men or children.
Sweda also said under questioning that he had never been in Bernstein’s home during religious services, did not know if Bernstein was conducting the services Sweda believes he holds and did not recall any prayer services held outside the home in 2007 or 2008.
When asked by his own attorney, Vincent Halleran, Sweda said he had observed — on at least four or five occasions in the past eight years — what he thought were services held in a tent on Bernstein’s property.
At one point, Marks asked Sweda to read a letter he sent to Township Administrator Thomas Antus in 1999 referring to people in “very weird” clothing at Bernstein’s house, which Sweda explained under questioning meant a suit jacket and pants, white shirt and fur wraps and fur hats.
“It was very unusual,” Sweda said.
In the letter, Sweda also called the Jewish organization that Bernstein belongs to, Lubavitch Chabad, Chabad, a “fanatic religious cult” that wanted to convert his neighborhood.
“This was probably an overzealous statement,” Sweda said Thursday. He later added, “What I thought was going to happen didn’t happen . . . Yet.”
During Sweda’s cross-examination, Marks also tried to ask Sweda about counts made by the township of people going to and from Bernstein’s house. Because Sweda had not discussed it during questioning by Halleran, zoning board attorney Dennis Galvin would not let Marks introduce the information, prompting Marks to say he wanted the board to subpoena township officials, including Avallone, to testify.
Avallone was mayor when the videotaped counts — which Marks says are “significantly” lower than Sweda’s — were taken. Marks wants any Township Committee members involved in the decision to conduct the counts to testify, he said.
Marks’ request Thursday prompted an angry exchange between board members and the attorney, who told him he was entering information at the wrong point in the hearing and accused him of trying to push the board to give him what he wanted.
“Mr. Marks, you’re trying to bait the board,” board Chairman Edward McCloskey said.
Board members were disinclined to grant subpoenas Thursday, suggesting Marks instead either just ask the officials to testify or to gather the information he wants through another avenue. The issue was left open for possible discussion at future meetings.
Board members also suggested that the issue could be resolved by bringing Bernstein in to testify. Thursday’s meeting also included testimony from Sweda’s wife, Barbara, and several residents of the neighborhood surrounding Stillwells Corner Road. The witnesses provided testimony aiming to prove that religious services were being held in Bernstein’s house.