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Religious Services Not Residential Uses, Appellate Division Holds

Weekly religious services, religious education programs, paid lunches and cooking classes are not residential activities within the meaning of a “residential use,” the Appellate Division held recently.

In Welch v. Chai Center for Living Judaism, Inc., Docket No. A-3447-19 (App. Div. Sept. 9, 2022), the Appellate Division held that the trial court judge did not err in awarding a plaintiff her attorneys’ fees when the plaintiff had to bring a motion to enforce a judgment enjoining her neighbor from running a synagogue out of his house.

In 2014, the Chancery Division entered judgment for plaintiff Virginia Welch of Short Hills, along with her neighbors, in a case they brought to stop Chai Center for Living Judaism, Inc. from using a residential house as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue when the property is subject to a deed restriction permitting only residential uses. The judge in 2014 stayed the judgment pending appeal, and Welch won again on appeal in 2016. Chai Center continued to operate as a synagogue with little change for several years.

Welch filed a motion for litigant’s rights in the Law Division to enforce the judgment, relying on advertisements, photos and Facebook posts documenting activities such as Hebrew school, prayer services, paid seders and baking classes, speaking events, and buffet luncheons at the residential house. A private investigator observed dozens of cars at the property on the nights when events were advertised. Chai Center argued that these activities were not inconsistent with a residential home and that the Rabbi’s family lived full-time at the home, so the activities there were residential activities. The Law Division held in favor of Welch, holding that it was clear that these activities are not residential activities. The court ordered Chai Center to cease operating a synagogue and pay $31,909.57 to Welch in attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Appellate Division upheld the judgment, noting it was based on “extensive, competent evidence.” The Court also noted that the case did not involve a government restriction on religious activity, but rather an enforcement of a deed restriction, and that the fees imposed were not punitive.

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