There is no one smiling on this candid camera


What were officials in Freehold Township thinking when they trained a video camera on the home of a rabbi in order to count the number of people going into his house to pray on the Jewish Sabbath?

I’m thinking they weren’t thinking.

If not for the fact that the rabbi’s home is directly across the street from the municipal building – where a camera could be set up in a window at Town Hall and pointed at the rabbi’s front door – township officials, I suppose, would have had to set up a camera up in the street to get the same information.

Rabbi Avraham Bernstein and Freehold Township have been involved in a legal case for several years. The issue surrounds the rabbi welcoming people to his home for prayer on Friday evening and Saturday morning.

As recently as February, the township code enforcement officer issued Bernstein a notice informing him that “a conditional use permit is required for conducting a place of worship in a residential zone.”

Bernstein’s attorney Gerald Marks says Freehold Township has no law that defines what constitutes a house of worship.

That issue will apparently be discussed at the Sept. 25 meeting of the Township Committee, which is proposing to amend an ordinance concerning houses of worship.

Marks says the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 guarantees Bernstein’s right to practice his religious beliefs in his home.

A federal lawsuit filed by Marks on behalf of Bernstein states that Bernstein’s “exercise of religion is chilled and infringed upon because his fellow worshippers are embarrassed and hesitant to join the Bernsteins at their home as a result of the presence of the video camera set up by Freehold Township trained on [Bernstein’s] home.”

Township Attorney Duane Davison is quoted in a story in this newspaper as saying the video camera was set up in the window at Town Hall so officials could get an accurate count of the number of people who visit Bernstein’s home for Sabbath services.

That point has been an issue among Bernstein, his neighbors and the township.

As a journalist, I can respect Davison’s explanation about using a camera to gather empirical evidence. You want to know how many people visit a location, count them. Fair enough.

I also respect Davison’s comment that he believes Bernstein has a right to worship where he chooses to do so, and that the neighbors have a right not to have their rights trampled.

When emotion takes over, however, I think to myself, a video camera pointed at the front door of a rabbi’s home? Oy vey. Someone wasn’t thinking clearly here.

As a resident of Freehold Township I am disgusted that representatives of my community somehow thought it was appropriate to point a video camera at a resident’s home.

Didn’t anyone who was in a position to head off this ill-conceived idea think to say something like, “Hey, aiming a camera at a resident’s home may make us look foolish and a little overbearing, and aiming it at a rabbi’s home might be worse.”

The issue of an individual’s religious freedom vs. municipal zoning laws may be headed for a showdown in court, but no matter how it turns out I know one thing: I do not want any government pointing a camera at my house. Do you?

Mark Rosman is the managing editor of the News Transcript.