Shlomo Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey
Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey is an Orthodox Jewish day school in the town of River Edge, New Jersey. In 2019, Rosenbaum Yeshiva announced in a letter to parents that, after consulting with religious experts, it had parted ways with a male rabbi who it said violated Orthodox Jewish law by engaging in inappropriate conduct with his elementary-aged female students.
The rabbi then sued the school and forced Rosenbaum Yeshiva to fight for its right to make its religious decision.
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Religious education in the Garden State
The state of New Jersey is home to people of diverse faith traditions, including Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Adventists, and others. Many of these religious groups operate schools to provide students with an excellent education rooted in their faith. In accordance with that mission, faith-based schools typically strive to hire administrators, teachers, and staff who live out their religious beliefs. One such school is Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, a Jewish day school located in the town of River Edge. Rosenbaum Yeshiva exists to help young Jewish men and women excel academically while remaining committed to Torah learning and Orthodox Jewish traditions.
An Orthodox Jewish school’s mission threatened
In early 2019, Rosenbaum Yeshiva leadership learned of allegations that a Rabbi, Shlomo Hyman, had engaged in inappropriate contact with female students that violated Orthodox Jewish law. Rosenbaum Yeshiva conducted an extensive investigation into Hyman’s actions, which included consultation with religious advisors. The investigation concluded that Hyman had massaged girls’ shoulders, placed stickers on or near their chests, and created classroom games in which he touched them. Rosenbaum Yeshiva placed Hyman on administrative leave and later ended his contract. Also, after consultation with religious advisors, the school wrote a letter to parents informing them that Hyman would no longer serve as a rabbi at the school.
After Rosenbaum Yeshiva sent its letter, Hyman filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court, criticizing the investigation as a “sham” and arguing that he had been defamed. Rosenbaum Yeshiva argued that because Hyman was a minister in his role at Rosenbaum Yeshiva, he could not sue over the school’s religious decision to end his contract or to send the letter to the schools’ parents.
Protecting the freedom of religious groups in New Jersey
After two state courts rejected Hyman’s claims against Rosenbaum Yeshiva, he appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He argues that the ministerial exception, a legal doctrine that protects religious groups’ ability to select and govern their ministers, does not apply when ministers bring civil misconduct claims like defamation against the religious organization. On October 6, 2023, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
On December 21, 2023, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Diocese of Eastern America of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Eastern American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the Romanian Orthodox Metropolia of the Americas, and the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. The brief details the importance of allowing religious groups to control and discipline leaders, including decision to inform the faithful of disciplinary actions taken against ministers. While some claims fall outside of the exception—like a priest who sues a bishop for punching him in the face—it protects religious groups from defamation claims like the one brought by Hyman.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.