SPLIT-LEVEL: MONASTERY OR TAX HAVEN?

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This week’s Holmdel Independent has a delicious story about the owner of split-level house in the New Monmouth section who claims his property is entitled to a tax exemption because he has turned it into a monastery.

Sixty-three-year-old Raymond Bertolette, who now calls himself “Archimandrite Ephraem Bertolette,” has been fighting the township for five years through litigation that has already gone to the Appellate Division of state Superior Court and to state tax court. Bertollete has lost at each level and is continuing to appeal.

The newest twist in the saga involves a sign in front of his David Court home (which Bertolette says is also home to two other monks who, apparently, no one has ever seen). The township recently directed him to remove the sign — which announces, “Monastery of Saint Barbara, Visitors Welcome”— or face prosecution.

From the story:

Ephraem claims that an unnamed township employee has even threatened him with jail time regarding the sign and a large metal cross, also on his front lawn.

“He asked, ‘When will you remove it?’ I said never,” Ephraem said, regarding the cross. “It’s not like it’s a pink flamingo. I can’t just take it down.”

But Township Attorney Bernard Reilly said the property code enforcer never mentioned the cross, only the new 4-by-6-foot sign. The sign went up recently, Reilly said, unlike the cross, which has been on the property for years.

“You can’t just put a sign up in a residential neighborhood,” Reilly said. “From a zoning point of view, you can’t simply convert a house into a monastery or a church. There are zoning requirements before you can declare your house a place of worship.”

Bertolette says the sign is sacred, the story reports. The newspaper carries a photo of him in monk’s vestments.

Bertolette has lived most of his life in the house, which was occupied by his parents until their deaths. His mother died several years after Bertolette began waging his battle for tax-exempt status, raising the question in the minds of his opponents: how could the house be a monastery if it had a woman living in it?

An official of the Greek Orthodox Church told the Independent that Bertolette has no connection to the church, and a phone number in Greece that Bertolette gave township officials as the number for his superior turned out to be a fax machine in Athens.

Bertolette says he is a victim of religious persecution. But Reilly says the only issue is whether there is a church that Bertolette ministers to.

“The real question is, where is the nearest church?” Reilly said last week. “That’s the issue of the case. You’re only entitled to an exemption if there’s an actual church that you minister to. You get into these people buying these certificates. Anyone can become an ordained minister. In the back of these magazines you can write away and become a minister in the Church of What’s Happening Now. So, if anyone can declare themselves a minister and be entitled to not have to pay half their property taxes, then I’d be a minister. A lot of people would be ministers.” …

“They’re full of you know what,” Ephraem said. “I’m a monastery, not a church. Look it up in an encyclopedia.”

As for those other two monks Bertolette says live there, Reilly doesn’t believe they exist.

Ephraem said no one is allowed to speak to the other monks, explaining a monastic life is a cloistered life of prayer and sacrifice.

“I wouldn’t subject any one of them to this nonsense,” he said.

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