Maryland Chabad's expansion leads to battle over belief, beauty

Is it antisemitism? Or is a Maryland Chabad house 'out of scale with the nature of the community?'

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January 28, 2019 09:15
Maryland Chabad's expansion leads to battle over belief, beauty

Chabad House Towson, Maryland. (photo credit: GOOGLE MAPS)

 
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The Chabad House in Towson, Maryland, is “in limbo” on whether its $800,000 expansion will be razed, according to famed attorney Nathan Lewin.

Friends of Lubavitch, Inc., which owns the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Towson and Goucher, and its residents Rabbi Mendy and Shainy Rivkin, are awaiting the next steps in their case, after being granted a stay of the demolition.

The reprieve follows a years-long fight that officially started in 2016, but whose battlefield was laid years before.

Friends of Lubavitch purchased the home of the Rivkins in 2008 to use as a residence and to serve as the area Chabad House. The Rivkins host Shabbat meals, Jewish learning, and programming for Jewish students studying at Towson University and Goucher College.

Though the couple and their seven children live in the house, FOL obtained a tax waiver as a “Jewish student center,” which they maintain to the present.

In 2014, the Rivkins announced plans to expand the property from 2,200-square-feet to 6,614-square-feet. In 2015, FOL applied for a permit to build a parsonage on the property, which was denied.

Months later, FOL applied again, this time to the Administrative Law Judge, which granted FOL a residential building permit, which would allow the couple to expand their “existing single family residential dwelling to be used solely as additional living space for the family who reside therein.”

The permit was granted despite a 1950s restrictive covenant on Aigburth Road, where the house is located, which requires structures to be set back at least 112 feet from the curb. The Chabad House is roughly 62 feet from the street.

Neighbors say they put up with the relatively low-level of activity involving noise, trash and parking for years, and that it was only “when the rabbi unveiled plans for a massive construction project” that they began to take steps to protect their property, according to a statement.

For two years before construction, neighbors say they met with the rabbi and FOL representatives to discuss possible ways to accommodate the desired expansion. They also appealed the ALJ’s decision, but by the time the matter came before the County Board of Appeals more than a year later, the building was complete.

“As vice president of Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, Inc., I cannot unilaterally take a position on an issue,” Paul Hartman, one of the Rivkin’s neighbors, told The Jerusalem Post. “Our board unanimously chose to oppose the project from the beginning and has been supported by our membership all along. Attempts at compromise failed miserably.”

After two years of legal proceedings in Baltimore courts, the county ordered the demolition of the addition, a decision that was reaffirmed through multiple appeals. The Circuit Court had given Chabad until mid-January 2019 to set aside funds to raze the building.

This Baltimore County Circuit Court’s December 2018 ruling pushes off the demolition pending an appeal.

Also in December, FOL and the Rivkins filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against Baltimore County, citing religious discrimination. The lawsuit filed in the US District Court alleges that the decisions by the county government, its board of appeals and the circuit court violate the Chabad’s constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

“At a certain point it became very clear to us, that the roadblocks and rulings by the county and the ever mounting list of changing concerns from the neighbors, were because of our the religious use of the property and they would never be satisfied, so with no choice, we had to sue for protection in federal court,” said one Chabad supporter, David Firestone.



One other Jewish congregation in the county – ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue – and three Christian congregations – Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church and Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries – also have filed federal lawsuits alleging Baltimore County officials discriminated against them in denying requests to build new worship facilities in violation of the federal act.

Lewin, who is representing FOL, said the suit calls out a pattern of unlawful actions it took against the Rivkins and the Jewish students at Towson and Goucher in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and that Baltimore County defamed the rabbi when it ruled he built in a residential area with a “dishonestly procured permit.”

“The county’s actions egregiously violated federal law and the rights of the Rivkins and Jewish students who were able to observe Jewish practices only because of the availability of a nearby Chabad House,” Lewin told the Post. “Baltimore County has sought to defame the rabbi by various legal means, to burden, obstruct and suppress Jewish religious observance in Towson by delaying and now demolishing the premises where such religious exercise is made possible.”

Lewin said Chabad’s activity in the residence “is a ‘religious exercise’ within the scope of RLUIPA.”

The Chabad claims the judges made their decisions out of insensitivity to the needs of Jewish students and obvious misunderstanding of the function of a Chabad House at a university campus.

Ellen Kobler, a Baltimore County spokeswoman, told the Post, “We are declining to comment on ongoing litigation.”

To help prevent the demolition of the home, Chabad supporters launched a worldwide publicity campaign, with a video, portraying neighbors and judges who decided the case as antisemites, and compared the destruction of the expansion to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which took place in November 1938 and resulted in the death of nearly 100 Jews.


Neighbors say they take offense to such claims, arguing that the battle is over neighborhood aesthetics and not faith, and that FOL and the Rivkins are challenged by a “self-induced wound,” according to neighbor Robin Zoll.

“The Chabad is now slated for demolition, not because of discrimination by country officials or antisemitism on the part of neighbors and judges, but rather because of FOL’s own dishonesty and failure to follow the law,” Zoll said. “With legal options now foreclosed, FOL resorts to intimidation, alleging religious discrimination and antisemitism by the court and neighbors, who are acting only to enforce the laws.”

Hartman explained that there are a small number of nearby homes that are slightly over 3,000 square feet, but most are significantly smaller than that.

“The Chabad building is totally out of scale with the residential nature of the community,” Hartman said.
“No doubt, Rabbi Rivkin is sincere in his mission to promote Judaism, especially among college students, and help them find their Jewish identifies,” Zoll told the Post. “Unfortunately, he overreached with the Chabad house on Aigburth Road. He should own his own mistakes. He should tell the truth to his student followers.”

She said if Rivkin would own up, then his students would learn invaluable lessons such as “honesty is the best policy, respect the rights of others, and do not invoke the Holocaust and claim to be victims to avoid responsibility for your own failures.”

“It’s offensive to allege antisemitism when there is not a shred of evidence,” Hartman said. “The issue is not about religion, it’s about a community trying to maintain its residential nature.”

Lewin said the federal case does not claim antisemitism.

However, during the trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court last year, Rivkin testified that a leader of the local neighborhood association suggested that the Chabad House relocate. He recalled the leader saying, “Why don’t you move to the neighborhood where the Jews live and then you will be able to have other Jews?” according to a transcript.

Firestone said the 
Rivkin’s tried accommodating the "growing and ever changing list of demands by the neighbors," such as adjusting the height or the look of the building, "but the neighbors always found another issue. After multiple attempts to satisfy them over a span of 18 months, we realized the effort was futile."

He noted that Zoll turned down several offers at a compromise, including compensating her significantly for the $17,075 of court assessed damage the placement of the Chabad House expansion caused her, or moving the building back to abide by the restrictive set back covenant, but Zoll has refused them all.

“I think they ought to shutter it," Zoll told the Baltimore Sun of the Chabad House in 2017. 

“The neighbors claim to be offended by the notion that they are antisemitic,” Lewin told the Post. “I have not said they are antisemitic, but other people have.”

For his part, Rivkin said he just wanted to expand to accommodate a growing contingency of young Jews who want to attend his programs. He said on some weekends his family can host as many as 100 students, although typically there are closer to 30.
Rivkin said that Towson has been a pleasant place to live and the university has been accepting. He works closely with the Hillel on campus, he said.

The university, however, has not been without incident.

In May 2018, two members of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity at Towson University were walking near the campus, almost directly in front of the Chabad House, when two assailants began shouting “F**k the Jews” and called them by an ethnic slur. The assailants then began punching one of the fraternity members in the face.

“Every once in a while we have minor incidents, but it is not more antisemitic than other college campuses,” Rivkin said.
He did note how he said he believes the Chabad House is a safe area for Jewish students.

“The Chabad House is the only Jewish organization with a physical plant on this side of town. Nothing else really exists,” according to Rivkin.
Towson is about 10 miles from Baltimore City.

“If the Chabad House is torn down, it will likely be the first time in American history that a  structure devoted to Jewish religious observance is destroyed by court order,” FOL said in a statement. “The destruction of a Jewish home away from home because it was allegedly built too close to the street and its owners were mistakenly accused of ‘exceed[ing] the use compatible with that of a residential property’ would be an outrageous act of religious hostility.”

“Towson is a neighborhood with no synagogue of any denomination and many of the Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College rely on it as their Jewish home,” the statement continued. “This is not justice.”

 

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