LITCHFIELD, Connecticut – The scenic village green of Litchfield has long
symbolized the charms of Connecticut small-town life. Settled in 1721, it hosts
tourists drawn by its Revolutionary War history: Litchfield served as a “safe
town” for Continental forces seeking refuge while the British occupied New York
But this fall, the tourist town of about 8,500 will receive
publicity for quite a different reason: charges of religious
This summer, a federal judge ruled that sufficient
evidence of “discrimination against Jewish people” may exist, warranting a trial
over the Borough of Litchfield’s denial of a Chabad group’s application to build
a synagogue on the west end of Litchfield Green. The ruling almost guarantees a
trial this fall on a controversy that has deeply divided the town.
December 2007, the borough’s historic district commission, after contentious
hearings, denied an application by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County to
extensively renovate a historic house just below the green. The group’s plans
included a synagogue, living space for Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his large
family and a swimming pool for the hasidic group’s popular summer
Among other objections, the commission cited plans to replace a
single front door with double doors and said that the addition would dwarf the
existing historic home and others in the neighborhood.
It was the tone of
the commission meetings that now forms the core of Chabad’s federal
At one meeting, commission chairwoman Wendy Kuhne objected to
Chabad’s proposed use of a Star of David on the synagogue by stating that it
“may not comply with the [historic] district.”
In the uproar that
followed, Kuhne was depicted on a local website wearing a Nazi uniform, and she
recused herself from the vote on the synagogue.
member, according to Chabad’s complaint, said of the group’s plans to use facing
stone from Israel, “Stone from Israel? We’ll have to get the whole town out for
Another commissioner said that Chabad’s plans would “turn
Litchfield into a factory town.”
A lawyer representing historic- district
homeowners suggested Chabad’s plans should be “reviewed as if it were a strip
Chabad’s federal suit contends that, under the US and Connecticut
constitutions and federal law, the borough violated Chabad’s religious freedom
and denied it the right to expand its building to the same size as Christian
churches in the historic district.
US District Judge Janet C.
wrote in her July ruling on pretrial motions, “Several statements were made in
what appear to be meetings of the [historic district commission] that may
contain evidence of discrimination directed against Jewish people in general and
the Chabad in particular.”
In their replies in federal court, the
commission and its attorney, James Stedronsky, argue that the panel simply was
applying the standards that any project in the historic district must
Historic district commission members did not return calls
But in depositions, the commission cited evidence
supporting its claim that Eisenbach has few local followers, that his Sabbath
services are poorly attended and that his plans for a personal residence and a
swimming pool are too grandiose for the site.
“This case is not about the
construction of a synagogue,” Stedronsky said recently. “It’s about the
construction of a personal palace for Rabbi Eisenbach, complete with a 4,500-
square-foot apartment and an indoor swimming pool big enough to serve a summer
The tensions between commission members and the rabbi do not
appear to have diminished with time.
In April, when Kuhne appeared for
her deposition in Litchfield, she left the room when Eisenbach arrived, stating,
according to Chabad’s complaint, “I will not be in the same room with that
Kuhne was deposed on another day, and then only after Eisenbach
agreed to sit in a corner of the room.
Litchfield has seen plenty of
municipal spats in its history.
That’s inescapable for a place
289-years-old. But it’s also known plenty of peace.
As the town’s website
notes, the Rev. Dan Huntington, a Congregational minister in the town from 1798
to 1809, wrote upon his arrival here: “A delightful village on a fruitful hill,
richly endowed with schools both professional and scientific, with its venerable
governors and judges, with its learned lawyers, and senators both in the
national and state departments and with a population both enlightened and
respectable, Litchfield was now in its glory.”(Hartford Courant/MCT)