Metro Views: A house, or a house of prayer?

Metro Views A house, or

Here in Teaneck, New Jersey, it is easy to be an Orthodox Jew. The township of some 40,000 people, only a few kilometers from Manhattan, has kosher restaurants and caterers of every variety, Judaica shops and more than 10 Orthodox synagogues. The question of the moment is whether the township's zoning board will approve the use by a new synagogue of a remodeled house in a residential neighborhood to which some neighbors, many of them Jewish, object. In the US, there are often clashes between the religious rights of individuals and local land-use and zoning laws. Land use is heavily regulated for a slew of factors including economic development, environmental preservation and aesthetics. Land use is also regulated to avert constant "NIMBY" fights - "not in my back yard" - in which local residents and commercial interests oppose the destruction or disruption of neighborhoods by such things as landfills, shopping centers, cellphone towers and houses of worship. Americans have a constitutional right to the "free exercise" of their religion. Towns cannot discriminate against synagogues and churches, and are not permitted to give preferential treatment to religious institutions. When it comes to religion, the legal commandment for towns is "thou shalt be neutral." Easier said than done. Sentiment toward church construction varies. Most of the angst concerns the so-called mega-churches, with thousands of members requiring huge campuses and creating traffic congestion and noise. Many of the public objections to Orthodox shuls are of the same type that raises hackles about churches, albeit on a much smaller scale. Whether the building is a church or synagogue, opponents tend to be local homeowners trying to protect the value and quiet use of their residences. Cities and towns are loath to offend residents, but also fear lawsuits by religious groups that, if denied permission to build a house of worship, can claim they have been denied the free exercise of their religion. In modern US Orthodox communities, new synagogues are established when an existing shul is overcrowded, when ideological and personal rifts splinter a congregation, or when a critical mass of like-minded people moves into an area that is not served by a synagogue within reasonable walking distance. Shuls often develop first as prayer groups in private homes; a house of worship follows when enough people join the group to sustain it. THERE WAS A contentious hearing of the Teaneck zoning board earlier this month regarding a request by a nonprofit Jewish organization called Etz Chaim to convert part of a house into a synagogue. The hearing generated a convoluted series of questions and arguments that seemed to be so much hair-splitting about whether Etz Chaim was or was not a synagogue, and how to define "house of worship." Etz Chaim, according to its president, Robert Erlich, is an organization that provides for the religious needs of the community. It purchased the Teaneck house two years ago, then added a substantial room with exterior entry, a kitchenette and two bathrooms. Etz Chaim leases the house to a popular Teaneck rabbi, Daniel Feldman, and his family as their residence. In addition to being a tenant, Feldman is also an employee of Etz Chaim, providing guidance and pastoral counseling - but not leading prayer. However, there is prayer on site. The rabbi - "at his discretion" - leads what is called a private prayer group of some 40 people, meeting in the additional room on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Private prayer meetings are acceptable under land-use law, much like people routinely gathering in someone's home to watch televised sports events. But when the Teaneck house was expanded, apparently to accommodate prayer, dozens of neighbors complained that the property's use had changed from a single-family dwelling to a house of worship, and that Etz Chaim was compelled to get town permission for the change in use. That in effect forced Etz Chaim to appear before the zoning board. In a hearing that lasted nearly four hours, the board struggled to learn how Etz Chaim differs from a synagogue. Erlich said Etz Chaim does not hold religious services; the rabbi holds services. This was either a clever or a deceptive distinction, given that the rabbi rents the home from his employer, the nonprofit Jewish organization. The board also noted that it recently had approved the construction of a synagogue about four blocks away. The question was, why can't Etz Chaim's members walk down the street to pray at the existing synagogue? This is where the issue becomes most uncomfortable. The synagogue down the street is modern Orthodox, with young families that are indistinguishable from those at Etz Chaim. Many were friendly with each other until roiled by personal disputes and factions. "Each different denomination has different ways of practice," Erlich said at the board hearing. Some people are "not necessarily comfortable" at the other synagogue. Schisms within American modern Orthodoxy are nothing new. Tensions have been known to arise over issues as significant (to some) and as trivial (to others) as the kashrut certification of tuna fish. But the 40 people in Feldman's prayer group do not adhere to a denomination that differs from the majority of Orthodox shuls in Teaneck. However, such internal and intimate Orthodox disputes are not within the purview (or the comfort zone) of a nonsectarian zoning board. The zoning board, which reconvenes next month to continue its hearings on Etz Chaim, is not hostile to the Orthodox. New synagogue buildings have been approved, while existing ones have expanded to serve Teaneck's growing Orthodox community. Two things make Etz Chaim special, however. First is the unorthodox manner in which it remodeled the rabbi's residence to create worship space that technically may or may not have been what is commonly considered a synagogue, generating ill will in the process. The second is the implied threat of a lawsuit against the town if permission is denied. Etz Chaim is represented by the Rutherford Institute, a prominent legal organization that takes cases to protect religious rights. Its 2008 annual report lists Etz Chaim as a "pre-litigation."