Jewish neighbors battle in Hollywood

Miami Herald/February 4, 2002
By Scott Andron

A series of conflicts has stirred strong feelings and opened painful rifts between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Hollywood.

First was a lawsuit involving Orthodox residents who want to use their condominium auditorium for Saturday services. The all-Jewish condo board said no.

Then the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch sect decided to put a synagogue in a pair of private homes, sparking a battle with the neighbors -- many of them Jewish -- at a City Commission meeting. The city approved the synagogue, at least for now, but neighbors are constantly complaining to City Hall, and synagogue members say they feel harassed.

And then there's the stoplight incident. The city spent $70,000 to move a signal to make it easier for members of another Orthodox synagogue to safely walk to services. Other residents -- again, many of them Jewish -- complained that the synagogue members received special treatment.

Some say the conflicts are strictly neighborhood issues and that it is a coincidence that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are on opposite sides. But others say the conflicts are a symptom of a national trend of squabbling between American Jewish groups. The issue was the subject of a recent book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, by Columbia University Professor Samuel G. Freedman.

Orthodox Jews are supposed to refrain from all work on Saturday, including driving a car. As a consequence, they usually want to live within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue. This sometimes leads to disputes with neighbors over zoning, real estate and similar matters, Freedman said.

Often, non-Orthodox Jews become uncomfortable when a large number of Orthodox move into their neighborhood.

"Once the Orthodox form a beachhead,'' Freedman said, "there's a fear among non-Orthodox Jews that the neighborhood will flip and the Orthodox will come in and take over.''

In Hollywood, the Lubavitch case has been the noisiest of the three disputes.

Last May, the city's Board of Appeals and Adjustment agreed to let the 60-member Chabad Lubavitch congregation set up a synagogue in two homes at North 46th Avenue and Thomas Street.

Neighbors, many of them Jewish, appealed to the City Commission, saying that a house of worship doesn't belong in a residential neighborhood. After a 13-hour meeting in September, the commission agreed to allow the synagogue, but only for a year and with limits on parking.


Unhappy Neighbors

Now, neighbors say the synagogue remains a nuisance, and they continue to complain to the city. Synagogue members, meanwhile, feel put upon.

Neighbor Lisa Blumkin Self said her family has been repeatedly kept awake by chanting and horn-blowing by congregation members, and yelling, playing and swearing by their kids playing in the backyard.

"I have a 4-year-old child, and I'm eight months' pregnant,'' said Self, a paralegal at a law firm. "I want to go to bed at night.''

Self and other neighbors have registered dozens of complaints with City Hall, ranging from debris on the property to parking on the synagogue lawn. Although the Lubavitchers are not supposed to drive on the Sabbath, they could park at the site before sundown Friday and leave the cars there until sundown Saturday. They also have prayer services on weekdays.

Many of the complaints have been upheld, leading the city to issue numerous tickets.

"The city is harassing us,'' said Art Eckstein, the synagogue's president. "It's not really the city's fault: The homeowners are harassing the city, and the city is harassing us.''

Eckstein said his synagogue has been consulting with a prominent local attorney, Alan Koslow, about a possible federal lawsuit.

In another dispute, members of the Orthodox synagogue Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale, 3291 Stirling Rd., asked the city to install new curb cuts to accommodate people in wheelchairs at a traffic light near their building. Since Orthodox Jews don't drive on the Sabbath, the curb cuts were supposed to make it easier for congregants to make the trip without cars.

After talking with city and county officials, the city ended up simply moving the stoplight to a safer location -- over the objections of non-Orthodox neighbors, who questioned the $70,000 expenditure on behalf of a single congregation.

And in the third case, a group of Orthodox Jews is suing the Grandview condominium board for refusing to allow them to hold services in the complex's auditorium. Efforts to resolve the dispute through mediation have failed, and the case is on its way to trial.

"We're there to pray to God,'' said plaintiff Herman Neuman, 73, who said he can no longer make the walk to Young Israel. "Tell me what's so terrible about that?''

In court papers, the condo board said it has a right to set rules, and that the auditorium wasn't intended for religious services.

Some of the Orthodox Jews speculate that their outward signs of observance -- skullcaps, walking to synagogue on Saturday -- remind secular Jews of their own lack of observance, and make them feel guilty.

"They're subconsciously recognizing that they should be doing something that they're not doing,'' said City Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, a member of Young Israel.


'Judged Harshly'

Freedman offered a similar explanation, saying many Jews may think the Orthodox will look down on less-observant neighbors. Since Jews do not expect non-Jews to participate in their practices, this is only an issue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

"Other Jews feel like they would be judged harshly for not following Orthodoxy in a way that's not relevant for Catholics and Protestants,'' Freedman said.

Non-Orthodox residents find these arguments, especially the guilt argument, absurd.

"Oh, come on,'' said Estelle Slomovitz, a member of the Conservative, non-Orthodox Temple Sinai of Hollywood, who opposed the Lubavitch synagogue. "What kind of line of reasoning is that? That's nuts. That's ludicrous. That's ridiculous.''

Michael Eibeschitz, another Jewish opponent of the synagogue, agreed.

"It has nothing to do with religion,'' Eibeschitz said. "It's the neighborhood.''

Many non-Jewish neighbors also have complained about noise, parking and property upkeep.

Resident Earl Smith, who is not Jewish, signed a petition, along with Eibeschitz and 300 others, asking the City Commission not to allow the Lubavitcher synagogue.

"We were against it because this is a single-family residential neighborhood,'' Smith said. "They consistently park eight to 12 cars there. They park halfway onto the sidewalk. . . . For a long time, they had a lot of trash in the alley. The property was very run down.''

Whatever the cause of the conflicts, they clearly have divided Hollywood's Jewish community.

To bring the community together, representatives of several synagogues of different denominations have formed a committee to plan a carnival for the festive Purim holiday later this month. In the past, each synagogue held its own carnival for the holiday, and this will be the first year they will hold a single event together.

The carnival is set for 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Hollywood...Committee members expect a turnout of about 2,000 -- twice what the synagogues would have had independently.

But some say what is needed most is a frank discussion -- not a carnival.

"I would like to see Young Israel extend a hand of friendship . . . and invite the other synagogues to dialogue,'' Slomovitz said. "Why don't they have a forum at Young Israel for the rest of the community? Having a few families from each synagogue go and play games with the kids is not going to solve anything. We need to talk.''

Committee chairman Avi Frier, a member of Young Israel, said the committee is discussing something along those lines -- possibly educational programs in which Jews of different denominations can learn about each other.

"The carnival is the first step,'' he said. "It's certainly not the last step.''

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