Spiritual center draws complaints in Randolph

New Jersey Star-Ledger Staff/November 13, 2005
By John Wihbey

A Randolph Township rabbi who set up a spiritual center in his home has run into the earthly obstacles of zoning, raising the prospect of a religion and state conflict.

After waiting for the Jewish High Holy Days to end, Randolph officials issued citations last week for zoning, health, fire and construction code violations to the Chabad of Randolph, a cultural and religious center.

In this neighborhood on West Hanover zoned for single-family homes, the Chabad attracts dozens of members who use it as a synagogue, adult education facility and venue for bar and bat mitzvahs.

Township manager John Lovell says the facility can't handle the excess people and cars and represents a safety hazard. Randolph officials also object that the house is being used for "assembly/religious gatherings," according to a letter by planning and zoning administrator Darren Carney.

But Rabbi Avrahom Bechor, who moved into the hulking center-hall colonial on busy West Hanover in July, said the house is being used mostly for small cultural and educational gatherings. He believes the problems can be resolved.

"It's a very Jewish town, and we're here to serve the Jewish population," Bechor said. "I'll be surprised if the town does not let us serve the people who pay taxes."

Nearby residents say the township was duped by a group that has a history of breaking zoning laws, and officials have not been tough enough.

Gary Maitland, an attorney who lives on Mount Freedom Avenue with his children, said, "A little research supports the proposition that this isn't an accident, but is apparently a strategy that has been used in other jurisdictions around the country."

Legal battles between Chabads and municipal governments have taken place in Southhampton, N.Y.; Newton, Mass.; Hollywood, Fla.; and other places. A Chabad in Millburn-Short Hills has also run into zoning problems, Lovell said.

Tammy Cameron, who lives with her husband and son on the corner of West Hanover and Mount Freedom avenues, said she has read about the "pattern" of Chabads around the country. They have a strategy of getting around zoning laws "down to a science," she said.

"Basically, the neighbors are upset because they broke the rules," she said. "It's about being a good neighbor. I wouldn't throw a party every weekend."

Cameron noted that 30 cars sometimes disrupt the previously quiet neighborhood and make it dangerous for children to play.

Bechor said he is "more concerned than anyone else because I live here with my five children" and agrees that he needs to work out a better parking plan.

He said it's premature to compare the situation to the legal disputes of other Chabad houses. "We are not at that point," he said.

Bechor moved the Chabad to his current house after spending about 20 years on Andrews Road in Randolph, which Bechor described as a quiet residential neighborhood. The Chabad is part of the orthodox Lubavitch movement and affiliated with the Rabbinical College of America, in Morristown.

He said the builder, S&H Country Builders, "didn't build a facility for the Chabad." Instead, he says, they built a home for his family.

The house has a typical family kitchen and play areas, but it also has a sizable garage that was erected without doors for cars. Inside, the area is lined with chairs and used as a place for members to gather.

Bechor said when he moved to Randolph he believed the house would be appropriate for Chabad activities because zoning officials gave him preliminary indications last year that the house --which has acres of forest on one side and a sprawling, upscale subdivision one house away -- would be zoned for "cultural, educational and community services." He now concedes that it's zoned for a single-family dwelling.

While he hopes officials allow the Chabad house to function, he also said that zoning rules are generally unfair and allow residents to have large parties but not quiet religious services.

"People can go to a friend's and get drunk," he said. "We're nice people. We're not bothering anybody."

Etzion Neuer, director of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, said Chabads often create change in settled family neighborhoods, which seldom sits easily with longtime residents.

"People will often feel that there's a stealth nature to it," he said, adding that he hoped both sides can stick to the zoning facts and not let the dispute get personal.

"It's a scenario that's repeated itself around the country again and again," he said, noting that a Bergen County Chabad had similar problems. "There's a feeling often of 'There goes the neighborhood.' It can become very, very venomous."

The federal Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in April against the city of Hollywood, Fla., on behalf of Lubavitch Chabad. The government said the city violated a federal act protecting religious land use by denying the Chabad's zoning application to set up a synagogue in a residential area.

In Rockaway Township, the Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey applied for permits and got zoning approvals this year for an educational center. It is breaking ground this weekend on the new facility.

Bechor and Lovell said that the issue of changing the zoning is being negotiated, and the township's board of adjustment may ultimately decide the matter.

Lovell said there are some "encouraging signs." The Chabad's Hebrew school was just moved to the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, and traffic should decrease now that the High Holy Days are over, he said.

Maitland said neighbors don't object to the religious worship itself being done in the home. But that doesn't mean neighbors approve of "back-dooring a use and then hunkering down for whatever political or legal battles may come," he said.

In any case, Bechor is just hoping he'll be allowed to carry out the basic functions of the Chabad. "That's what this is about, freedom of religion," he said.

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