Cambria Heights residents oppose Lubavitch synagogue dorm plan

Community members say visitors to Rebbe's grave are disrespectful to neighbors

New York Daily News/May 4, 2012

Years of littering and swarms of rude visitors has a group of Cambria Heights residents fighting an Orthodox Jewish synagogue's plan to expand.

The Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, adjacent to the graves of two of the sect's former leaders, is seeking a zoning variance to expand its facility to better accommodate overnight visitors.

The Rebbe Menachem Schneerson's grave and that of his father-in-law Rebbe Yosef Schneersohn, attract an estimated several hundred followers a day. That number swells into the thousands during the high holy days, residents say. Many visitors come on the Sabbath, which means they stay overnight to avoid traveling on the holy day.

The congregation, which owns five single-family homes next to its community center on Francis Lewis Blvd., wants to build a structure in the center's backyard and join the homes together, creating one large building.

But residents opposing the plan say visitors park in front of their driveways, leave trash strewn about the street and hog parking spots. Building a permanent dorm in the residential neighborhood would just worsen the problem, they said.

"The character of our neighborhood would be altered due to higher intensity of use, increased population, increased traffic, and the adjacent property to the west would be directly affected by encroachment into the yard setbacks," members of the Cambria Heights Civic Association wrote in a letter to the city Board of Standards and Appeals, which will make a final decision on the plan.

The community opposes the plan, in part, due to years of perceived disrespect by the Ohel's visitors, said Community Board 13 District Manager Larry McClean.

"There is emotional scar tissue there," he said. "On the anniversary of his passing, upwards of 20,000 people come to pass through his graveside."

The synagogue has contended that followers will come at all hours of the day whether the dorms are built or not.

"When the Rebbe passed away in June 1994, Lubavitchers as well as his followers around the world were left without a leader," attorney Lyra Altman wrote in a letter to the BSA. "People began turning to the Rebbe's grave to continue to seek his blessing and inspiration."

When interviewed at the synagogue on Thursday, its leader Rabbi Abba Refson declined to comment on the proposal as a decision has yet to be made.

"We'll leave it to the wise judgement of the city planners," he said.

The proposal, which is scheduled for its fifth public hearing before the BSA on May 15, was rejected by both Community Board 13 and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall last year.

McClean said community members may be more amenable to the idea if the synagogue could coordinate an easier transportation route with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or if they were other compromises.

But for some neighbors, no amount of concessions will get them on board.

"This is a residential area," said Al Williams, who has lived in his 227th St. home for 40 years. "It's just not the right place for something like that to be."

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