LITCHFIELD ——The scenic village green here has long symbolized the charms of small-town life, but this fall Litchfield will receive unwelcome publicity for quite a different reason: charges of religious discrimination.
Last month, a federal district court judge ruled that sufficient evidence of "discrimination against Jewish people" may exist, warranting a trial over the Borough of Litchfield's denial of a conservative Hasidic group's application to build a synagogue on the west end of the green. The ruling virtually guarantees a trial this fall on a controversy that has deeply divided this celebrated tourist town and attracted national media attention.
In December 2007, the borough's historic district commission, after several contentious hearings, denied an application by Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County to extensively renovate a historic house just below the green. The group's building plans included a synagogue, living space for Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach and his large family and a swimming pool for the Chabad group's popular summer camp. Among other objections, the commission cited the group's plans to replace an existing single front door with double doors and said that the planned addition would "dwarf" the existing historic home and others in the neighborhood.
But it was the tone of the commission meetings that now form the core of Chabad's federal suit.
At one meeting, commission Chairwoman Wendy Kuhne objected to the Chabad's proposed use of a Star of David on the synagogue by stating that "the Star of David 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 was forced to recuse herself from the commission's vote on the synagogue.
Another commission member, according to Chabad's court 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 this one." A third commissioner said that Chabad's plans would "turn Litchfield into a factory town." A lawyer representing historic district homeowners, including a town selectman, suggested that Chabad's plans should be "reviewed as if it were a strip joint."
Chabad's federal suit claims that, under both the U.S. and Connecticut constitutions, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the borough of Litchfield violated Chabad's religious freedom and denied it the right to expand its building to the same size as Christian churches within the historic district.
"This targeting," the Chabad complaint says, "is the direct result of the defendant's [the historic commission] opposition to Plaintiffs religious sect." Chabad is also charging that Kuhne and two other commission members met outside the formal hearings and "conspired" to deny Chabad's application and thus infringe on its religious rights.
U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall found, in her July ruling on pre-trial motions, that "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."
Hall also found that the commission members' statements, when read in conjunction with other allegations made by Chabad, "provide additional support for plaintiffs' conspiracy allegations."
In their replies in federal court, the commission and its attorney, James Stedronsky, argue that the commission simply was applying the same standards to the synagogue that any other project in the historic district would have to observe.
Historic district commission members did not return phone calls requesting interviews. But in its pre-trial depositions, the commission gathered evidence supporting its claim that Rabbi 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 last week. "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 camp."
The tensions between commission members and Eisenbach do not appear to have diminished in the two years that it has taken the case to work its way through depositions.
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 man." Kuhne eventually was deposed on another day, and then only after Eisenbach agreed to sit in a corner of the room.
And it's clear that charges and counter-charges about Eisenbach and his Chabad group will continue to carom around Litchfield as the federal trial gets underway.
Since arriving in Litchfield 14 years ago, Eisenbach has organized a number of well-attended annual events in Litchfield County. These include a summer camp attended by children of all faiths, a Labor Day Jewishfest at the White Memorial nature center in Litchfield and an annual Klezmer in the Hills concert at Music Mountain in Falls Village.
For Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hannukah services, as well as for bar mitzvahs and weddings, Chabad rents the ballroom at the Litchfield Inn. These events, Chabad members say, draw more than 200 participants, far more people than can be accommodated in the Chabad's present space in a cellar below the Dunkin' Donuts on Route 202 in Litchfield.
Stedronsky says, however, that only "about 10 people regularly attend the Rabbi's Sabbath services." During depositions, the historic district commission gathered evidence to support its claim that Chabad's Sabbath services are poorly attended. Commission supporters also say that that few Jews in Litchfield support the Chabad.
"I am not aware that I know a Jewish person who participates in that congregation," says Martha Bernstein, a former Town of Litchfield selectwoman. "As a community, I don't believe there is prejudice against Jews, and as a policy the town doesn't operate that way. I take the historic commission at its word about why they rejected the application, and I'm sure they would approve an amended plan that follows the guidelines they laid out in their decision."
But Jews who do attend services at Chabad regularly describe a robust congregation whose numbers continue to grow.
"Of course the opponents of a new synagogue in town would say that nobody comes to our Sabbath services. They aren't ever there to know how many people attend," says Nathan Zimmerman of Bantam, a retired Army drill sergeant who regularly attends Chabad services.
"On many Sabbaths, there are 35 to 40 worshippers, and we have to rent the Litchfield Inn for the high holidays and bar mitzvahs because we could never squeeze everyone who wants to come into our tiny space now," he said. "To say that Jews in Litchfield County don't worship with this guy is completely inaccurate. That's why we need new space and, yes, there is definite religious discrimination by some people in town."
Chabad lawyer Kenneth Slater of Hartford says that he welcomed Judge Hall's ruling this summer "because it recognizes the seriousness of our charges. These important allegations of discrimination and denial of religious rights deserve to be aired at trial."
Slater says that the issue of discrimination, not Sabbath head counts, will be most important at the trial.
"It's telling that the defendants are raising issues unrelated to the simple fact that the Chabad is being denied a synagogue in the borough," Slater says.
"Even without proper religious facilities, Chabad of Litchfield produces significant and well-attended religious services. The Chabad is simply seeking the same kind of religious facilities that currently exist on the green for other faiths."