Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

Condo vote raises tensions

The Baltimore Sun

The vote from the Strathmore Tower condominium board was simple: Down with the Sabbath elevator.

But what some thought was a straightforward vote has erupted into a religious and racially tinged controversy to others in this majority senior citizen-occupied condominium complex in Upper Park Heights.

The supporters - most of whom are Jewish - say the option for a Sabbath elevator wouldn't have cost extra money and would have aided Orthodox Jewish and disabled residents while helping resale prices. Foes say such an elevator is inconvenient and could cost more.

Sabbath elevators are normal elevators that can be set to automatically stop at every floor. That helps observant Orthodox Jews who aren't permitted to operate electrical switches during the Sabbath period, or Shabbat, which runs from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday.

Some Jewish residents say the vote in February by the nine-member board - 5-3, with one absent - to strike a Sabbath elevator out of a contract to renovate the building's two elevators smacks of religious discrimination.

"I hate to say it, but reverse discrimination is what it is," said Haron Goodman, 74, a Jewish board member and 10-year Strathmore resident, heads nodding around him as he sits with other residents in his apartment on a recent morning. "It's absolutely anti-Semitism."

Two floors above him, board member and 11-year resident John S. Ward, 79, has just two words.

"Absolute bunk," said Ward, one of five black residents on the board who voted to remove the option for the Sabbath elevator from the contract.

To Ward, the decision has nothing to do with religion but with cost, convenience and other factors he declined to elaborate on.

The conflict in the nine-story complex in the 6200 block of Park Heights Ave. - where about 56 residents live - has even reached the City Council. Legislation was introduced last month to prohibit rules in multifamily dwellings that "deny reasonable accommodation" to practice one's religion - which included the example of putting in a Sabbath elevator.

Last week, the legislation's sponsor, Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, said after meeting with the board members who rejected the Sabbath elevator option that she would amend her bill to remove the elevator language, leaving it unclear whether the measure would apply to the Strathmore situation.

But Kenneth Lasson, a University of Baltimore law professor who was consulted on the bill, said the issue will boil down to "whether this is reasonable."

"If this legislation is passed, let the courts decide whether it's reasonable or not to put in an elevator that doesn't cost more," he said.

While the Jewish board members charge that the majority's vote was rooted in religious discrimination, the five board members who opposed the Sabbath elevator have not publicly explained their reasons. Two declined to speak to The Sun, and two did not respond to phone messages. Only Ward would comment, but he would not further explain his rationale except to say that it had nothing to do with race or religion.

Once nearly all white and largely Jewish, the building, like the neighborhood, has become increasingly diverse over the years. Black residents occupy roughly a third of the building's units, residents say. Most of the white residents are Jewish, though not all are Orthodox or observant.

In other buildings

Sabbath elevators are present in many areas with large Jewish populations and high-rise buildings, as well as institutions such as Sinai Hospital.

For example, the board of the nine-story Park Towers West Condominiums, in the 7100 block of Park Heights Ave., voted about a year ago to make one of its elevators run in the Sabbath mode, said Mitchell Friedman, the board's president. The option, added when the building's elevators were being renovated, cost no extra money, he said.

"It does increase the property values," Friedman said. "And it doesn't inconvenience anyone. It's been working fine ever since."

Kenneth N. Gelula, executive director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., which develops senior housing in predominantly Jewish communities in the area, said all eight of the subsidized rental buildings CHAI operates has Sabbath elevators. The extra cost is modest, he said, but added that he does not know how much it is.

"Because there are Jewish people living in all of our buildings we consider it a reasonable accommodation for those residents to have it," he said. "Some of the buildings, nobody uses it, so we don't activate it."

With a growing observant Orthodox population in the area, such features are attractive, he said. "Historically, the Jewish people who live in this area were not particularly observant," Gelula said. "That population has grown in the last 20 years or so."

"With the influx of the Orthodox population you have older people selling their houses and wanting to move into condominiums," he said.

At the Strathmore, the decision to not install a Sabbath elevator has an unlikely victim - Yael Kaner, 47.

A normally healthy, vibrant woman who walked the stairs to her fifth-floor condo, Kaner suffered a torn tendon in her knee several months ago and found herself unable to walk up and down stairs. "I'm a Hasidic. I can't push the button," she said. "I've been staying home from services since February. I miss my community. I feel very socially isolated."

But even residents who aren't Orthodox, or have no need for a Sabbath elevator, say the decision makes no sense.

Doris Lippens, who practices Reform Judaism, says the elevator will raise property values and accommodate Sabbath visitors who are Orthodox. "I would look forward to the fact that on a resale, having the Sabbath elevator to take people up to the seventh, eighth, ninth floor would be a good selling point," Lippens said.

She, like many other residents, says religious and racial tension is not always evident. "It's under the surface, basically," she says. "But every now and then the ugliness peaks out."

Ward declined to comment further on the matter until the council bill is heard in committee.

But he said after last week's meeting with Spector that he believes the issue is moot. "We left with the understanding that the board of directors has the right to make the judgment as to what will be and will not be in this building," he said.

Asked about charges that the vote was anti-religious, Ward said there is "absolutely no evidence" of that.

But he acknowledged that racial tension exists in the building. "I think there's racial tension in any organization in the world," he said. "It exists. It's a fact. Unfortunately, that's the kind of world we live in."

State law governs condominiums, where boards of directors, consisting of residents, set policy.

Similar controversy

A similar controversy surfaced in Illinois. There, residents of a condominium were prohibited from displaying religious symbols, including mezuzahs, a Jewish prayer scroll affixed to door posts.

Both the Chicago City Council and the Illinois General Assembly passed laws last year guaranteeing that condominium owners can freely observe religion at home with reasonable accommodation.

Lasson said only the Maryland General Assembly could pass a law specific for condominiums, which is why Spector's proposal covers all multiple dwellings but still mirrors the Illinois legislation.

In some ways, the conflict at Strathmore Tower highlights religious and racial tensions in an area where relations between Jewish and black residents have always been fragile.

But perhaps the relationships are most strained in the condominium complexes that line Park Heights Avenue, microcosms of their neighborhood, where seniors with limited orbits live and govern themselves.

Down the road from the Strathmore, residents of the Imperial Condominium building have locked heads in recent years over access to a security door that once gave Orthodox residents a shorter route to their nearby synagogue, Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation.

Though the two sides don't divide entirely along racial and religious lines, some are chalking up the decision to such tensions.

In the spring of 2005, the condominium board voted to deny access to the security door, forcing the elderly residents to walk several blocks, rather than 20 feet. Previously, residents used a key to get in and out of the door.

The change in policy is a major hardship for some Jewish residents, such as Sylvan Wolpert, 90, who moves with the aid of a walker and wheelchair.

Wolpert filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which he said was originally denied. He appealed the decision and is awaiting the final word. "We think it's discrimination, religious discrimination," he said, adding that he also views it as discrimination against the disabled.

'Security ruled'

Edward V. Woods, a former Baltimore City police commissioner and president of the condominium's board, said access to the door was cut off for security reasons. "We felt that it was a breach of security," said Woods, who is black. "So it was security or convenience. Security ruled."

Various neighborhood leaders and groups have tried to intervene and mediate the situation, but to no avail.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion said he has repeatedly tried to communicate and meet with the board. "We have many families who live in that building," he said. "Virtually all of them moved to that building so they can walk out that door and walk to the synagogue. This is why they moved there. It was an ideal situation for them until this flare up.

"It's a clear, clear, clear, major imposition, and it's a shame."

Abba David Poliakoff, an attorney familiar with the situation, said it highlights both the positive and negative aspects of living in a diverse area. For example, the first year the door was locked, black residents volunteered to man it for their Jewish neighbors during the high holidays.

But, still, the black-Jewish divide colors the conflict. "It's certainly become a black-Jewish issue, which makes it all the more sad," Poliakoff said.

"It's terribly disappointing and terribly sad and shatters one's faith in communal relations, especially in a building condo," he said. "These types of schisms pull the floor out of an illusion that people might have."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad