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'Towson Crisis': How a zoning lawsuit against a Chabad House became a discrimination flashpoint

To hear Robin Zoll tell it, the story of the Chabad House next door comes down to one sentence, spoken by Rabbi Menachem “Mendy” Rivkin, which she relayed under oath in court: “I was as honest as I could be to get my permit.”

Rivkin remembers that conversation, too. But in his telling, the emphasis changes. Zoll, he said, accused him of dishonesty. Exasperated, he said he replied, “Robin, I was as honest as I possibly could be.”

One event, two interpretations — such is the story of the tangled legal battle between Zoll and the local neighborhood association on one side, and Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad on the other — over the addition at 14 Aigburth Road in Towson.

Since 2016, the two sides have been, in Circuit Court judge Kathleen Cox’s words, “locked in [a] battle” of appeals. Chabad wants to keep the addition; neighbors want it gone.

Late in 2018, as its available appeals seemed to dwindle and the prospect of a tear-down order loomed, Chabad raised the stakes. The organization launched an international social media campaign, soliciting thousands of letters and donations. On Jan. 10, Cox granted Chabad a pause on the tear-down order until another yet appeal is heard in the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland’s second-highest court. Separately, last month, the group filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Baltimore County and the Circuit Court for their roles in the case.

The parties and onlookers agree: The feud has escalated beyond the typical land-use case — in emotional heat, in financial stakes, and in the sheer finality of a court order to raze a building. How did it get to this point?

Tipping the cosmic balance

In 2008, Jewish organization Friends of Lubavitch, also known as Chabad-Lubavitch, purchased the house on Aigburth Road, according to court documents, to be used as a Chabad House, a Jewish outreach center and home to the rabbi that runs it. Rivkin, now 36, and his wife Sheiny, 32, moved in to serve as shluchim, or emissaries, focusing on Jewish students at Towson University and Goucher College.

“If there was something I wanted to do with my life ... I wanted to be in the trenches,” Mendy Rivkin said. He felt the most important work was waiting for him on a college campus.

Sociologist Samuel Heilman, a professor at Queens College in New York who studies Orthodox Jewish movements, said the shluchim’s mandate comes from the Chabad movement’s “messianic ideology,” unique among Jewish groups.

“If they can get Jews to do, publicly, acts of Jewish observance, they believe that at a certain point the cosmic balance will be tipped, and when enough Jews have done enough Jewish acts, that will bring the Messiah,” Heilman said.

To further this goal, Chabad shluchim — almost always a rabbi and his wife — move around the world to engage Jews in Jewish life. Since the movement’s founding, one of the most important frontiers has been the college campus, Heilman said.

“College students are from my perception the most vulnerable,” Mendy Rivkin said. “They’re growing up, they’re leaving home, they’re spreading their wings for the first time, and they need to find their own Jewish identities.”

So in 2008, the rabbi and his wife, then in their early and mid-20s, began inviting students at the two institutions to their 2,200-square-foot home.

They chose the Aigburth Manor neighborhood because it was within walking distance of Towson University, Mendy Rivkin said — important because Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath.

They held student Shabbat dinners every Friday, drawing anywhere from five to 60 students. They hosted barbecues, Hanukkah parties and Judaism classes. Sheiny Rivkin taught students to cook traditional Jewish recipes.

“I come here for the family aspect,” said Sydney Marantz, 20, a Towson University sophomore from New Jersey.

Heilman said the fact that Chabad houses are homes is “part of its appeal.”

“[A rabbi is] able to use his family and able to give this feeling that it’s not an institution,” Heilman said, adding, “There’s a warmth about the place.”

“I try to come every Friday night,” said Ilan Pluznik, 19, of Ellicott City, also a Towson University sophomore. “In college, it’s important to learn about who you are. Being Jewish is a part of who I am.”

The building also housed the Rivkins’ growing family. They had one child when they purchased the house; today they have seven.

The Rivkins said the house felt too small for their growing family — both their biological family, and their “family” of students. During Shabbat dinners, they would cram 35 students into a dining room better suited for six.

In 2014, the Rivkins announced a plan to expand the Chabad House and applied for a building permit for a “parsonage,” a house for clergy provided by a religious institution. That permit was denied, and Rivkin instead applied for a permit for a residential addition, which was granted. Construction on the 4,400-square-foot addition in front of the original house began in June 2016 and cost $800,000, according to court documents.

Meanwhile, neighbors, appalled by the massive, seemingly institutional structure taking shape in their neighborhood, launched a multi-pronged legal campaign.

In August, they found a mid-century covenant in Chabad’s deed requiring that the building be set back farther than the plan for the addition. Excavation — but not construction — had already started, according to court filings, and Chabad insisted it was too late to stop.

In the county appeals court, neighbors argued that the building occupants were not complying with zoning use regulations, using the building as a community center rather than a residence. In the Circuit Court, they argued the building violated the setback requirements in the deed.

The judicial system ruled in favor of neighbors in both cases, launching a spiral of appeals. But Chabad seemed to be running out of options to delay the looming order from the Circuit Court to tear down the addition. Then came the federal discrimination lawsuit.

Melting pot or salad bowl?

For Zoll, the Rivkins’ neighbor, the Chabad House case seems clear: The covenant requires buildings on the property to be at least 115 feet from the road. The addition is less than 60 feet away. It is an “institutional” building in a residential zone. Legally, in her view, it should come down.

But when Friends of Towson Chabad, a group of Chabad rabbis, took the case to the public, it assigned a darker cause to the judge’s tear-down order: discrimination.

They named their website TowsonCrisis.com. They raised more than $160,000 and said they received more than 5,000 letters of support — from students, rabbis, and even Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. They likened the opposition to the expansion and the court rulings to Kristallnacht, an event in 1938 Germany in which Nazis torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes. Zoll called it a “smear campaign.”

“I am livid about this slander, and this misrepresentation of my reputation and my character,” Zoll said. The implication of anti-Semitism made her feel not only outraged, but terrified for her family's safety. She said she was fine with Chabad for the years before the addition was built; the lawsuit, she said, has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the calm she feels the addition took from her neighborhood.

Rivkin said though Chabad is not accusing neighbors personally of anti-Semitism, the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and an alleged anti-Semitic assault against a Jewish Towson University student last year reminded the Towson Jewish community that “people want to hurt us for who we are. We forget that.”

Chabad as an organization has a “long history of litigation against them,” Heilman said, adding that some attribute the opposition to anti-Semitism. But Heilman sees more nuance: While many American Jewish communities are assimilated and private, Chabad followers, with their beards and traditional dress and public menorah lightings, practice a blatant, “in-your-face Orthodoxy.”

“What groups like Chabad are challenging is: Is America really a multiethnic, multicultural salad bowl, or still the melting pot where everyone is supposed to blend in?” Heilman said.

Michigan attorney Daniel Dalton specializes in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, the law under which Chabad is suing the county and court. The lawyer, who is not involved in the case, sees another problem Chabad houses face: They do not fit neatly into zoning regulations.

The Rivkins have argued for years that their house is just a house, that students are just their guests. Zoll and the neighborhood argue 14 Aigburth is a “community center,” a commercial use.

But Dalton said he sees Chabad houses as religious institutions like churches or synagogues, which are allowed “by right” in Baltimore County residential zones. Chabad insisted throughout litigation that the building was residential.

Typically, Dalton said, courts are “loathe to stop a religious entity from practicing,” and rarely issue tear-down orders. “You have to really annoy the court,” he said.

It appears Mendy Rivkin did so. Judge Susan Souder, who gave the original tear-down order, wrote that his demeanor was “evasive and aggressive.” The Board of Appeals found his demeanor “dismissive towards his neighbors and truculent in general.”

No matter Chabad’s mistakes, its attorney, Nathan Lewin, said the crux of the federal lawsuit against Baltimore County is that it was unreasonably difficult to build the addition, and the court-imposed consequences it now faces are too drastic.

“It’s a setback violation, and now the whole building’s got to be destroyed because of zoning violations.” Lewin said. “That’s exactly what RLUIPA is designed to prevent.”

Dalton thinks in the federal case Chabad is “out of luck." The law, Dalton said, only guarantees that religious buildings are treated the same as secular ones, not that they are immune to zoning rules. And RLUIPA is typically used to sue the executive branch of government; even Lewin said to his knowledge, it has not yet been used to sue a court.

“There’s not a lot of good facts for them in this case,” Dalton said. “I guess they figured: ‘We’ll ask for forgiveness later, we’ll pay something for this to go away.’”

Zoll said Chabad has offered her a financial settlement. No amount of money could convince her; she wants the addition gone.

But Heilman said if the Rivkins are like most Chabad followers, resolute in the belief that they are doing God’s work, they will not give up.

“They’re not going to disappear,” Heilman said. “They’re not going to go home.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

twitter.com/libsolomon

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