Jewish group in Towson claims court order to raze Chabad center is case of religious discrimination

Organizers of a Jewish outreach center for college students in Towson have launched a campaign against a Baltimore County judge’s order to tear down the center, describing the decision an act of religious discrimination.

The Hasidic Jewish organization Friends of Lubavitch, which operates the Jewish outreach program Chabad that serves students at Towson University and Goucher College, built a large addition to a residence in the Aigburth Manor area of Towson in 2014 and have been locked in a legal battle ever since with neighbors and the county over zoning and land covenants.

This month a county Circuit Court judge affirmed earlier rulings that the center violated zoning rules and must be demolished, at the expense of the owners.

Since then a group called Friends of Towson Chabad — which includes the rabbi and his wife who live at the center and operate the Chabad — took the case public with a crowdfunding page on the website Charidy. In addition, a Change.org petition supporting the center had gathered more than 8,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

The court’s order to demolish a “religious hospitality center” is unprecedented, organizers claim on the crowdfunding site: “We cannot let this heartless injustice occur. Not now. Not ever.”

In other documents, organizers liken the opposition to the center and the court rulings to Kristallnacht, an historical event in 1938 in which German Nazis torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes. Nearly 100 Jews were killed.

“Eighty years after Kristallnacht, a rabbi’s home and a home for thousands of Jewish students is slated for destruction,” the organizers state. “For a clearly discriminatory ruling like this to be administered in the 21st century is chilling.”

Neighbors including Robin Zoll, who lives next door to the Chabad, vehemently deny that the case has anything to do with religious discrimination. She called it strictly a “land use issue,” and said the comparison to Kristallnacht is especially upsetting.

“I’ve lived in this community for more than 50 years, and I have a very good reputation, and I am not an anti-Semite or an anti-anything,” Zoll said. “It’s an absolute besmirchment of everything that I am.”

Paul Hartman, who is part of the neighborhood umbrella group Towson Communities Alliance, also denied that the opposition has anything to do with religion. He said when he and other neighbors began meeting about the case, he asked them: “Imagine, whatever faith you are, imagine if it were your faith involved in this. What would your opinion be?’

“As far as I’m concerned, I would have the same opinion,” he said.

The Chabad is the latest religious institution to tangle with Baltimore County over zoning regulations.

Four other institutions — Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries and ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue — are each involved in federal lawsuits alleging that county officials discriminated against them in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The act is designed to protect houses of worship and religious institutions from discrimination in zoning.

In the Towson Chabad case, property records indicate that Friends of Lubavitch purchased the house on Aigburth Road in 2008.

In 2014, Rabbi Menachem Rivkin and his wife Sheiny Rivkin, who live there, announced plans to expand the Chabad center, and in 2015 applied for a permit to build a parsonage on the property. After that was denied, they applied to expand the house, and received a county building permit to construct a 6,614-square-foot addition to the original 2,200-square-foot home. It was built in 2016.

Neighbors filed legal challenges to the center, saying that while the county approved the addition as a private residence, it was also being used as Chabad of Towson and Goucher, an outreach center providing support and activities for the college campuses' Jewish community.

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals agreed, and said operating a community center in a residential zone violated county regulations. In its written decision, the board accused Friends of Lubavich of being “insincere” in calling the center a residence, and said the group had “achieved its goals by manipulating both the administrative system as well as everyone’s natural inclination to defer to religious organizations.”

Zoll and other neighbors also cited 1950 covenants in the Aigburth community requiring buildings to be 115 feet from the street — the addition is less than 60 feet off Aigburth Road. In a Circuit Court hearing in 2017, Rivkin testified he had no knowledge of the setback restriction until the building was already under construction, and Friends of Lubavitch called the covenant “unenforceable.”

Judge Susan Souder disagreed, saying it was “undisputed” that the 1950 covenants were still in effect.

After a number of appeals, other court decisions reaffirmed not only the Chabad’s status as a community center, but also the violation of the setbacks.

In the latest decision Nov. 2, Judge Kathleen Cox also ruled out the possibility that the center could simply be moved farther back on the property, saying that would “authorize the continuation of a commercial use that has been found to be non-compliant with restrictions on the property.”

Cox ordered Chabad to deposit funds to raze the building within 45 days of receiving a final estimate for demolition costs.

The fundraising page calls the building a “religious hospitality center,” and property records show the land is listed as a tax-exempt religious institution. The Rivkins have maintained the primary purpose for the addition was as a residence, to provide space for their growing family.

A video on the website describes the facility as a home away from home for Jewish students — one student says it has a “cozy, warm, homey feel,” and others say the Rivkins make them feel welcome and help them maintain their connection to the Jewish faith while attending college.

This week the Rivkins referred inquiries from The Sun to spokesman Levi Rabinowitz, who declined to comment.

Friends of Lubavitch has retained Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, whose law firm website lists experience in arguing “religious liberty litigation” before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lewin said the group is exploring its legal options. He said government officials sometimes “use the cover of zoning violations to impede, hinder or obstruct or burden religious exercise,” and thinks the Towson Chabad case — like the others being contested in Baltimore County — might fall under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Chabad’s fundraising page states a goal of raising $250,000; as of Wednesday it had pledges of about $133,000 from 1,000 donors. Organizers of the online campaign say the funds will be used to chart the “best path forward” — possibly including a settlement with neighbors or razing the structure and rebuilding.

“In all scenarios, these funds will ensure there is a home away from home for the Jewish students of Towson University and Goucher College,” the website says.

County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, said in an email that he is trying to work with the neighborhood and Chabad to come up with a solution, which could include relocating the center.

“Some of the rhetoric has been misleading and unhelpful, and I hope it can be toned down [so that] all parties work together toward a positive outcome,” Marks said.

The other Baltimore County cases involving religious institutions fighting Baltimore County zoning restrictions are expected to be heard in the new year.

Hunt Valley Baptist Church sued after the county’s Board of Appeals ruled in 2016 against a request to build a 1,000-seat sanctuary, classrooms and gym on a 17-acre farm on Shawan Road. The church needed a special exception in order to build a church on a property with conservation zoning.

ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, which primarily serves Russian-speaking Jews, bought property in Pikesville to use as a synagogue and home for a rabbi, but the Board of Appeals ruled against the plan earlier this year.

At Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries, pastor Lucy Ware sued after being denied variances to use a home in Milford Mill as a church. The case went to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, where the church lost. The church filed a different plan, but was turned down again by the county. A federal judge dismissed Jesus Christ is the Answer’s religious discrimination lawsuit, which now is on appeal.

And at Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, officials sought to expand its facility on Beaver Dam Road by constructing a 67,115-square foot building. The church’s plan was approved, but the county Board of Appeals instituted restrictions, such as a requirement to notify neighbors of large events and to space out Sunday worship services. In its lawsuit, the church argues those restrictions “substantially burden” the church’s ability to have free exercise of religion.

The county is considering hiring private attorneys to help defend the lawsuits. The county issued a request for proposals from law firms, due Nov. 2. An award of a contract usually takes 60 days after that.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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