Star Of David
Not Quite Right
For Our Neighborhood
"The Star of David may not comply with the District."
-- Hysterical District Commission Chairman Wendy Kuhne
“A steeple will be added to the roof of the building and have a clock face with Hebrew alphabet lettering. The siding will be a combination of wood and Jerusalem stone. Mrs. Kuhne noted her own objections to the stone which is not indigenous to the district ... "
EDITOR'S NOTE: Neither mental competency nor an understanding of the Constitution are required for public office, the courts and many civil service jobs. Of course, bigotry is tolerated and sometimes it is even celebrated.
Synagogue battle brewing
Commission: Proposed temple could disturb historic district
BY GEORGE KRIMSKY
Sept. 29, 2007
LITCHFIELD — This old Yankee borough may soon get its first synagogue, but only after facing the gauntlet of historical correctness. Trouble already is brewing.
Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, an Orthodox Jewish organization founded 11 years ago, has announced plans to establish a temple in a Victorian-era house it purchased in 2005 across from Town Hall on West Street.
When Chabad’s president, Rabbi Joseph I. Eisenbach, unveiled the conversion plan to the Litchfield Historic District Commission this month, he was told that a Star of David and other aspects of the plan might not fit the architectural character of the district.
Eisenbach and his architect replied that the overall integrity of the 1872 house would be retained but that certain changes would be necessary, such as the star and adding a roof steeple with Hebrew lettering on it, “to identify it as a synagogue,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
“I felt that an essential element of the expression of our religion had been denied,” Eisenbach said when asked by the RepublicanAmerican about the Sept. 6 meeting. “However, I am sure the commission will come to appreciate the beautiful new addition to Church Row.”
Eisenbach referred all further questions to Chabad’s attorney, Peter Herbst Sr. Although Herbst did not specifically mention the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the freedom of religion, he clearly set the stage for a case that will try to transcend historical issues.
“This is a different type of application because it’s a place of worship, a synagogue,” he said. “While we recognize and respect their role to protect the Historic District, a spirit we also endorse, they (commissioners) will understand that they cannot compel us to do something that goes against an expression of religion.”
He concluded by saying: “We are looking forward to working with the commission and coming to an agreement with them.” Chabad has not yet filed a formal application with the commission, which reviews and approves all exterior changes to buildings within the district. The first meeting was billed as a “prehearing,” which will be continued next month on a date to be determined.
The minutes of the Sept. 6 meeting indicate that Commission Chairman Wendy Kuhne, who declined to comment for this article, raised objections to the building plan.
According to the minutes: “A steeple will be added to the roof of the building and have a clock face with Hebrew alphabet lettering. The siding will be a combination of wood and Jerusalem stone. Mrs. Kuhne noted her own objections to the stone which is not indigenous to the district, feels the clock tower is not appropriate, and the Star of David may not comply with the District.”
Chabad Lubavitch bought the building and land at 85 West St., site of the former Wilderness Shop, in October 2005 for $375,000, according to records at Town Hall. The organization, which now embraces all of Northwestern Connecticut, has a community center in Litchfield, but this would be its first synagogue.
With the often unenviable role as arbiter of community taste, the Historic District Commission has locked horns in the past with property owners and real estate brokers. It has ordered flower boxes removed from in front of homes and more recently a historic plaque to a Revolutionary War hero taken down from the side of a house. It still faces a protracted lawsuit from a homeowner who replaced a 19th century door with a window.
Eisenbach also tangled with the district in the past for placing a menorah on the town Green without permission.
Condo That Banned Menorahs, Sukkahs
Our Condos, Our Town
By ANDY THIBAULT, Columnist
Law Tribune Newspapers
January 27, 2003
Imagine a democracy without the Bill of Rights. Among other things, such a place could be a haven for discrimination, favoritism and abuse.
Welcome to the land of condominium associations.
This seemed like such a good deal I thought I would start my own condo association.
Since my condo group is private, I'm throwing out the U.S. Constitution right away. One of my requirements is that every resident place three white Santas on their windowsills and plant three Christmas trees. Neighbors must say "Praise Jesus" upon greeting each other. Violators are subject to fines of $250 a day, which will be enforced by my condo board made up of tough, old, New England Yankees.
Menorahs are not OK, not OK at all. Doesn't matter if courts say they are secular symbols, our bylaws say they are religious icons. And not the kind of religious icons this association agrees with.
I should be able to sit back and relax now. But there have been some whispers from lawyers for the Jews and a few other malcontents talking about diversity, freedom, tolerance and other such nonsense. The courts have even gotten involved.
Think this is outlandish? So do I, but the tragedy is that it's already happened in real life. For example, the New York Court of Appeals ruled last year that a condo resident could put up a sukkah or temporary hut in which certain Jews eat their meals during the fall festival of Succot. The court called the condo association a quasi-government, "a little democratic sub society of necessity."
"Through the exercise of authority, to which would-be apartment owners must generally acquiesce, a governing board may significantly restrict the bundle of rights a property owner normally enjoys," the New York court said. "Moreover the broad powers of a cooperative board hold potential for abuse through arbitrary and malicious decision-making, favoritism, discrimination and the like."
There has been resistance to placing menorahs and sukkahs at other places, including New Haven and Guilford. A resident of New Haven condo has been fined more than $4,000 by his association, and is refusing to pay. His lawyer, David Avigdor, said the case will be interesting when it ends up in court.
I put my condo association in Litchfield, of course, because the town is already hospitable to anti-semitism. When a menorah was put up on the Litchfield town green a few years ago it was vandalized. And, of course, there is a real life condo case there that could result in litigation.
The Litchfield Ponds condo association updated its bylaws to specifically ban menorahs and sukkahs after a rabbi had celebrated holidays in public view. Crosses are out, too, but there were no reports of crosses being displayed. Christmas trees, lights and wreaths are in. "I'm not going to concede that a menorah is a secular symbol," said association President Robert Fisher. "There is no anti-Semitism at Litchfield Ponds and that includes me [but] at least one person came to me and wanted to know if there was a synagogue next to my unit."
That Fisher guy obviously knows how to run "a little democratic sub society of necessity." I'm taking my cues from him. At my condo association, there are no blacks or Jews. But we're not racist, we're just anti-Semitic, and this is our town.
The Beecher House Either
From Law & Justice
In Everyday Life,
Lady Brickload And The Pretenders
Up the road a ways from the Litchfield town green, about 190 years ago, there lived a precocious and free-thinking girl who would make history.
She grew up to write the first American protest novel. "She is as odd as she is intelligent and studious," wrote her father, the renowned preacher, Lyman Beecher. "I would give a hundred dollars if she was a boy ..."
Harriet Beecher was 11 years old. Today, control over the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe is fought on a fierce battleground; it's a mini civil war in a small New England town governed by town meeting. The combatants reveal the underside of small town politics. Money, influence and government by whisper of the Power Elite are lined up on one side against an upstart band of preservationists.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," shocked the reading public with its portrayal of Negroes as intelligent and caring individuals. Worse than that, the book dramatized damage done by slavery to souls of masters. It also sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies during its first week of publication, maintaining a solid pace with 300,000 sales by the end of 1852. In the entire 19th century, only the Bible sold more copies. Upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."
"She spoke for motherhood and the flag and apple pie, but made her readers uncomfortable eating that pie unless others were eating it too," wrote Stowe's biographer, Joan Hedrick of Trinity College. This message is too much for some to take.
Stowe's childhood house, used for many years as a dormitory at a private school, was slated for demolition last year. The local Historical Society and anyone who pretended to be interested in history missed the opportunity of a lifetime to buy the Beecher House for $1. An antiques dealer and restorer stepped forward to fill the breach. He meticulously dismantled and preserved the structure, earning tributes from experts in the field. But alas, he was a newcomer, and not on anyone's A-List of the socially acceptable. In an unintended tribute to George Orwell, prominent keepers of taste would use Historic District regulations to try to keep the house out of the center of town. Now they are spitting bullets and blood because Chandler Saint is not part of their tribe, he does not welcome busybodies, he does not kow-tow.
Leading the charge against Saint is Lynne Brickley of the Litchfield Historical Society and Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust. Brickley denies "sour grapes" on behalf of the society, but says: "It should be turned over to an impartial group of professional experts who would determine how the house would best be used." Translation: Power To My People; We Can Still Get It Back; Never Mind His Property Rights. The Hartford Courant calls Brickley a "Grande Dame." Saint's supporters call her "Lady Brickload."
Push came to shove this month when a Superior Court judge granted intervenor status to supporters of Saint's lawsuit against the board of selectmen. Selectmen had denied a petition for a town meeting. The town's legal counsel said the petition -- a proposal to acquire town land -- was legitimate. "I'm not sure they say that now, though," First Selectman Jerry Zinn told me. The town meeting, however, was a legitimate device when it acquired the land in question.
Officials also seem to forget that they don't own the land -- citizens own it. Another lawsuit looms, this one a civil rights action in federal court over denial of voter rights. After the petition was denied, Zinn was reported to have said, "We really stuck it to 'em."
"A lot of things are going around," Zinn said. "I don't know. It's not something I would have normally said."
Black Santa: Back Of The Bus
Symbols are important. Santa Claus, statues of military heroes, Columbus -- they all say something about the values of our society.
The day Black Santa came to virtually all-white Litchfield, values and fears were played out in a most curious way. It all started when Paul Mordecai Rosenberg, a self-described Jewish atheist, brought a plastic, three-foot-high, black Santa Claus to town hall. Rosenberg said he was giving the town a chance to show it was not bigoted. Top officials had been under fire because they refused to allow a town meeting on a proposal that would honor the great abolitionist and best-selling author of the 19th century, Litchfield's own Harriet Beecher Stowe. There seemed to be a methodical attempt in town to downplay Stowe. Stowe was rarely, if ever, honored by the local historical society or town officials. Some owners of the big mansions talked openly about the prospect of declining property values should the Stowe house be restored in a prime downtown location. Others whispered and trembled at the possibility that busloads of black kids would be coming to town to see the childhood home of the woman who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
For two days, Black Santa sat happily under a Christmas tree. Then he disappeared.
It seems a few people were quite upset. "Everyone knows Jesus was white," one town official was reported to have said.
Someone handed First Selectman Jerry Zinn a memo complaining that this Santa was, well, "inappropriate." No one ever explained how or why.
And so Black Santa stayed tucked away in the back of Jerry Zinn's office for Christmas. Connecticut's TV stations came to see. Even CNN ran a story. Zinn said he liked being on TV.
I asked Zinn for a copy of the memo. He told others he tore it up.
Because this memo -- from one town employee to another -- was a public record, I asked Zinn to produce it or reconstruct it in accordance with Connecticut's Freedom of Information law. The FOI Commission advised me that destruction of public records is a serious criminal offense, a Class A misdemeanor, Sec. 1-240, and that the State's Attorney should be informed. Penalties include fines of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail. The State's Attorney's office advised me to report such an incident to the state police, and I did.
I also asked Town Assessor Harold Doucey if he had written the memo or if it came from his computer. Doucey responded, "I don't know the source of it. It could have been computer-generated. It didn't come from my computer." When Doucey was told by a citizen that Zinn had given him up to others as the author of the memo, Doucey stated, "I believe in putting everything in writing."
Tourism is the top priority in Litchfield's plan of development. Some communities would be proud to have the Stowe House. How can this Board of Selectmen turn their backs on a no-brainer?
"It would be nice," said Dorothea DiCecco, a University of Connecticut biology professor and a local proponent of the Beecher House, "to show the world that Litchfield is not racist, that Litchfield welcomes everyone."
DiCecco is right. It would be a shame to let Litchfield get away with this.
Law & Justice In Everyday Life by Andy Thibault at Amazon.com
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