By Judie Jacobson
Connecticut Jewish Ledger
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
[print edition has photos]
LITCHFIELD-When Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield purchased a three-story red house on West Street two years ago, they had high hopes of relocating the cornucopia of social, educational and religious programs from its current location in a nearby shopping center to its new home across from Town Hall.
Recently, however, those hopes hit a roadblock when Chabad’s spiritual leader Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, accompanied by the organization’s architect, shared the organization’s plans to renovate the somewhat dilapidated Victorian-era structure with the Litchfield Historic District Commission at an informal meeting. The commission’s charge is to protect and preserve the historical nature of the one-square mile district that surrounds the Town Green.
Although Eisenbach assured the commission that the renovation would do little to change the façade of the building, commission members were bothered by Chabad’s plan to affix a clock with Hebrew lettering and a Star of David to a small steeple. And they weren’t thrilled about the stained glass windows or the choice of Jerusalem stone to side the building, either.
As reflected in the minutes, commission chairman Wendy Kuhne described the clock tower as “not appropriate” and the Jerusalem stone as “not indigenous” to the district. As for the Star of David n which, Eisenbach explained to the commission, would “identify it as a synagogue” n Khune concluded that the symbol “does not comply with the district.”
“I felt that an essential element of the expression of our religion had been denied,” Eisenbach told the region’s newspaper, the Republican American, following the Sept. 6 meeting.
“However, I am sure the commission will come to appreciate the beautiful new addition to Church Row,” he said, in a reference to the multitude of Christian houses of worship that line the area surrounding the Green, most of which sport tall steeples, stained glass windows, stone, wood and brick facades and, of course, crosses.
Ironically, the United Methodist Church of Litchfield, which sits just one door away from the Chabad house, has not one, but two, Stars of David…set in its stained glass windows, no less.
“The Methodist church has (a Star of David) and the other three churches in town have a cross on their steeple or the roof or whatever,” said Litchfield Borough Warden Lee Losee, who is in favor of allowing Chabad to move ahead with its plan n and who may just have the final say, given that the district falls within the borough of Litchfield and thus, in certain cases, comes under borough governance.
“There shouldn’t be any discrimination,” says Losee.
Not that anyone is suggesting that the commission is motivated by religious bias against the first synagogue ever to set up its tent in the Connecticut town. After all, this is the same commission that in 1998 ordered the removal of window boxes from a district home because, the commission concluded, it was quite possible, maybe even likely, that window boxes did not exist when the house was built in 1782.
Still, Chabad’s rights as a religious institution may override the commission’s right to preserve its historic district.
“This is a different type of application because it’s a place of worship, a synagogue,” Chabad’s attorney Peter Herbst told the Republican American. “While we recognize and respect their role to protect the historic district, a spirit we also endorse (the commission) will understand that they cannot compel us to do something that goes against an expression of religion.”
Eisenbach remains upbeat and above the fray.
“The commission, which is all volunteers, helps homeowners in the borough and I respect them all,” Eisenbach told the Litchfield County Times earlier this week. “I think that when we go ahead and explain the concept to them, we’re certain that they’ll respect the expressions of our religion. It will be a beautiful ending and, God willing, a beautiful beginning.”