Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Watch," she whispered, "he'll talk about the Holocaust."

A Tangle Of Tensions

Mood In Litchfield Grows Ugly
As Religion, Historical Integrity
Collide Over Synagogue Plan

[Editor's Note: Historical Integrity???]

Courant Staff Writer
December 20, 2007

When Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach stood to address the Litchfield Historic District Commission this week at the final public hearing on his congregation's plans to put a synagogue near the town green, a woman in the audience turned to the person sitting next to her.

"Watch," she whispered, "he'll talk about the Holocaust."

The rabbi did not mention the Holocaust, but some people — including the woman who suggested he would — didn't stick around to find that out.

They left the minute Eisenbach said, "When my family moved into this town, people from around the state told us we were crazy. Litchfield, they said, has a history of hate and bigotry toward Jews."

"This is ridiculous," said one audience member.

"I'm not staying to listen to this," said another.

And about 10 people scraped back their folding chairs and left.

As a result, they didn't hear Eisenbach's next statement, which was, "Well, we proved them wrong … we found most of the people in this town to be loving and caring, unbiased, sweet, really a community as good as it gets."


But the angry scene at Monday's public hearing is emblematic of an unraveling that has taken place in the last two months over the proposal from the orthodox Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County to convert a 135-year-old home on West Street into a synagogue and community center.

Simmering tensions over religious tolerance and historical integrity are converging as the commission nears tonight's vote on the application.

The historically tough commission's beef with the plans center around the size of an addition and some of the changes that would be made to the original structure, such as the construction of a clock tower. The Deming House, as it is called, was once a private home, but was renovated and gutted of much of its historical integrity in the 1980s so it could be used as a commercial property.

The Chabad's plans call for a 21,000-square-foot building that would include, among other things, the synagogue, a swimming pool, living space for the rabbi's family and an apartment for staff. It would also function as a community center for the Chabad, which provides education, special events, children's programs and worship services.

Special Protection?

The dispute, in one sense, is about whether the intended religious use of the building affords the application special protection under the First Amendment that trumps the historic district's regulations.

Those arguing from the Chabad's side, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which joined the fray this month, say it does.

"Denying this application, because the mass or the size of the addition is, in your opinion, too large, substitutes your opinion for that of Rabbi Eisenbach as to what is necessary to fulfill the Chabad's religious mission," the group's lawyer, Peter C. Herbst, told the commission Monday. "The federal and state constitutions prohibit you, the government, from imposing that secular judgment upon a place of worship."

On the other side is a group of residents opposed to the project who hired their own lawyer and an architectural historian to fight the plans. They have argued that the Chabad is "hiding behind" the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.

They say the historic district commission should base its decision solely on the merits of the application and whether it conforms to the regulations.

"Do not be distracted by the building's purported use," said Patricia Sullivan, a lawyer for the opponents.

The dispute has gone way beyond the legal arguments of the case, however. It's gotten downright nasty.

Since the application was filed, the chairwoman of the commission — who was quoted widely as having questioned whether a Star of David was appropriate for the town center — recused herself from the proceedings.

But that didn't stop an online blogger from depicting her on his website dressed in a Nazi uniform, which prompted some angry residents to cry foul and demand that First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. enter the fray, which he declined to do.

As the veiled accusations of anti-Semitism have grown on one side, charges of bullying and zealotry have been levied against the Chabad by residents who feel they have been unfairly painted in the media.

It didn't help when residents turned up at Monday's public hearing and found on each chair copies of letters from the ADL and ACLU supporting the Chabad, along with a reprint of a 1943 article from the "Nation" magazine. The article, by author Willson Whitman about traveling to Litchfield on Christmas Eve, states point blank that Jews were not allowed to own property in town.

It was "just a sort of general agreement — yes, you could call it a Christian unity among Litchfield people on that point. No, they didn't realize it was Hitler's party line," a local minister told the author in 1943.

Needless to say, that didn't calm down anybody at the public hearing in 2007.

"You know, I'm a simple person, and this confuses me," said Laurel McKewen, who looked more distressed than confused.

Resident Zeus Goldberg, who is Jewish, stayed to listen to the rabbi speak Monday. Goldberg didn't comment on the Nation article, but had some pointed criticisms for the Chabad team.

"By now, it is abundantly clear that the application by the Chabad Lubavitch group … has turned from its original purpose into an enormous public relations struggle and pseudo-religious freedom issue that will benefit no one, drag on for years and be tremendously costly to all parties involved," Goldberg said.

Like others at the hearing, Goldberg opposes the size of the project because he believes it will not "merge" with the historic district.

According to Goldberg and Eisenbach, both of whom attended a subsequent meeting of the commission Tuesday night, the panel appears ready to deny the application as is and wants the addition scaled down dramatically before it can be approved.

Commission members proposed a motion Tuesday that would give the Chabad an opportunity to revise the plan and bring it back to the commission, Goldberg said. That motion is expected to be approved tonight.

"Sadly, we're expecting a denial," Eisenbach said.

Historical Integrity

A denial wouldn't be all that surprising, given that Litchfield has a well-deserved reputation for closely guarding its pristine historic character.

Highlights of that effort include a 1996 showdown over whether a menorah could be placed on the picturesque town green, a crackdown on a the unfortunate bed and breakfast owner who wanted to put window boxes on the front of her house and a pitched battle over whether to allow a chain store — in this case, a respectable, tweed-filled Talbot's — to take up residence on the green.

But the commission's view on this project has also led to accusations of inconsistency.

Other religious institutions in the historic district are larger than the proposed synagogue, and its next door neighbor, the United Methodist Church, would be roughly the same size.

There is also controversy over whether the Chabad should be allowed to build a clock toweron the roof of the house — a change that was opposed by James Sexton, the architectural historian hired by opponents, because, he said, it would alter the historic character of the original house and because it doesn't comply with the federal Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.

Sexton was even more critical of the proposed addition, because it would be 18 feet wider and more than twice as long as the original home — another violation of federal standards, he said.

Experts for the Chabad, however, recited a list of buildings in the historic district that wouldn't comply with this standard, including the town library and a proposed renovation of town hall, which is currently 7,884-square-feet and would jump to 20,000-square-feet under current plans. The town hall is located almost directly across the street from the proposed synagogue.

"I have to ask why, when the Historic District Commission is dealing with a constitutionally protected use such as the Chabad, rather than a nursing home … or town hall, which are not afforded similar protection under the Constitution, why would a different and more-difficult-to-meet standard be applied?" asked Herbst, the Chabad's lawyer.

The commission might be forced to answer that question in court in the coming months if the project is denied — just as Goldberg predicted.

"As a resident in this town and almost a Yankee rabbi, and someone who cares dearly for every resident, and every aspect of this community, I ask you not to make the mistake of denying us our certificate," Eisenberg said Monday night. "It will sadly make Litchfield look like something it really is not, and it will not bring closure to this historic chapter in our community's history."

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