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A house is not only a home

After a Chabad rabbi expanded his home to host Jewish college students for the Sabbath, neighbors sued

A house is not only a home

Towson University and Goucher College students pose with Rabbi Mendy Rivkin and his wife Sheiny at the Chabad House in Towson, Md. (Handout)

It’s Friday night as usual for a group of Jewish college students at 14 Aigburth Road. Outside, the sun has set on a quiet residential street. Inside, candles flicker in one corner of a spacious dining room. A dozen folding tables, graced with white tablecloths patterned with swirling silver, signal a feast to come.

Around the tables, skirt-clad girls chat while taking turns coddling two tiny, 4-month-old twins in what they call “baby tag.” In an adjoining study separated by lattice wood dividers, Rabbi Mendy Rivkin leads a dozen young men in reciting a ritual prayer.

Meanwhile, the rabbi’s wife, Rebbetzin Sheiny Rivkin, is in the kitchen, flanked by a handful of girls who warm up food, fill pitchers, and chop lettuce. “We’re running behind,” Sheiny said in her rapid-fire Italian accent. But as she moves easily about the room, directing the table-setting or herding one of her seven children, she peppers nearly every sentence with an exhortation to “thank God.”

It’s a necessary reminder because, currently, the Rivkins are locked in a yearslong court battle over these very rooms. In 2016, they built a 4,400- square-foot addition to their house that provoked a series of lawsuits from the neighborhood association, culminating last October in a Baltimore County court order to tear down the $800,000 addition.

Doing the demolition would be expensive and would jeopardize the religious observance of the dozens of students from Goucher College (2 miles away) and Towson University (700 feet away) who rely on the Rivkins’ hospitality to practice their Jewish faith. In dorm rooms students can’t keep some Jewish practices—like baking challah bread, cooking up chicken matzo ball soup, and lighting ceremonial candles. For Jews who don’t drive on the Sabbath, getting to the nearest synagogue 7 miles away is often impractical.

Handout

The Rivkins (Handout)

The Rivkins are shluchim (emissaries) of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish movement. The Chabad movement encourages Jews in religious observance that they say will ultimately bring about the advent of the Messiah. Each Chabad house caters to the unique needs of the community: Some act as synagogues, some as schools, and many are inseparable from the home itself.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” Sheiny explained. “It’s a way of life—to make a safe home for all Jews.”

College students are the Rivkins’ special province because, as Mendy explains, they’re “at the age I feel is the most vulnerable. Colleges do a great job in a lot of areas, but religious development is not exactly one of them.”

In 2008, when the Rivkins first moved into the house with just one kid in tow, it took time to build relationships with the students. But soon students could expect that when they were sick, Sheiny would bring soup, or if they needed advice, Mendy would be in the library with a supply of bagels and cream cheese. Soon, more and more students began showing up for Shabbat dinners, Hanukkah parties, and Judaism classes. The Rivkins’ 2,200-square-foot home, particularly their kitchen and living room, began to be overrun. Goucher alum Chana Colin recalls having “elbows in my face while eating chicken.”

By 2011, the Rivkins decided they needed more space, not only for hosting students, but also for their growing family. Before granting them permission to build, county officials required the Rivkins to discuss the proposed addition with the neighborhood. The Rivkins also had to attend multiple public zoning hearings where officials mulled over how to classify the addition, debating whether it was a synagogue, a community center, or a residence. The neighbors expressed to the county their opposition to the extension: They cited the Friday night dinners and other activities as proof the Rivkins were operating a community center. But in April 2016, the county issued the Rivkins a building permit under a residential classification.

Construction was underway when, in July 2016, a neighbor informed the Rivkins’ their plans violated a setback restriction someone had discovered in a 1950 property covenant. The covenant required that the house be at least 115 feet from the curb, but the addition would be about half that. The Rivkins, who hadn’t known about the covenant when they bought the property, decided it was too late to stop building.

The neighbors sued, arguing the Rivkins were in violation of the covenant and of zoning laws. A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the neighbors and ordered the Rivkins to tear down the addition. The Rivkins appealed, and asked if they could move the structure back to comply with the covenant. The court also rebuffed that request, ruling that the structure would still violate residential zonings.

The neighborhood is not entirely residential. On the same street are a nursing home, multifamily units, a church, and the grounds of Towson High School.

Handout

The Rivkins’ home (center) (Handout)

On Dec. 20, 2018, the Rivkins filed a federal lawsuit in defense of their Chabad house (aka “Chabad of Towson and Goucher”) against Baltimore County and the Circuit Court, arguing the government violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). A U.S. Department of Justice website notes RLUIPA protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions “from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.” Under RLUIPA, the government cannot “burden” or hinder religious exercise through zoning laws unless it can prove that it does so out of compelling interest and in the least restrictive way to meet that interest.

The Chabad house’s lawsuit is the fifth RLUIPA suit brought against Baltimore County in the past two years. A synagogue, a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian church, and a Mormon ministry have sued the county for what they deem discriminatory zoning decisions.

The neighborhood association declined to comment for this article, but next-door neighbor Robin Zoll testified in the complaint that the extension blocks the view in front of her home and that the property value of her home decreased 5 percent. The Rivkins say they’ve never had noise complaints from neighbors, and that street parking isn’t a problem because they have parking space at the side of their home. (Zoll told The Baltimore Sun, and Rivkin confirmed, that the Chabad house had offered her financial compensation, but she turned it down because she wants the addition removed.)

Garrett Power, professor emeritus of law at the University of Maryland, said RLUIPA gives religious institutions an unfair advantage. He gave the example of a megachurch wanting to move into the suburbs. “The stakes can be quite high. If a county imposes a regulation, and they say they’re trying to protect against traffic or too much sewage, they can be sued under RLUIPA and be subject to huge amounts of damages.”

Antero Pietila, author of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, allowed that “people are in the habit of trying to circumvent regulations.” But he also said zoning laws and covenants have been selectively enforced to discriminate racially or religiously: “Covenants have been used in the same way that zoning has been used. They’re seen as a way of screening out undesirables—people who cannot afford and do not belong.”

Students and alumni have rallied around the Rivkins by starting a Facebook group and writing letters of support. Chabad rabbis have launched a social media campaign, raising over $160,000 in donations. Even Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford wrote a letter to the county, arguing that the ordered demolition “sets an unfortunate precedent of local government tearing down a religious structure over a simple zoning dispute between neighbors.”

On Jan. 10, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Cox granted Chabad a temporary reprieve on the tear-down order. Now the Rivkins have to wait until an appeal is heard in Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.

But all of that seems far away on a quiet Friday night at 14 Aigburth Road. With the tables set, students bow their heads over the blessing of the challah bread and line up to wash their hands in preparation for the meal. As the evening progresses, more and more students trickle in to eat chicken, drink the soup, and listen in mostly respectful silence to Mendy’s Torah teaching. As more arrive, others set up three more tables. The Rivkins expected unannounced arrivals because, as one student named Jessica Teich explained, “you don’t RSVP for dinner with your family.”

This story has been updated to correct the description of Chabad beliefs in regard to the Messiah.

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and a reporter for WORLD.

Comments

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Sat, 03/30/2019 01:42 pm

    On a street with a nursing home, multifamily units, a church, a high school and a college, a home hosting dinners with well-behaved college kids seems like a perfect fit.  In a culture profuse with calls for ending discrimination, Christians and Jews are still fair game.  Why is this?  I assume it is because they represent the one true God, whom the world hates.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Mon, 04/01/2019 08:03 pm

    Well, they can't complain about too much traffic or the noise and conjestion of cars, etc., the visitors are walking!  How is this a bad thing?

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 04/03/2019 07:59 am

    If there was going to be a problem with the building, then the township should not have granted the permit.

  • pamelak
    Posted: Wed, 04/03/2019 04:49 pm

    This makes me so very sad.  How have we come to this point?  Our enemy is at work here.  LORD, please intervene.

    Pamela