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Litchfield Chabad wins 10-year legal fight to open Chabad House

(JTA) With additional reporting by the Ledger

Chabad-Lubavitch can convert a historic 136-year-old Victorian home in Litchfield, into a Chabad House, a federal court ruled in a lawsuit that was launched 10 years ago.

Chabad can build a modified version of its original plan from 2007, Judge Janet Hall of U.S. District Court in New Haven ruled last week. Hall ordered the Litchfield Borough’s Historic District Commission to approve the revised plan.

In 2007, the commission rejected the Chabad House, saying it was too large and out of character for the historic district located on the Litchfield Green. The turndown spurred a federal lawsuit against the commission claiming religious discrimination.

As part of the modification, the judge ruled that Chabad must eliminate a planned second-floor apartment for the Chabad House rabbi, Joseph Eisenbach, and his family, which includes 12 children. She said that not living in the Chabad House would not infringe on the group’s religious rights.

Led by Rabbi Eisenbach and his wife Mina, whose father, Rabbi Joseph Gopin, is spiritual leader of Chabad House of West Hartford, the Litchfield Chabad has maintained a presence in that town since 1996.

Chabad purchased the former retail shop at 85 West St. in 2005. However, plans to renovate and expand the 2,500-square-foot building were denied in 2007 by the Historic District Commission that oversees the Borough of Litchfield, a one-square-mile district in the center of town that comprises the West Street property.

Chabad then sued the commission, citing violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Connecticut Religious Freedom Act, and several provisions of the U.S. and State Constitutions. In February 2012, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, and Chabad filed an appeal to the decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City. The federal appellate court subsequently overturned the ruling in 2014.

Eisenbach said in a statement that Chabad had faced “serious religious bias” during the decade-long legal battle, according to the local newspaper, The Register Citizen.

“On the one hand there is great joy that after a 10-year struggle we can move forward with our synagogue,” the rabbi said. “At the same time, I sadly witnessed the most serious religious bias from a very small percent of the Litchfield Community which destroyed 10 years of great blessings of a Synagogue. Thankfully, they don’t represent the overwhelming majority of the great citizens of our town.”

The building will serve as a synagogue and religious education center. It will have a kosher kitchen and office space, as well as a mikvah. A swimming pool will be used for a summer camp.

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