By Cindy Mindell ~
HARTFORD – As with any legal decision, the recent ruling by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Maria Araujo-Kahn in favor of Chabad Chevra at the University of Hartford is evoking a range of response.
Neighbors of the house at 100 Bloomfield Ave. fear unruly behavior from students walking back and forth from campus, citing an increase in littering since Chabad Chevra (an affiliate of Chabad of Greater Hartford) purchased the building in 2009.
Levy & Droney, the legal firm that represented Chabad Chevra, laud the court’s decision as an example of upholding religious freedom in a building formerly used by the American Baptist Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.
For Rabbi Yosef Kulek, who has led the University of Hartford Chabad since 2000, the decision takes on an illustrious, even mystical, quality. He equates the ruling with a historic moment in the establishment of the Chabad movement.
“On the nineteenth of Kislev 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, was released from his imprisonment in St. Petersburg, where he was held on charges that his teachings threatened the imperial authority of the Czar,” Kulek says. “Coming full circle, the decision of Judge Araujo-Kahn was rendered on the nineteenth of Kislev of this year and was delivered to the emissaries of Chabad and followers of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s teachings on the twentieth of Kislev. The Rebbe and his teachings continue to illuminate the world and will always prevail.”
Chabad Chevra purchased the building with a grant from the George and Pamela Rohr Family Foundation, intending to use it both as a residence for the Kuleks, and as a communal worship space and student-activity center. Soon after Chabad initiated programming in the new building, a group of neighbors lodged a complaint with the City of Hartford. Kulek and Rabbi Joseph Gopin of Chabad of Hartford, together with Levy & Droney, met with the Hartford Planning & Zoning Commission, where they were eventually presented with a cease and desist order. Chabad appealed and continued to use the building, until the January decision. The City of Hartford has opted not to appeal.
In her ruling, Araujo-Kahn wrote, “The only apparent distinction between the activities of the prior owner and Chabad Chevra is their religion, Christianity and Judaism,” leading some to cite antisemitic sentiment among the dissenting neighbors.
One neighbor who asked to remain anonymous, insists that this is not the case. In addition to the increased littering in the neighborhood, “Chabad said that they would use the building for ‘religious purposes,’ but they are doing something else,” he says. For example, students often stay overnight on Jewish holidays, creating an unauthorized dormitory.
Three other Connecticut Chabad affiliates are currently working to establish new facilities in their respective communities. In 2008, Chabad of the Shoreline applied for permits to enlarge its facility at 181 Goose Lane in Guilford and met with vociferous local opposition until zoning commissioners approved the project, yet to be built. In 2009, Chabad of Northwest Connecticut filed a legal challenge to the Historic District Commission of Litchfield to deny Chabad’s plans to convert a former sporting-goods store in the town center into a synagogue and activities center. The case is pending.
Last month, Chabad of Westport purchased a vacant landmark restaurant in the town, and began operating in the building on a limited basis before attaining all necessary permits. Chabad was granted an abeyance until Feb. 23, allowing the organization to hold educational classes while completing the permit-application process.
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