If Monday night’s five-hour Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting is any indication, the next meeting on the proposed Chai Center synagogue in Short Hills could go long and could get interesting.
In the crowded lunchroom of Hartshorn elementary, the audience was split between supporters of the Chai Center for Living Judaism and neighbors and other residents trying to keep the center from building a 16,350-foot on 1.8 acres of land instead of the required 3-acres for a house of worship.
The controversial plans for the building – proposed on a residential lot at Old Short Hills Road and Jefferson Avenue – include a 148-seat synagogue, a library, a social room and multipurpose room. The building would replace two single-family homes currently on the adjacent lots.
The proposal has been met with strong opposition from , also known as Save Millburn. The group is concerned about traffic, noise and a safety, as well as the structure being too big and sitting too close to the streets, which is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, they argue.
Township Planner Paul Phillips told the board that the they should consider whether the positives outweigh the negatives or vice versa in deciding whether to approve the variances The Chai Center has requested.
There is some debate as to whether Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky also needs a parking variance, as his lot will hold 50 cars. Any spillover traffic would either park on the street or at Millburn Middle School, but Bogomilsky says spillover traffic would be rare and amount to no more than about 13 days a year, including high holy days and bar and bat mitzvahs.
“Even then,” he said. “The spillover won’t amount to much – 10 or 15 cars at the most and that’s not such a big deal. Most days we struggle to get a minyan (10 people needed for prayer).”
When asked if he expected his congregation to grow with the addition of a new building, he said he didn’t because Orthodox Judaism is not for everyone. “People want to sit with their spouse, or if a girl is having a bat mitzvah, they want her called on the bima or, at a bar mitzvah, a mom wants to come up with her son,” he said.
That prompted one resident, Judy Rosenthal, to ask whether the township should all allow a house of worship that discriminates by gender (since girls can't go on the bima or read from the Torah).
Members of the congregation say they are the ones being discriminated against because of their religion and they just want to be treated as other house of worship have been treated in town.
When Board Member Roger Manshel told Bogomilsky that his thinking on the parking differs from everyone else in town and suggested that Bogomilsky was going to do what he wanted anyway, a woman evoked the name of Hitler, which led to a shouting match in which Rosenthal yelled for her not to “play the Jewish card. Shame on you.”
"Shame on you," the woman said.
Board President Joseph Steinberg banged his gavel and shouted, "Order."
The public will get to speak at the Feb. 13 meeting, where each speaker will have a maximum of three minutes each.
“That will be the last meeting in this case,” said Steinberg at the end of the meeting that adjourned close to midnight. “I am going to insist that we have decorum and respect in the room. So far we’ve accomplished that except for 30-seconds this evening. That will not be repeated.”