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Heat Rises at Chai Center Hearing

Five-hour meeting was a preview of what's to come when public gets a chance to speak on Feb. 13.

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.”

Hedley February 03, 2012 at 05:13 PM
Isn't the issue that houses of worship ARE allowed in residential areas but for some reason this guy is being thwarted at every turn whether by the town or a group formed for the sole purpose of preventing his operation. Every other house of worship in town is in a residential area and yet MSH is one of the most desirable places to live? How did that happen then? Why can every other denomination have a house of worship in a residential area but the one denomination that actually needs to be in a residential area is told to move to another town?
Blanket Jackson February 03, 2012 at 06:59 PM
It's easy to make that argument until you look deeper and understand that the existing houses of worship in town were built when the land were wide open and there weren't neighborhoods around them. Since they were built, homes have encroached upon the houses of worship's property. Here you have the opposite scenario. A house of worship encroaching upon a residential neighborhood. As towns grow over the years and land and space grow scarcer they create zoning and land use regulations in order to preserve the character and feel the town has developed over the years. This is not something that is particular to MSH, it happens everywhere.
Hedley February 03, 2012 at 07:32 PM
What does it matter who came first if the end result is the same and allowable - all houses of worship are in residential neighborhoods and don't diminish the "quiet" suburban neighborhoods, nor the "character and feel the town has developed." It's one thing to be discussing the zoning laws and what qualifies and doesn't qualify for a variance. If the criteria is "character and feel" that strikes me as being code for something sinister. I can understand having bought a house only to find out your neighbor wants to build a house of worship next door. Of course, if you bought a house already knowing that there was a de facto house of worship next door then maybe that decision should have been thought through more carefully. Regardless, I think it is a safe bet that the far majority of the opposition doesn't even live near the subject property. So if they aren't neighbors who are the one who truly would be affected, why would anyone else care?
Cham February 03, 2012 at 08:03 PM
You make a good point. Orthodox Jews are one of the few (if only) religions that *need* to be in a residential area, because of needing to walk to shul on Shabbat. But since they moved to Short Hills later than the Episcopals and the Catholics, they are the ones being told that they *can't* build a synagogue in a residential area.
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:04 PM
PS Regarding the other houses of worship being (technically) in residential neighborhoods, I think it is a safe bet that nobody currently residing in those residential areas was living there prior to the houses of worship being built.
Cham February 03, 2012 at 08:04 PM
What would make you think that the membership is "clearly willing to relocate around the synagogue"? What kind of superhuman/congregants can "relocate" at any given time around their synagogue? What was written is that prospective homebuyers considering a move to Short Hills, if they are Orthodox Jews, will generally choose to buy a home within walking distance of an Orthodox shul (aka the Chai Center). But those already living near the Chai Center and going there for services can't necessarily willy nilly up and sell their homes and move! We are in a terrible housing market. It's quite difficult these days to sell one's home and move to another.
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Hedley, quoting parts and responding to your post: It's one thing to be discussing the zoning laws and what qualifies and doesn't qualify for a variance. If the criteria is "character and feel" that strikes me as being code for something sinister. ==> In my 20+ years in MSH, I haven’t met any of the sinister, bigoted, anti-Semitic, self-hating, anti-Orthodox people that you guys seem to find in the neighborhood. Blinkered vision I guess. I can understand having bought a house only to find out your neighbor wants to build a house of worship next door. ==> Not next door, but very near by, so I guess I qualify. I would be driving past the subject building 6+ times a day. Regardless, I think it is a safe bet that the far majority of the opposition doesn't even live near the subject property. So if they aren't neighbors who are the one who truly would be affected, why would anyone else care? ==> I don’t know if I’m in the majority of the opposition or the minority, but I live very near the subject property, so I do care, and who are you to attribute despicable motives to my caring?
Cham February 03, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Hedley, thank you for your sensible and sensitive comments. Is anyone complaining that Christ Church, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, is diminishing the "character and feel" of the town? I agree, that there is something sinister going on: in the situation of the Chai Center, "ruining the character and feel of the neighborhood" is code for "Now there are going to be Orthodox Jews in town."
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:06 PM
PPS Maybe it is a small thing, but you did at least acknowledge that those living nearby would "truly be affected."
MillerTime February 03, 2012 at 08:16 PM
As a Jefferson Ave resident I grew tired of reading these bickering posts. Here's is how I feel....My home is worth a substantial sum of money and I believe a non residential property will lower my property value substantially and traiffic will increased. I also believe that once this house of worship is up and running full force - obtaining new members will be an easy task for the rabbi at this somewhat prestigious address.( I believe he knows this and is dishonest conveying anything else) I respect almost all religions (radical hate ones - no) I dont want any kind of non residential building on my street - Catholic, Jewish,Protestant,Islam, preschool, 7-11 , whatever! He is nowhere close to allowable amount of property for this non residential structure to be built and a varience should not be granted. PERIOD! After saying all of this, I highly doubt he will not get his way once it finally goes through the court system. Our legal system seems to submit once the discrimination card is raised, no matter what the underlying circumstance. By the way, the Hitler comparison should be appauling to all because it minimizes what horrific deeds of an evil man.
M OKeef February 03, 2012 at 08:17 PM
I personally have no objection to orthodox group being there. And right now I gather they have 2 properties and want to consolidate to one building? Fine enough. But don't understand why they can't design a facility which fits within the acreage they have without variances? If they did this wouldn't the building be approved without question? Or is one of the zoning questions: can a religious house exist on this particular property?
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:21 PM
MillerTime, You might well be right that he will prevail in Court eventually, but that's no reason not to voice our opposition. I expect that this will lower my property values as well, but perhaps I am mistaken.
Cham February 03, 2012 at 08:22 PM
You know, has anyone ever stopped to think how Rabbi Bogomilsky and his family feels? He is married and has several children and is basically being "run out of town." While they do have a small congregation of followers, most of Millburn/Short Hills are not Orthodox. How do you think this family, different from many in town, feels being somewhat different in beliefs (and even in dress) than many in our town? They are human beings, after all? How do you think it feels to feel unwelcome in the town you live in? Has anyone in town, even if you're not an Orthodox Jew, ever extended a welcoming hand to the Bogomilskys during the decades they've lived in town?
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:26 PM
No, I haven't extended him a welcoming hand, but by the same token, I don't recall him coming to my door with hand outstretched either. "Running him out of town"???? Cham, you are going to keep escalating the nonsense until finally those of us interested in civil conversation are "run out of the thread." At that point, I guess you'll sit back and smugly claim that you told us. Please, discuss this rationally, and stop being dramatic about sinister forces running children out of town.
Hedley February 03, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Seeing as how no other zoning application has cost this much time and money, not too mention such opposition, makes me wonder why this one is different. There are houses of worship all over town in residential areas, with parking lots, parks, etc., but no one complains. So again, why is this one different? Why do so many people having no ties to the particular area, have such opposition? It's all very curious.
Hedley February 03, 2012 at 08:31 PM
Of course those living nearby would be affected - at least on occasion. But I don't know that that is a dispositive criteria for rejecting a zoning application - particularly in the case of a house of worship and the greater good.
Hedley February 03, 2012 at 08:34 PM
At least one person in this thread has suggested that the synagogue relocate out of town.
CD February 03, 2012 at 08:35 PM
I see that many people have dropped off this thread. The odds of anyone changing anyone else's mind are around 0. I'm done. Good luck.
Cham February 03, 2012 at 08:49 PM
CD, well, why not extend Rabbi Bogomilsky a welcoming hand? Obviously he cannot come to every Short Hills resident's door with a hand outstretched. But he is the "newcomer", as well as the one who is different. Why not put ourselves in his and his family's shoes? I sometimes wonder what kind of a place Short Hills is that the concept of "welcoming the stranger" does not seem to resonate with many folks.
M OKeef February 03, 2012 at 10:08 PM
His congregation owns 3 properties in town and has been here for decades! How does that translate into being run out of town?
RJ February 05, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Why and when did the town board institute a 3-acre requirement for a small house of worship? That is an enormous amount of land. Seems absurd, unfair, and not in conformity with the rest of the country.
KLF February 05, 2012 at 08:14 PM
You hit the nail on the head in every respect.
RJ February 05, 2012 at 09:07 PM
You're making a mountain out of a mole hill. The Chai Center building would be a beautiful addition. There is simply no evidence to suggest that property values would be adversely affected; The "prestigious" address had nothing to do with the choice of the site and everything to do with it being in walking distance to various members of the Center and what was available to purchase at the time. Your attributions of dishonesty have no merit.
Sara February 06, 2012 at 05:25 AM
M Okeef Don’t you already know the very reason for this Chai Center application was that Rabbi Bogomilsky was SUED. The township committee were/are trying to force this group out of town. They have been harassing them for years! (see this link http://bit.ly/zaNP2H fort the documents proving this).
Sara February 06, 2012 at 05:49 AM
CHP, Are you suggesting that the only viable option for a long time resident of MSH who wants to pray in a traditional synagogue, is to move out of their lifelong hometown – because MSH will refuse - under all circumstances - to allow for a synagogue to be constructed?
Sara February 06, 2012 at 05:54 AM
Dear Blanket Jackson, During these hearing it was clearly demonstrated that there is no clear rational for the number “3 acres”. By the way, if you want to build a school (which may generate far more daily/regular traffic) requires only 2 acres. (does this mean that the ordinance discriminates against religion by requiring 3 acres for a house of worship – without any rational as to why a synagogue would require a larger plot then a school).
Sara February 06, 2012 at 06:02 AM
Blanket Jackson, It’s amusing that to this very moment, there was no factual explanation given as to why 3 acres are required for a house of worship and 1.8 is not sufficient. (also, why is 2 acres sufficient for a school and not a synagogue?)
Sara February 06, 2012 at 06:05 AM
Colin, Actually, the Rabbi’s group was functioning just fine. They were sued by town to shut down! This whole thing is not about what size building should be aloud to be built on the property. The Rabbi asked the board and the opposing party’s to come up with a building size that would be acceptable to them (and the opponents would therefore remove their opposition.) To this very day, no figure was put forth….. The (small but vocal) save Millburn crowd don’t want a smaller building to be built. They don’t want a synagogue to be built (even though most of them don’t live in the neighborhood and would not be affected by the synagogue at all).
WRR February 06, 2012 at 06:15 PM
This is a matter that concerns ALL residents of MSH. If this variance is passed, it will set a precedence possibly allowing other enterprises, groups et al. to do the same. Where will that leave the rest of MSH? What is so wrong with residents trying to maintain their quiet neighborhoods free of noise, traffic and lights. Lets also not forget that the parking lot needs to be lit throughout the night for safety purposes.
Bobby February 06, 2012 at 06:33 PM
Sunny & Judy, don't try to make a zoning argument into a gender discrimination issue. You are trivializing gender discrimination with your attack. Go protest St. Rose, I hear the Catholics have zero female priests in the whole world!

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