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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.”

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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