After two years of hearings and almost 5½ hours of public input Monday night, the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the variances sought by the Chai Center, which would have allowed a 16,350-square-foot synagogue in Short Hills.
Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky said he and his attorneys would review their options, which range from looking for another lot to appealing the decision and continue fighting for the space they have now.
“If this case goes to the Supreme Court, and it might, and it takes 10 years, the town won’t interfere with what we do now because they signed an agreement not to,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do, we’re keeping our options open, but we will continue operating as we are now.”
That means, they will continue to hold prayer services, Hebrew school classes and High Holy Day services in the Dutch Colonial he calls home on Jefferson Avenue.
More than 200 people attended the meeting at Millburn High School, where at least 44 presented views on either side of the issue – those who want the synagogue built as a welcome addition to the community and those who object to the size of the building and to the fact that the lot 40 percent less of the required three acres for a house of worship. Others were mostly worried about traffic, which is already an issue on Old Short Hills Road, where the center would have been built.
One of the positive things to come out of last night’s hearing, said Chai Center spokesman David Schraeder was the fact that residents repeatedly said they welcomed the Orthodox synagogue in the town, just not on that lot.
“That’s a big change,” he said. “I think it can be a step toward healing the community after this long process. Perhaps there’s a bigger lot we can find. Perhaps there are other options. We’ll see where we go from here.”
While many supporters of the Chai Center saw the fight over the variances as a battle for religious freedom, zoning board members said it was a zoning case and nothing more.
“It’s the most complicated case I’ve ever been involved in,” said Zoning Board of Adjustment President Joseph Steinberg. “It has taken 22 months to get here. And it is not a question of whether it is a good thing or bad thing to allow a religious institution. The law already states that a religious institution is inherently beneficial. And we agree with that.”
The issues, he said, come down to three variances – two front yard set backs as a corner lot and a minimum three-acre condition use variance.
The opposition to the center also argued that the center was also seeking an additional six variances that ranged from parking to land use.
It was the first time in 16 meetings on the subject that residents got a chance to give their views, and not only did the vocal opposition speak impassionedly about the proposed synagogue being too large for the neighborhood, residents who attend the center made emotional appeals of the need for an Orthodox synagogue in town.
“Many Jews in our town have to come to the center to celebrate High Holy Days or for prayer services,” said resident and chabad member Robin Halpern. “They are appalled by the opposition and what has been going on.”
In fact, many of those in opposition said they hoped the Chai Center could find a more suitable lot in town and said they welcomed Rabbi Bogomilsky as a neighbor.
A lot had been said leading up to the meeting by members of the Chai Center that they felt discriminated against because they choose to practice very traditional Judaism.
Many neighbors opposing the center are Jewish and said that is offensive.
“As a Jew, I am deeply ashamed that people are raising anti-Semitism as an issue,” said Short Hills resident Jeffrey Beckerman. “It’s not a religious issue…. Respect the master plan; respect the residents of Millburn. By granting such a large exception to the rule, the exception becomes the rule.”
That line was repeated by board members later when discussing how large a variance the Chai Center needed to fit a 16,000-sqare-foot building on the 1.8 acre lot.
The Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township, also known as Save Millburn, was represented by a lawyer in the proceedings, so its board members were unable to speak. But the group’s communications director, Mike Becker spoke about their concerns 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.
Residents are also worried that if the Chai Center got its variances, the congregation would grow, despite the rabbi’s suggestions that it will remain small because Hasidism and Orthodoxy are not for everyone. In addition because the center’s other property on Millburn Avenue has a lien against it, residents said they fear a gift shop and a pre-school would eventually move into the building.
Roger Manshel recused himself from the vote and left at the beginning of the meeting, saying he had made the decision after the last meeting, where he was accused of being biased.
“I’ve asked difficult questions during these hearings…some have questioned my motives,” he said. “And while I feel I’m able to make fair and impartial decisions in this case, I am recusing myself.”