Chabad House Facing Demolition Sues Baltimore County

chabad towson
Towson Chabad House.

A Chabad House in the Baltimore suburbs is suing county planning and review boards, claiming that an order that calls for its demolition is rooted in discriminatory practices. While the suit addresses what it paints as a long history of unfair treatment by the county, its most immediate goal is to stave off the Chabad House’s imminent destruction, which has been slated for the end of January.

Rabbi Mendy Rivkin and his wife and children moved to Towson in 2008, primarily to serve Jewish college students at the nearby campuses of Goucher College and Towson University. Their efforts have been successful and, several years ago, in an effort to accommodate their many guests as well as their own growing family, they began plans to expand their home.

However, the suit claims that officials of Baltimore County subjected Rabbi Rivkin to hearings and inspections, as well as requiring documents, all of which were intended to slow the process of his planned construction. They eventually received permits to expand their home, but shortly after its completion in 2016, neighbors alleged that the Rivkins had fooled the county by applying for residential zoning permits while in fact operating a religious center. The claims were accepted by county officials and local judges, beginning a legal battle that has now resulted in the pending demolition order.

As is the case with many Chabad centers, the Rivkins use their home to host Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, as well as some of their programing, using various locations on the two campuses for larger events.

Attorney Nathan Lewin, who is representing Chabad, said that the county’s view of the Rivkins’ home is patently inaccurate and threatens the operation of many such smaller outreach centers.

“This is a residence that also serves a religious purpose, but that does not mean that it’s not a residence,” he told Hamodia.

The lawsuit claims that the county’s actions have singled out the Chabad House and demonstrated a clear animus against its operations.

“Chabad was treated differently from other owners of residences who applied for permission to enlarge their residences and were easily granted permission,” said Mr. Lewin. “If we have to litigate this case fully and go to discovery, I think the record will show that Baltimore County discriminated against Chabad.”

The filing also claims that the courts and local officials engaged in defamation against Rabbi Rivkin by claiming that he had misrepresented his plans to expand his home.

The case cites several clauses of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUPIA) it claims the county has violated in its behavior towards Chabad and in its efforts to hinder its ability to provide Jewish activities for the college students and local residents it serves.

Defendants have not yet responded to the latest federal filing, but a spokesman for the local neighborhood association that holds jurisdiction over the area where Chabad is located defended the county’s actions in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, saying the laws involved are “religion neutral.” He added that the “covenants” the county has accused Chabad of violating have been upheld in court, and that he saw no basis for a claim that any religious liberties had been violated.

Chabad is not the only religious group that has clashed with Baltimore County in recent years. The municipality is presently engaged in RLUPIA-based litigation with three churches and another Chabad-run center for Russian-speaking Jews.

“It seems that this county, for some reason, is prone to trouble with developing religious entities, including churches, and not only with Jewish facilities,” said Mr. Lewin. “I am not saying that there has been anti-Semitism per se, but the hostility and animus in this case has certainly been directed against Chabad House, which is a Jewish institution.”

In addition to Chabad as an entity and the Rivkins, eight individuals who regularly utilize Chabad have joined the suit as well.

“A unique aspect of this lawsuit is that we are not fighting only for the rights of Chabad or the Rivkins, but for the rights of Jewish students to have access to the religious services that the Chabad House provides,” said Mr. Lewin. “A number of the students said they want to be parties in the case. If the county has its way, these young men and women will be denied a place where they can observe Shabbos and Yom Tov, and they are the ones who
will suffer.”

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