A Pikesville neighborhood in Baltimore County, MD, is up in arms over a proposed Chabad synagogue that would be built on a three-acre property.
The Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian immigrants, plans to build a 4,000-square-foot, one-story synagogue in the 8400 block of Stevenson Road.
While congregants would be excited to have a building of their own — Ariel currently operates out of Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s space on Old Pimlico Road — and think it would be a boost to the neighborhood, surrounding residents contend that they would rather see a house built on the land and don’t want the additional traffic and activity on what they say is already a busy and dangerous street.
“My wife and I are concerned about traffic safety, pedestrian safety and potential runoff, and so we’ve been involved in the community efforts to oppose it, be it by helping plan meetings, talking to neighbors about it,” said Dana Stein, who lives in the next house north of the property. While he is a state delegate — the Democrat represents the 11th District — Stein said he is acting a homeowner, not as a politician, and cleared his involvement in the opposition with the legislature’s ethics adviser. “Our expectation was at some point we’d have a couple of houses that were built there, not a nonresidential use.”
Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, the spiritual leader of Ariel, said he and his family will actually live in the existing structure on the property. He shared his plans to build the synagogue at a meeting in January to be a good neighbor but believes he has the right to build what he wants to build.
“We are going ahead with our plans. People in this meeting, many of them were mistaken thinking we were coming to ask for permission,” he said. “We don’t need their permission. I came to this meeting to be a good neighbor.”
Although Belinsky would not say when he plans to file his new plans with the county (previously submitted plans were scrapped), his proposal calls for the synagogue with 20 parking spots in the back. The building would serve as a place to celebrate Shabbat and host Sunday school, which currently has 16 students, as well as life-cycle events and Jewish celebrations. Belinsky said he would plant trees around the property and put up a fence and is willing to work with neighbors to come to an agreement.
But Ken Abel, the property’s neighbor to the south, said this is not what he signed up for when he moved from Worthington Park to Stevenson Road last February. He expected a quiet neighborhood, where he wouldn’t see much at the end of the day other than people pulling into their driveways after work.
“I think anybody in my shoes wouldn’t want to look outside and basically look at an institution, be that a synagogue, a church, a mosque, where there’s a lot of people milling around; they’re coming in and coming out,” he said. “I think anyone who lives in a neighborhood or a semi-neighborhood like myself wouldn’t assume next door to them would be an active, vibrant gathering place.”
While Belinsky’s plans would have to pass county regulations, federal law is on his side. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 protects houses of worship and religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws, allowing for the building of synagogues in residential areas.
But because Baltimore County has received so many letters about the synagogue, any plans submitted to county zoning must be reviewed directly by Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, or W. Carl Richards Jr., zoning review supervisor, Richards said.
Kaplan, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland, is not surprised by the opposition, having faced it himself when he wanted to build his current facility more than two decades ago.
“I think it’s a natural not-in-my-backyard” issue, he said. “There is always opposition to anything new in the community. There is fear, there is ignorance, misconceptions, and it’s not unexpected or unusual.”
Kaplan said it took him five years and “quite a bit of money” to overcome the opposition he faced. But he recalls one man, a neighbor of his property, who vowed to fight the development because of the detrimental effect it would have on his property value. After the property was built, the man later thanked Kaplan for the gift of being able to sell his house at $10,000 higher than he bought if for.
“When you have development in general, especially community institutions, it’s a boon for the neighborhood,” he said. “The more investment you have in a neighborhood, the better off it is.”
Several of Belinsky’s congregants attended last month’s meeting expecting to hear a diversity of opinions. Val Gorodisky, who came to the United States from Ukraine in 1991, said he was shocked.
“The meeting was not about opinions. They didn’t ask for opinions,” he said. “It was about how they’re going to fight the synagogue.”
Stein said there is a petition with about 200 signatures on it opposing the synagogue.
While it’s a far cry from the experiences of Jews who lived in the Soviet Union, Belinsky’s congregants are no strangers to fighting for their Judaism. Gorodinsky, who lives within walking distance of the proposed building, said Judaism only happened underground in Soviet Russia.
“That’s one of the most important reasons why we came to the States, because I don’t know any other countries other than Israel where the Jews can be so free and they can express their faith and practice and not be hated by everybody else,” he said.
Inssa Steinberg, who immigrated 25 years ago, said she tried attending other synagogues when she arrived here but was put off for not being “Jewish enough.” All she knew when she arrived in the United States was that she was Jewish but didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish. Through Belinsky, Steinberg and her family “know” Judaism, she said.
“We know our traditions,” she said. “We know what Passover is, the other holidays, what a sukkah is, what a Shabbaton is, what Shabbat is. We didn’t have all of this in Russia.”
Belinsky underscores the need for his building with the low affiliation rate among Russian Jews.
“When we came here, every Jewish organization and synagogue in town tried to reach out to us,” he said. “That effort was really not successful, it did not bear any fruit.”
And while he is determined to build, his opposition is also determined to fight his proposal. Abel said he expects appeals to be filed on either side when the county makes a decision on Belinsky’s plans.
“He and his lawyer believe they can build what they want to build. We believe they are wrong and unequivocally they are not allowed to build what they want to build,” he said. “One of us is going to be right and one of us is going to be wrong.”