Englewood, NJ – Gadhafi’s Visit Reignites The Tent Battle For Orthodox Jews


     A mansion on property owned by the Libyan embassy is seen being renovated in Englewood  Photo: REUTERS  Englewood, NJ – This green, unassuming New York City suburb has a couple of problems involving tents.

    One concerns Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Many people here believe Libya’s leader plans to put up a tent in Englewood during his trip to the United Nations in September. They don’t like that.

    The second problem concerns East Hill Synagogue. It puts up tents for bar mitzvahs. Some people in Englewood don’t like that, either.

    “I was hoping the community had put this behind it,” Mayor Michael Wildes says of the bar-mitzvah-tent battle — “until the head of a nation decided to pitch his own tent in Englewood.”

    As Col. Gadhafi has become visible in countries that once shunned him, his tent has been getting a lot of attention. He travels with it. Visiting Paris in 2007, he pitched his tent in a garden of the Elysée Palace, the presidential residence. Last June in Rome, he chose Villa Doria Pamphili, a park. (Protesters pasted up “No Camping” signs.) Now the colonel is getting ready for his first chance to address the U.N. General Assembly. He needs a place to camp out.

    The State Department is trying to persuade the Libyans to steer clear of New Jersey. “We’re expecting that we’ll be able to come to some sort of agreement where all of these sensitivities are respected,” spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday.

    But New York City is defiantly anti-tent. A few weeks ago, Libya’s government asked if Col. Gadhafi could sleep in Central Park. A city department said no.

    “There is no camping in the park,” said Jason Post, a city spokesman.

    For Libya, that left Englewood. In 1982, Libya’s U.N. mission paid $1 million for a 10,000-square-foot stone mansion here — some people in town know it as “Thunder Rock” — on nearly five acres of land in East Hill, one of the city’s leafier neighborhoods.

    The Libyans, who at the time had no diplomatic relations with the U.S., got a letter from the State Department warning them that only their ambassador had the run of the property. Neither the ambassador nor his successors appear to have taken up the invitation: Over the years, the house went to ruin.

    Englewood’s mayor would like to keep it unoccupied. He’s doing everything he can to keep Col. Gadhafi from camping out in his city of 26,000, across the Hudson River from the Big Apple. That counts double after last week, when Libya gave a hero’s welcome to the man responsible for blowing up Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

    “Our tent-enforcement rules are laborious and tedious,” says the mayor, Mr. Wildes. “When you’re putting up a Bedouin-style tent for a period of weeks, there’s enough to warrant a more aggressive approach.”

    Tents, of course, have special meaning for people with deep roots in the desert. For Col. Gadhafi, they seem to represent a nomadic heritage applied to jet travel and diplomacy. Religious Jews, for their part, get married under a kind of tent and celebrate the harvest in another kind of tent.

    Over the years, Englewood’s Orthodox Jewish community has grown. It now numbers about 700 families. One of the newcomers was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose Web site identifies him as “America’s Rabbi,” and who has gained fame for his book, “Kosher Sex.” Rabbi Boteach’s much more modest house is next door to Libya’s.

    “I wanted to go say hello, but there was never anybody to say hello to,” he says. “It was a real hovel,” he adds.

    A month ago, Rabbi Boteach and his family awoke to noise. Workers next door had cut down some oak trees between the two properties. Libya’s house was under total renovation.

    The rabbi went over to complain, and received warm apologies. Then, the Lockerbie bomber was released, and the rabbi is ready to sue.

    “I was prepared to give Gadhafi the benefit of the doubt — that he really wanted to change,” Rabbi Boteach says. “Now he’s shown that he’s the same guy. And they haven’t replanted my trees, which they cut down.”

    As of yesterday, newly raked earth led down to a pond and a new cabana at Col. Gadhafi’s place. It might be a good spot for a tent. But unless the colonel is planning a bar mitzvah, Englewood’s other tent controversy won’t help him escape the tent enforcers.

    East Hill Synagogue occupies a shingled three-story house with a turret, a short drive from Libya’s mansion. The temple bought the property 10 years ago, and began holding bar mitzahs, and the occasional circumcision party, under a tent in the parking lot. Not unlike the Libyans, the synagogue ran into trouble from the neighbors. They complained about noise, and said the parking-lot parties, often held on Saturdays, forced members of the congregation to park their cars out on the street.

    But the temple said that was impossible: Its members don’t drive on Saturdays. “Come the Sabbath, we don’t drive — we walk,” says a temple member who asked not to be identified. “Nobody’s going to be driving there. So, we figured, why not a tent?”

    The dispute was big news. Before Col. Gadhafi’s trip loomed, it was Englewood’s prime source of ethnic and religious passions.

    When the planning board ruled tents could go up just three times a year, the temple went to court, claiming religious discrimination. Englewood’s tent-suppression, it contended, “imposed a substantial burden on religious exercise.” A settlement in 2008 finally let the temple put up tents 12 times a year.

    But if Libya’s diplomats imagine they might turn to East Hill Synagogue’s fight for tent liberation to ensure that Col. Gadhafi has a place to sleep in New Jersey, they will be disappointed.

    “The government of Libya can’t sue under a statute designed to protect religious freedom,” says Andrew Frank, the attorney who represented the synagogue in court. “Gadhafi’s situation is more like putting up a tent for a wedding. In Englewood, everybody has to ask for permission to put up a tent.”

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