Millburn, NJ – A possible resolution to a 15-year dispute between a Short Hills rabbi and Millburn township officials – in the shape of a 16,000-square-foot synagogue – has roused stern resistance from a group of neighbors.
Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky and his wife, Rivkah, who also run the Chai Center for Living Judaism on Millburn Avenue, maintain they have only been hosting prayer services for friends and neighbors at their home on Jefferson Avenue.
Township officials, though, say the Bogomilskys have been holding much larger religious services without the requisite permits.
Plans for the synagogue, which would be built on adjoining lots off of Old Short Hills Road, grew out of an agreement between the Bogomilskys and the township following a number of legal actions, including lawsuits and countersuits.
The lots, set among multi-million dollar mansions in the rustic Short Hills, would total less than 2 acres. The township’s zoning regulations, though, say that a house of worship can’t be built on less than 3 acres.
The Bogomilskys’ requests to the township’s zoning board, though, have drawn the ire of a group of township residents who say that if it were approved, the synagogue would create an unwelcome precedent and allow other so-called beneficial use developments — such as housing and day-care centers — in areas not otherwise zoned for them.
Aryeh Liwschitz, a Park Circle resident and a member of the Concerned Neighborhood Association of Millburn Township, said approving the synagogue could send a signal that the township is much too flexible when it comes to zoning issues.
“We just feel that would set a bad precedent because other types of inherently beneficial-use properties could then creep into lots that are not zoned for them,” Liwschitz said.
But an attorney for the Bogomilskys says the residents association — whose membership is at least one-third Jewish, according to one person associated with it — is using that rationale as a pretense for organized opposition to Orthodox Judaism.
Philip Pfeffer said the residents’ opposition to the synagogue represents “a growing disdain” for Orthodox Judaism, one of the religions’s most traditional strains.
“People just don’t want this sort of community in the neighborhood,” Pfeffer said. “They want to say it, but they can’t say it.”
Michael Becker, a consultant to the residents’ association, calls that characterization grossly inaccurate.
“It has nothing to do with religion,” Becker said. “If you wanted to build church or a nursing home on the same property, you’d have the same issue.”
Until the zoning issue is resolved, which could happen as early as at the board’s March 15 meeting, the compromise calls for the Bogomilskys to keep prayer services at their Jefferson Avenue home small. In return, the township rescinded numerous fines it had doled out against the couple.