Jewish school violating zoning rule, Hickory Ridge group says

November 18, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

The president of a Hickory Ridge neighborhood organization has objected to the county's only Orthodox Jewish congregation letting first-graders attend its religious school, saying a zoning exception lets the group operate only a preschool.

Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education justifies the teaching of first-graders at the center under the principle of religious freedom.

"We feel that the special exception that we got allowed for whatever form of education we'd choose to have, whether kindergarten, first grade, whatever," said Rabbi Baron, whose 24-student religious school has two first graders.

That flies in the face of the zoning exception granted the Lubavitch center in 1989, said Bruce Martin, president of the 30-year-old Sebring Civic Association, which represents about 70 households near the Lubavitch center.

"All that was asked for was a preschool, and all that was granted was a preschool," said Mr. Martin, who attended a Board of Appeals hearing on the issue Tuesday night. "To expand beyond that, I think, is a violation of the original order."

The board is reviewing the 1989 special exception that let the Lubavitch group operate a religious facility and religious day school on Rodona Drive. The board is scheduled to decide the matter Dec. 6.

The Jewish group is part of the Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic Jewish sect that was founded more than 200 years ago in Russia. Lubavitchers strictly adhere to Jewish customs and traditions and the commandments in the Torah.

The Orthodox congregation is the only Jewish congregation in the county that has its own synagogue building. More than 40 families attend its Saturday services.

The board reviewed the zoning exception after an anonymous caller told the county Office of Planning and Zoning that the Lubavitch center was advertising for first-graders.

After that tip, the Office and Planning and Zoning asked the board for a clarification hearing to study the special exception, said the board's administrator, Jack Andrews.

If the board rules against the Orthodox congregation, the congregation could seek a special exception that would allow a private academic school, which is what most religious facilities do, or try to appeal the board's decision, Mr. Andrews said.

Yesterday, Rabbi Baron said the group is not violating its current exception.

He said the 1989 document that accompanied that exception is unclear and confusing, sometimes referring to the center's school as a "preschool," sometimes as a "day-care center" and sometimes as a "religious day school."

"Basically, it is not clear and therefore not limiting," the rabbi said.

He also argued that "a big part of our religion is education. To try and limit us in some kind of way . . . is an infringement on our freedom."

Mr. Martin said Rabbi Baron is on record as saying that the school would not include first-graders.

"On one [audio] tape from the hearing five or six years ago, a member of the [appeals] board specifically asked him if he planned to have first-graders, and he said no," Mr. Martin said.

Rabbi Baron acknowledged saying that but added that at the time, the school was interested only in teaching 3- to 5-year-olds.

"The total at the first-grade level is two," he said. "That's the absurdity of the whole thing."

The Lubavitch center has been a source of controversy since 1989, when the Board of Appeals permitted the congregation to operate the religious center and preschool for 30 children in the neighborhood. The group paid about $700,000 for 7 1/2 acres, including a barn, for religious summer day-care programs and religious services on weekday evenings and Saturday mornings.

In the battle that ensued, concerned neighbors vehemently testified against the proposed synagogue and center, saying it would cause traffic congestion and change the quiet neighborhood's character.

For the most part, tempers have cooled since then.

"We want to be good neighbors and not be a nuisance to anyone," Rabbi Baron said.

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