Synagogue expansion faced with resistance in Cambria Heights


| lguerre@queenscourier.com |

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Neighbors in Cambria Heights are fighting the proposed expansion of a Ohel Chabad Lubavitch — citing rude worshipers and an increase in disturbances.

Neighbors in Cambria Heights are fighting the proposed expansion of a popular Orthodox Jewish synagogue — citing rude worshipers and an increase in disturbances.

The Ohel Chabad Lubavitch plans to build a structure in its backyard expanding the main building and connecting four nearby houses, which it owns, to create additional space for worship and overnight stays since followers can’t drive home on Sabbath.

Hundreds of congregants visit the synagogue daily to pray and visit the grave of the former leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, and his father-in-law Rabbi Yosef Schneerson, which is located in the Montefiore Cemetery adjacent to the buildings. On the anniversary of Schneerson’s passing that number could be over 30,000 visitors, according to Community Board 13 District Manager Lawrence McClean.

There is currently an insulated tent behind the house that connects the four houses and leads to the grave. The plan will expand this and make the structure permanent.

However, residents and community leaders are standing firm against it.

“This is a residential area,” said Ann Miller, who has lived in the neighborhood for 32 years. “Our quality of life is affected.”

Community members like Miller allege that by creating the expanded building the number of congregants will balloon, creating piles of trash and traffic congestion as followers look to park their cars in the blocks surrounding the synagogue.

The community and the synagogue have had a rocky relationship in past years.

McClean said residents have found followers parked in their driveways and scraps of trash on their lawns after services and events.

“The community was so badly trashed in the early days that they have emotional scar tissue,” McClean said.

Residents are concerned that the expansion will amplify problems with an increase in the population and hope the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), which has the final say, blocks the synagogue from obtaining a variance to bypass residential zoning rules.

The upcoming public hearing on May 15 will be the fifth time the BSA will meet about the expansion and McClean thinks this is a result of the panel not trusting the plan. “Ninety percent of the time the BSA approves an applicant, but because they’ve spent so much time they are waiting for the Ohel Chabad to work with the community,” McClean said. “The perception is that they have not been working with the community.”

Although many residents are against the expansion, The Courier found a resident living nearby who wasn’t bothered by it.

“I believe that everyone should be able to practice their religion. There are so many churches in this neighborhood alone. To me it’s a welcome change.”

Abba Refson, director of the Ohel Chabad, refused to answer a reporter’s questions, saying, “because the case is pending we don’t want to comment at this time.”