Synagogue, residents at odds over busing

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Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, right, proposes to create a layover zone for charter buses along Francis Lewis Boulevard.COURIER/Photo by Maggie Hayes
Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, right, proposes to create a layover zone for charter buses along Francis Lewis Boulevard.

In Cambria Heights, a battle rages on between an area synagogue and longtime residents.

The Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch proposed earlier this year to create a layover zone on Francis Lewis Boulevard, in between 227th and 228th Streets, for buses that transport congregants. The vehicles would take worshippers to and from services, and wait parked until pick-up times in front of Montefiore Cemetery.

However, residents of the residential area are far from pleased with the idea.

“You have to realize, this is not the Port Authority. This is not Canal Street. What you’re doing is you’re actually dropping off 50-60 people per bus in front of someone’s house,” said Tanya Cruz, the head of Community Board 13’s Transportation Committee.

A constant flow of people visit each day, with the number swelling on religious occasions, according to Ohel officials. Director Abba Refson compared the synagogue to a “museum in Manhattan,” said that people from all over the world visit the site. It has had visitors from places as near as New Jersey and far as Australia, and Refson wishes to accommodate these guests.

The Ohel has become a destination for thousands of religious Jews, for it is the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Jews from all over the world are said to come to the site to receive inspiration and blessings from the revered spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, who died in 1994.

Each group that visits is responsible for providing its own transportation, and must cover the costs. Price varies with each group, determined in part by the length of the trip and the type of bus they choose to travel in, whether it is a charter bus or a school bus.

According to Cruz, the group’s lawyer, Lyra Altman, said only five to seven buses would be present at the site at a time.

“There are buses that come every day, and very often they don’t have parking and they double park,” said Refson. “There are complaints from the neighbors regarding the buses idling.”

The layover zone would theoretically eliminate engine idling and prevent them from stopping traffic, according to Refson.

Despite the benefits, residents living around the suburban area still see disadvantages. The chair of the Cambria Heights Civic Association, Kelli Singleton, spoke at a Community Board 13 meeting about the matter.

“Our civic association is opposed to this request,” she said on behalf of the organization.

In a letter to the Community Board, Singleton stated that the association is opposed due to potential damage to air quality, safety, residents’ welfare and the lack of a traffic study of the area.

As an alternative, the civic association proposes the charter buses drop visitors in the cemetery parking lot, and then proceed to a separate area along the nearby Springfield Boulevard between 121st and 122nd Avenues, where they can park and await pick-up times.

In order to determine the feasibility of this option, Singleton suggested Altman, on behalf of the synagogue, contact the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Debuty Borough Commissioner, Dalila Hall.

Hall said that no proposal has been presented regarding Springfield Boulevard, but that when one is, the request will be processed through the DOT.

Another alternative would be to park in the Montefiore Cemetery lot, close to the synagogue. Montefiore is up for sale, and the parking lot can be repurposed.

Glenn Nielsen, the manager of Montefiore Cemetery, was not approached by anyone about that possibility.

Refson said that the congregation is not necessarily opposed to these ideas, but believes they are impractical compared to the current proposal.

“Knowing the situation on the ground, this is the most practical solution,” he said.

“We’re willing to work with them,” said Singleton of the Orthodox sect. “We understand their need to pray and what have you — that’s not what this is about. We need to act within the law, and not infringe on the residents’ rights at the same time.”