Friday, November 09, 2007

ACLU Time?

Question: When is a house not a home?

Answer: When it’s a Jewish temple.

Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish organization, bought a Victorian era house in Litchfield and announced that it planned a temple on its property. The temple would require changes in the house: a roof steeple bearing a clock face with Hebrew lettering on it to identify it as a synagogue and a star of David. These changes did not pass muster with Litchfield’s Historic Commission, which previously, according to a story in the Waterbury Republican American, “had ordered flower boxes removed from in front of homes and more recently a historic plaque to a Revolutionary War hero taken down from the side of a house.”

During a Sept 6 meeting, Commission Chairman Wendy Kuhne offered an objection to the plan. According to the minutes of the meeting: “A steeple will be added to the roof of the building and have a clock face with Hebrew alphabet lettering. The siding will be a combination of wood and Jerusalem stone. Mrs. Kuhne noted her own objections to the stone which is not indigenous to the district, feels the clock tower is not appropriate, and the Star of David may not comply with the District.”

Litchfield Borough Warden Lee Losee politely pointed out that the nearby Methodist Church has no fewer than two stars of David set in its stain glass windows.

Chabad’s disappointed president responded, “I felt that an essential element of the expression of our religion had been denied," Eisenbach said when asked by the Republican-American about the Sept. 6 meeting. "However, I am sure the commission will come to appreciate the beautiful new addition to Church Row."

The reference to Church Row is a stinger. When the Historic Commission looks at the property owned by Chabad Lubavitch, it sees a house. But when the owners look at their own property, they see a temple. There was a time – long passed in Connecticut – when it was thought that owners could make renovations to their own property without being impeded by the architectural police.

A remembrance of that distant time caused Andy Thibault, Connecticut’s Nat Hentoff, to erupt in polite fury at the presumption of Litchfield’s Historic Commission. “Once, the people of Connecticut had such a thing called 'property rights,'" Tibault wrote on his blog site, The Cool Justice Report. “Absent installing a public health hazard, one was pretty much free to do with one’s land what one wanted. This was, of course, before planning and zoning did a little rearranging of the notion of private property.”

How different it was in Waterbury. Seeking to move from New York, Rabbi Yehuda Brecher of Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, knew he would find a welcoming shelter in Connecticut’s city on a hill. Waterbury, the city chosen by Ken Burns to broadly represent American soldiery in his World War II film, is not one of Connecticut’s gated cities.

It was the almost impertinent cross scraping the sky on one of the city's tumbling hills, and its rich immigrant heritage, that drew more than 110 orthodox Jewish families to Waterbury. There they have transformed a corner of the city, refurbished old housing stock, filled a school with pious young people, added their mite to an already rich cultural diversity and made a city on a hill sing a song of love and fellowship.

Connecticut’s Civil Liberties Union, always energized whenever a crèche comes too close to a town green, may want to join Chabad's attorney, Peter Herbst Sr., in any future legal proceedings to assure that constitutional religious rights are observed. The snoring from that quarter, whenever genuine religious rights are put in jeopardy, would wake the dead.

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