Friday, January 25, 2008

Chabad: there's no big secret

A recent published report on a plan to expand a West Street building into a synagogue and community center for Chabad Lubavitch called the project "a secret."

But the plans are no secret, and the organization, led by Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, has every intention of pursuing its plans for the project. Whether it can and will sue the historic district commission on its ruling to deny the plan, or comply with its suggestion to reduce the size of it, remains to be seen.
"The issue is that right now the process the team is putting together is not a secret," Rabbi Eisenbach said Monday. "They just haven't done anything yet. That's the only secret.
"The bottom line is there's really nothing's happening ... our plan of action is that there's no secret. We haven't decided on what we're going to do," he said.
The proposal would expand the historic building on West Street and would include administrative offices, kitchen facilities, a swimming pool and a ceremonial bath, classrooms and a synagogue, as well as residential quarters on one floor of the addition.
Chabad Lubavitch bought the old building in 2006 and presented its expansion plans to the Litchfield Historic District Commission last year, participating in a hearing process that requested that board to grant them a certificate of appropriateness for the plans. The commission, after numerous hearings and discussion, ruled that the size of the plans were too large for the historic district and asked that it be scaled back, noting that it would allow the Chabad to create an addition that would double the size of the building, not quadruple it. The existing building is about 2,600 square feet.
The additions proposed to the West Street structure, a house that was designed by the Deming family in the 1870s, would create an extension to the building behind it. The front of the original structure would have a clock tower and a Star of David added to the façade as well as stonework on the front of the building. The rabbi said recently that the changes his architects are proposing to the original building maintain its historic character. But because it is a religious facility, some changes must be made to reflect that fact.
One of the controversies surrounding the proposal is the claim that the Chabad's freedom of religion rights are being impeded by the commission ruling. The controversy began in the fall when commission chairman Wendy Kuhne noted that the Star of David and changes to the front of the building might not comply with the character of the district, resulting in a firestorm of criticism that her comments were somehow "anti-Semitic."
Ms. Kuhne was eventually asked to recuse herself from the hearings on the proposal, which she reluctantly did. She was then criticized on an online blog, which included a photograph of a woman in a Nazi uniform with her name next to the image. That blog was linked to the Cool Justice Web site, a blog run by Litchfield resident and journalist Andy Thibault, This outraged many citizens in town, including Rabbi Eisenbach, who said any connection to the Nazis and the Holocaust was inappropriate.
Bloggers and opinions aside, the commission members have maintained at hearings and through their attorney, Jim Stedronsky, that they are charged with preserving the historic character of the borough of Litchfield and that they are simply trying to uphold their responsibilities.
When the vote was made at the commission's hearing late last year, however, Rabbi Eisenbach said he believed that the Litchfield of today was supportive of the plan to expand the house and that his organization has outgrown its current home on Village Green Drive, which proved the need for the new facility.
Rabbi Eisenbach, however, said that at this point, there are no plans in place to sue anyone. He has, however, maintained that the 20,000-square-foot addition is necessary.
"What we're going to do, and how we're going to proceed; it just hasn't been decided yet," the Rabbi reiterated. "We have not had any contact with the historic district commission, because we're still digesting the information we received from them at the last hearing. Our team is going over it."

©The Litchfield Enquirer 2008

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