(RNS) — Two years ago, leaders of a Chabad outpost in Towson, Md., expanded their home, hoping to make room to serve Jewish students at two nearby colleges.
County officials want to tear the addition down, saying the structure violates local zoning rules. A county court agreed and issued a demolition order.
On Thursday (Dec. 20), Chabad leaders filed suit in U.S. District Court, seeking $10 million in damages.
The Chabad suit is the fifth such action filed against Baltimore County over religious land use in the past two years. All accuse the county of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
The other cases involve a different Jewish group, Congregation Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, along with Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Hunt Valley. Jesus Christ is the Answer Ministries Inc. also filed a federal complaint about the county’s zoning decisions.
The newest dispute stems from the 2016 expansion of the Chabad House, home to Rabbi Menachem Rivkin, his wife, Sheina, and their seven children. The house on Aigburth Road in Towson was purchased in 2008.
Like other Chabad outposts, the Rivkins’ offers meals and a Jewish Scripture study program to students at nearby schools — in this case, Towson University and Goucher College.
Nathan Lewin, the attorney representing the group, said county officials have tried to ban such activities in the past.
“Baltimore County officials made Rabbi Rivkin look like a lawbreaker,” Lewin said.
Ellen Kobler, a Baltimore County spokeswoman, told Religion News Service, “We decline to comment on this ongoing litigation.”
In October, the county sought bids for “outside RLUIPA counsel.” The county’s purchasing office said Dec. 21 that a contract for those legal services has not yet been awarded.
Court documents show that both religion and zoning law are at issue in the dispute, which has played out over the past two years.
In 2016, following a series of back-and-forth efforts with Baltimore County, construction began to expand the house from 2,200 square feet to its current 6,614-square-foot size.
After construction began, neighbors began to complain about the expansion, citing a 1950 covenant requiring structures in the neighborhood to be set back at least 115 feet from the curb. The Chabad House is roughly 62 feet from the street.
According to a press release from Chabad, county officials also claimed the Chabad House was a synagogue or community center rather than a residence.
The dispute ended up in Baltimore County Circuit Court last year. During a hearing, Rivkin testified that a leader of the local neighborhood association suggested that the Chabad House relocate.
He recalled the leader saying, “Why don’t you move to the neighborhood where the Jews live and then you will be able to have other Jews?” according to a transcript.
Lewin said the federal suit is aimed at the county government, not neighbors.
“The main points are that there was zero basis for challenging what Rabbi Rivkin had done and claiming that it was in any way a violation of any kind,” he said. “The law is aimed at governments, so only the agencies are named. It was Baltimore County and the zoning officials, appellate officials, that issued a totally defamatory description of the rabbi’s conduct.”
Ana Israel, a 28-year-old program manager in Philadelphia, graduated from Goucher College in 2012 and got to know the Rivkins her senior year.
“It would be a real, true tragedy” if the home were razed, she said.
“Chabad House was a place where I could go and just feel Jewish and connect to my roots in a really authentic way,” she said.
After she graduated, she said, it was through her connection with the Rivkins that she was introduced to other Chabad members in Philadelphia, including her husband. She credits the Rivkins with helping her spiritual awakening and the current course of her life.
“They really, really care for every single student,” Israel said. “I feel so grateful for everything that they’ve done for me. I’m married; I have a 14-month-old daughter. They’ve helped me tremendously on my journey, and they’ve helped so many.”
Chahad is also asking a state judge for an injunction to stay the tear-down order. A hearing is tentatively set for early January.
Sheina Rivkin, who helps run the Chabad House, told RNS the case has been “painful.”
“We’ve done the best we can to be open, honest, to be up front, tried everything possible to work this out,” she said. “It’s been a tough ride.”