Blocked driveways, traffic jams, excessive trash and people urinating in the streets — these are just some of the problems Cambria Heights residents say they have to deal with because of an area synagogue. Now, the congregation wants to expand, though on a smaller scale than originally planned, but it still caused tempers to flare at a town hall-style meeting on Monday.
Congregation Ohel Chabad Lubavitch, located at 226-20 Francis Lewis Blvd., is seeking to accommodate the large crowds that visit the grave of the sect’s leader, the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, and his father-in-law, Yosef Schneersohn, the prior rebbe, at Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights.
The site was converted to a synagogue and community facility more than 15 years ago after the rebbe’s death and abuts the cemetery, which provided the group with a lease and all-hours access, but no parking.
The expansion plans have changed slightly, Frederick Becker, a lawyer for the group, told the roughly 50 attendees at the meeting, organized by the Cambria Heights Civic Association, many of whom expressed frustration over being “invaded” by the Lubavitch pilgrims and did not feel the new plan would do anything to relieve the stress residents face, especially during the High Holy Days. If anything, they said, expanding the facility, even though it will be smaller than originally proposed, will attract more people and make things worse — something Becker denied.
The original plan called for a two-story, 25,000-square-foot facility, but that size has been reduced by 2,500 square feet. The increase to a 10,000-square-foot basement, which was to be used as a large multi-function space for dining and other purposes, will be eliminated, and the sleeping accommodations for 52 people have been reduced to 34 beds.
“Those people cannot fit in that little area,” said Elaine Wallace of 125th Avenue in Laurelton. “It’s a small synagogue that’s going to be on this premises and it cannot accommodate the amount of people, the multitude that you’re talking about, that are going to come into our neighborhood, and once it’s built, it’s going to be like a festival every day.”
The plan does not require a zoning change because churches and synagogues are allowed in residential districts. However, a variance is required to allow for the planned building, which would be larger than permitted and extends farther into the rear yard than allowed.
The Lubavitch facility is operating illegally and has received several violations, which Becker said could not be corrected until the congregation is granted the variance. “Short of shutting down the facility, we will be in violation and so, therefore we cannot correct the violations until we get some relief from the Board of Standards and Appeals.”
The congregation says it’s doing its best to control the crowds, but that people will do what they want to do, according to its Rabbi Abba Refson.
“All these people that are coming into our area, they do not live in our area and they are very destructive and they bring a lot of trash and garbage,” Walllace said, adding, “Now we have possums and all kinds of creatures running around in my neighborhood.”
The facility serves as a place where people can stay prior to visiting the gravesite, which is a holy place for the Lubavitch sect and others as well. On many occasions the pilgrimage coincides with the Sabbath, so individuals are not able to leave until the next day.
Members of the sect are not allowed to travel by vehicle, carry things or push baby carriages on the Sabbath, Becker said, and other than a Howard Johnson’s, which is about three miles away from the site, there are no other hotels in the area — and to walk there is a long trek, especially for the sick or elderly, and people with children.
“We are not presenting an as-of-right plan without sleeping accommodations because it is totally contrary to the programmatic needs of the facility,” Becker said, even though the BSA specifically asked the group to get rid of that aspect of the plan at its last hearing because the city considers the sleeping accomodations transient housing, and thus prohibited.
The plans for enlarging the basement were eliminated due to cost and concern for community impact, Becker said, but also because it does not overlook Schneerson’s grave a key part of communing with the rebbe, praying to him and writing him notes, which congregants leave at the grave. The basement will instead be a refrigerated room where garbage will be stored until it can be carted away.
The Lubavitch sect has been in existence for more than 200 years. Schneerson was the seventh and last rebbe in the line of succession as leader of the group. When he was alive he was a revered figure and accessible to his followers practically all the time at his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights and people would come to ask his advice regarding nearly every aspect of their lives.
“With him gone, and there is no current rebbe, for the first time in the history of the Lubavitch sect,” Becker said. “This is the closest thing people have and they still come 24 hours a day to ask for guidance, to ask for miracles, about family-life, business etc.”
Several people suggested that there be a set time frame when people could visit instead of allowing it to be an all-hours affair. And on days when there are special events people should use the front entrance to the cemetery as opposed to the rear where the Lubavitch center is, because that would be less disruptive to the community, they said.
It is a legal right of the cemetery to provide all-hours access, Becker noted, and he explained that the congregation’s entrance is a safe way to enter the graveyard especially at night, in the poorly lit cemetery, which is nearly 100 years old.
The main entrance, which is on Springfield Boulevard, is approximately 3,000 feet from the rebbe, while the Lubavitch facility is adjacent to the back entrance of the cemetery and is 100 feet away from the grave and has a carefully marked and lighted path.
The existing facility consists of five houses, some additional space that was built, temporary trailers and a tent in the rear yard. It contains approximately 10,000 square feet of floor area, which is divided into sleeping accommodations for about 35 people, several conference rooms, the rabbi’s suite, both a secular and religious library, a synagogue, a letter writing area, restrooms and a small kitchen.
The facility gets about 300 visitors per day. They come in busloads from Crown Heights; schools and civic associations usually during the day, with a sporadic handful trickling in at night, according to Becker. But during the High Holy Days, there are thousands.
Jim Williams, a retired firefighter who lives on 232nd Street in Cambria Heights, told attendees that the sanitary condition of the neighborhood has deteriorated due to the crowds and said he has personally witnessed both male and female Lubavitchers urinating in the sewer.
“I realize there is a cemetery there, but come on, they have to show us some respect,” Williams said. “You’ve gotta have some kind of port-a-potties or something.”
Becker said the proposal will provide a “substantial” increase in the number of restrooms. “We are aware of some of the problems that have occurred on some of the larger days,” Becker said. “It is inexcusable and I can only apologize for it. It’s not appropriate and cannot be excused in any way.”
Patricia Zephir of 229th Street in Cambria Heights called the parking situation “horrendous” and said that both she and her neighbors’ driveways are often blocked by Lubavitch visitors.
“When you got this lease, you didn’t think about parking, you just accepted it knowing that you were going to have a lot of cars coming into the neighborhood, and they refused to give you parking on a daily basis, but they gave you a lease to open the cemetery 24 hours,” Zephir said. “How is it that you all sat there and didn’t say anything? I can’t believe that.”
Refson explained that prior to having their facility, there was no access to the cemetery past 4 p.m., but people would come regardless and just jump the fence. “We wanted to stop that unruly situation,” he said. “We asked the cemetery and they provided the lease to keep things going in an orderly fashion. ... The parking wasn’t relevant. They were coming anyway.”
He added that 350 days out of the year the parking is “OK,”; it’s only on these special holidays when things get out of hand. But he did say he was open and willing to do anything he could to improve things. The cemetery does provide parking on the busiest day of the year for the group, the anniversary of the rebbe’s death.
“When people start feeling it’s hopeless that we can do anything about this ... that has to be changed. All feelings like that can do is cause dissension and ... it makes people angry,” said Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village), adding, “What we are talking about here is something that is easy to do, but I don’t think there is anything that is happening to try to force people to understand that they are totally showing their disregard for the community.”
Kelli Singleton, president of the Cambria Heights Civic Association, said she had recently spoken to representatives from Montefiore Cemetery and they mentioned that its parking lot is coming up for a variance and since the area is underutilized, the board can decide upon an alternate usage, adding that they would be open to discussing possibilities with the congregation.
“The cemetery has told us they have no interest in selling us their parking lot site on Springfield nor do they have any interest in letting us use it on a daily basis for parking either and that is well within their rights,” Becker said.
Doris Bodine of 217th Street in Cambria Heights suggested the sect find a new leader.
“If they had a current [rebbe] then people would be going back to 770 Eastern Parkway with their notes and their requests, so if you got a new [rebbe] that would be one thing that would be one way to solve the problem,” she said.
Becker just chuckled and said it was an issue that hundreds of thousands of people have been debating since Schneerson died.
The next public BSA hearing regarding the variance will be held on Dec. 13 at 1:30 p.m. at 40 Rector St. in Manhattan.