Rockville puts proposed Chabad expansion on hold

Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh addresses the Rockville Planning Commission on Wednesday. Photo by Jared Feldschreiber
Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh addresses the Rockville Planning Commission on Wednesday. Photo by Jared Feldschreiber

The City of Rockville Planning Commission on Thursday put off until September its decision whether to accept property changes proposed by Chabad Israeli Center.

The commission met for six hours Wednesday night and Thursday morning, listening to testimony from neighbors of the Jewish center on Rollins Avenue, a residential street.

At issue was a major site plan amendment on the synagogue’s property. Rabbi Shlomo Beitsh is asking the commission to allow the center to increase the hours it may offer activities, as well as raise the number of cars that are permitted there.

A planning commission staff report earlier recommended that the Chabad Center’s request be denied.

“The proposal to allow unrestricted use and operation of this institutional facility, would not be compatible with the residential character of this neighborhood in which the subject property is located,” the report stated, adding, “Most existing Places of Worship, and most Chabad Centers in Maryland, located in residential areas are either: on larger lots; on corner lots; located on a major street.”

At the hearing, Rabbi Beitsh told the commission that he wanted to be “a good neighbor to all.  I ask you to vote tonight in favor of coexistence, harmony and peace.  We will go above and beyond to make sure that our neighbors are not impacted by having the synagogue in their midst.”

Since 2008, the center has been permitted to operate only on Shabbat and major holidays. Activities were to take place on the ground floor of the two-story house. And because its Orthodox worshipers do not drive on holy days, only two parking spaces were necessary.

Liron Sharon, who said that his family’s “house is probably the closest to the subject property,” told the commissioners that he was “deeply concerned about the application. By permitting it to expand, it is the equivalent of opening a high-traffic store on the street. By the increase of traffic, it will adversely affect our children and their safety. In addition, it has no security, and there are no plans to add security measures. “

Former Rockville Mayor Steven Van Grack, representing Beitsh pro-bono, told the planning commission, “This is a very special and small synagogue with a big heart.”

Van Grack pointed to the synagogue’s outreach initiatives to the Jewish community, including the synagogue’s sponsorship of a menorah lighting in Rockville Town Center and the distribution of free matzah during Passover. Such activities reflect Beitsh’s good intentions, he said.

In her testimony, Sara Beitsh, the rabbi’s wife, said she has spotted individuals watching her as she walked from her house to the synagogue. “Yes, neighbors have complained about the noise. I totally understand, but a lot of that has to do with my nine children,” she said. “There have been countless times I have felt unsafe in my own neighborhood. There are two individuals just watching our very movements.”

The center has received complaints from neighbors about noise and heavy traffic along Rollins Avenue during services going back to 2008.

Congregant Sharone Khen came in support of Rabbi Beitsh.  The Israeli native said in an interview that Chabad Israeli Center is the only synagogue where she feels comfortable. “If it’s an issue that some events have been really loud, I can understand why it’s an issue. But it’s a very intimate synagogue.”

But neighbor See-Yong Choi said, “We strongly object to this application because it would greatly expand activity at that location, and would adversely affect our quality of life. The expansion of the Chabad is incompatible with the surrounding properties and would change its residential character.”

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