University Towers condominiums in Silver Spring will soon have one Shabbat elevator in each of its two buildings.
Following a contentious Feb. 25 meeting, the condominium board of directors, by a vote of four to one with one abstention, agreed to designate one of the three elevators in each of the two high-rise buildings to be placed on automatic use during Shabbat and Yom Kippur. Because Jewish law generally prohibits a person to command the operation of an elevator on Shabbat and other holidays, each of the Shabbat elevators will run continuously from sundown Friday night through nightfall Saturday, stopping at each of the 14 floors on every run.
The matter had been discussed for several months, but was tabled last month by the board after it learned that the software added to the newly-renovated elevators, which has no emergency override, was not in compliance with Montgomery County code. The board is awaiting the installation of an updated version of the software and requisite approval from the county.
Many of the 60 condominium owners and renters from Buildings 1111 and 1121 who entered the party room for the monthly meeting arrived prepared for a drawn-out debate.
For those favoring Shabbat elevators, the talk was of finally ending trips up and down 14 flights of stairs with children and strollers in tow or staying in all Shabbat rather than tackling the steps.
For those in opposition, concerns of waiting longer for an elevator and favoring one religion over another were brought up. “How about a prayer room for Muslims?” one woman asked. “Why did you move here, to a top floor, knowing there was no special elevator?” asked several others. “Will everyone have to contribute if this increases the electricity bill?” asked still others.
A resident clad in an Eagles football shirt rose to say, “This isn’t a religious issue. If you want to see the value of your home rise,” support this. People will want to move here, he suggested, adding that many religious Jews who live at University Towers don’t use the swimming pool, but still pay the fees.
“I don’t see it as an accommodation,” said Phil Sinsky, noting the other two elevators that will run normally at all times.
Jason Rosenblatt, board secretary, said that the University Boulevard area where University Towers is located has many facilities for observant Jews, including schools, synagogues and stores. They need to live within walking distance of these places, he explained. Without the money to own their own home, they often end up living in the 534-unit condominiums, even though they would have preferred a place with a Shabbat elevator, he said.
Board member Sharon Snodgrass voted against the elevators, noting, “I personally feel that we would be giving preferential treatment to a small group. It is not in the best interest of the entire community.”
Board member Ernest Tremell abstained.
“When you buy into this condominium, a multi-unit dwelling, you buy into a community,” he said, explaining that people can do as they like inside their own homes, but “we don’t bring our religion, our job, into the common area.”
At the end of one year, the managers of University Towers hope to know how the electricity bill is affected, if at all, by the two Shabbat elevators. If there is no significant change, the elevators might be used on other holidays as well.