Seven teenage boys sat on the second floor of a Chabad house in Rockville last month, feeling the hides of animals, trying to determine which hide’s texture would be best for a Jewish scribe to use.
But had things gone differently with a Rockville commission, they would not have been there at all.
Rockville’s Chabad Israel Center, where the teens were, has been embroiled in a zoning dispute for the past eight years with its neighbors and the Rockville Planning Commission. The key point of contention — whether what is essentially a synagogue can operate in a residential area — now seems to be resolved.
The center reached a compromise with the planning commission this winter that limits the hours of certain activities and stipulates that others occur offsite.
But the Chabad Center’s rabbi and its representatives acknowledge that as the center continues to grow, they will need to find a new location and are looking into options.
“This has been a long and involved process, but I think that in the final analysis, we have been successful,” said Steve Van Grack, a former mayor of Rockville who has represented the center in the zoning disputes. But he added, “I do hope they’ll be able to find a new place, and I’m truly optimistic they’ll be able to do so.”
The center caters to the Hebrew-speaking Israeli population of the Rollins Park neighborhood and the surrounding area. Its rabbi, Shlomo Beitsh, is from Israel and established the center in 2002. The area has a large and growing Israeli community, he said, noting that many people move from Israel to work in government-related jobs, including for the National Institute of Health.
Most of the center’s classes are in Hebrew, although the boys in the bar mitzvah club spoke English as they considered the hides.
Beitsh said it was a “great relief” that he and his community were able to reach an agreement with the planning commission, and he confirmed that he is looking for a place to move the center and has looked at some options.
Zoning commission documents show that residents who live near the center complained about the noise and traffic caused by the center and one neighbor raised “security concerns,” but didn’t specify what she meant by this.
As part of the compromise, the center appointed a community liaison to meet with neighbors, and Beitsh said that reaching out to neighbors is now one of his top priorities. “We will be doing everything we can to keep the neighborhood quiet and safe.”
The center also holds many of its events — including High Holiday services and its weekly Hebrew school on Monday evenings — at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville.
But regular events, including the bar mitzvah club, still occur at the synagogue. To host these events, the planning commission required that the center remodel some of the inside of the building, extend its driveway and build a bike rack. The center raised $18,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the changes.
Beitsh said that some of this money also went to legal expenses, although the center received most of its representation at no charge.
Van Grack said that the city was wrong to try to restrict the synagogue’s growth, but that the synagogue should eventually find a larger home.
“This synagogue has provided a great service to the local Hebrew-speaking population as a neighborhood synagogue,” he said. “But neighborhood synagogues should be kept rather small. This synagogue’s biggest problem is that it’s become too popular.”