Even as the city of University Heights and the Aleksander Shul reached an agreement allowing the University Heights Parkway house to be used as a synagogue for Shabbos and Holy Days, an attorney representing the synagogue accused Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan to discriminate against members. of the Orthodox community.
“This case is not about public safety,” Dale H. Markowitz of Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan de Chardon wrote in a July 29 legal case filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, where the town is trying to block definitely the use of the building. as a synagogue. “This case concerns a mayor, in an election year… adopting a new discriminatory policy to respond to a noisy constituency that does not want to live near Orthodox Jews. … This new policy specifically targets Orthodox Jews in general and the Aleksander Shul in particular and violates the Constitutions of the United States and Ohio, as well as the provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act . … There is no justification for stopping the exercise of religion for 10 years at the synagogue, which has done no harm to anyone and poses no current threat to the public.
Markowitz was writing against the city’s motion to ban Aleksander Shul from functioning as a synagogue in the home at 4380 University Parkway.
READ: Dale H. Markowitz’s memoir in opposition
Brennan, at a June 21 city council meeting, publicly threatened to close the synagogue based on violations of the city’s code and ordinance. The city has filed criminal and civil lawsuits against the synagogue, its rabbi and its owner. On July 8, Shaker Heights Municipal Court Judge KJ Montgomery fined the landlord $ 65,000 for building code violations.
Brennan hit back in a signed August 2 statement that was emailed to the Cleveland Jewish News.
In his statement, Brennan said he has worked with community groups, including Kollel Yad Chaim Mordechai, Cleveland Community Mikvah and Zichron Chaim, on new facilities serving the Orthodox community.
“During the same period, Aleksander Shul wasted time and opportunities to work with the city,” Brennan wrote, “and passed on opportunities to purchase land when available… and did no effort to collect land. “
Brennan said he and the city had a “proven record” of working with these groups, and his efforts to work with Aleksander Shul were rejected, “instead presenting a series of unacceptable proposals, including one that would have expanded the occupation. from the shul to 501 without parking or additional land.
He went further, accusing the defendants in the city’s civil lawsuit of taking “a good faith legal dispute” and making it “personal and mean”.
Brennan said the defendants had “been cursed, distorted my words at a court-sanctioned settlement meeting, and filed false affidavits accusing me of racism and anti-Semitism,” Brennan wrote. “The community cannot condone their shameful bad faith tactics. “
He called on those who had filed affidavits with Markowitz’s brief to withdraw them and asked Markowitz and lawyer Brian Green of Schapero & Green in Beachwood to “withdraw their false and frivolous brief.”
In the July 29 filing, Markowitz explained that Aleksander Shul practices a distinct form of Hasidic Judaism that was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. Rabbi Schneur Zalman Denciger moved from Belgium in 2007, according to Markowitz, with his wife and children. Since 2009, the home at 4380 University Parkway “has always been a place of prayer for Orthodox Jews living in University Heights,” Markowitz wrote.
“The only other Aleksander Shul in the United States is 450 miles from Brooklyn, New York,” Markowitz wrote.
He further described an evolution in which the rabbi invited guests to pray with him.
“As a result, the Aleksander Shul came into being organically and it remains the only place in Ohio that offers Hasidic community prayer services,” Markowitz wrote.
Markowitz also said Brennan tried to limit the area where Orthodox Jews live in University Heights.
“As long as Orthodox Jews remained within the boundaries of the ‘Green Road Ghetto’, Aleksander Shul was allowed to operate,” Markowitz wrote.
It was only when Orthodox Jews moved to the center of University Heights that hostility in the neighborhood increased, Markowitz wrote, and Brennan took “discriminatory measures to limit any attempt at a Jewish prayer group in the city. perimeter of the city to maintain the “Green Road Ghetto”. “
In 2019, the shul applied for a special use permit and the city was first cooperative, Markowitz wrote.
“Starting in 2021, there were a number of bizarre departures from normal procedures that seemed to apply only to any attempt to gather for Orthodox Jewish prayer,” Markowitz wrote. “First, when the mayor learned that an Orthodox Jewish resident had invited 10 friends to his home to pray on Shabbos, the mayor personally called the resident and left an ‘urgent’ message asking to be called back immediately and to leave his home. office and personal cell phone. . … The mayor told the resident that inviting 10 Jews to a house to pray constitutes an illegal synagogue, and the mayor threatened to take legal action. The mayor called on citizens to “be on the lookout” for any Orthodox Jewish prayer activity and report it to the city.
On February 19, 2021, the city sent a cease and desist order to the Aleksander Shul.
This abrupt change in the city’s favorable policy towards the Aleksander Shul was prompted by the mayor’s responsiveness to a loud and hostile group of residents in the western part of the city who let the mayor know that they were not didn’t want to live near Orthodox Jews, ”Markowitz wrote.
He said that many opponents are affiliated with the Gesu Church.
The mayor “personally went to patrol the streets around the Aleksander Shul in the hope of finding people gathering in the synagogue for prayer, and finding none, he resorted to counting cars in the streets to establish a pretext to send a cease and desist letter. ”Markowitz wrote.
The closure of the Aleksander Shul will have a big impact, according to Markowitz.
Quoting a terminally ill resident in a wheelchair, he wrote: “The closing of the synagogue will completely prevent Orthodox Jews from coming together to practice their religion in the way they believe they should.
“The city’s actions here are neither neutral nor generally applicable,” Markowitz wrote. “They are targeted against Orthodox Jews in general and against Aleksander Shul in particular. “
Avery Friedman, a Cleveland civil rights attorney and CNN legal analyst, told CJN on August 2 that the traditional forum for religious freedom cases is in federal court, not state court. Federal judges are appointed for life and are immune from political considerations, tend to have lighter workloads and more staff resources, he said.
“I don’t know if, as a general rule, people go to state courts to enforce religious freedom,” Friedman said.
Markowitz told CJN on August 2 that he had the option of bringing federal constitutional claims to federal court, but that the state had also upheld the right to practice religion in communities.
“The Ohio Supreme Court has been very, very strongly in favor of houses of… worship… that can have their facilities in residential areas so that they can serve their community,” he said.
Markowitz said, “They have given churches and synagogues the right to be in the community they serve, and that’s really important for Orthodox communities because, as you know, they walk to get to the synagogue on weekends and holidays and they must be able to live near where they pray. And the Ohio Supreme Court has made it clear time and time again that you have to allow this. “
The civil case is heard by Magistrate Stephen M. Bucha for Judge Joan Synenberg. The next hearing is set for October 1 at 9 a.m.
“I think the University Heights case will be a fascinating study to see how state courts deal with this freedom of religion,” Friedman said. “It is an exciting constitutional exercise.