About 100 people gathered at the Hartshorn Elementary School in Short Hills for the second installment of the Chai Center’s application for a zoning variance before the Zoning Board of Adjustment of Millburn Township.
The Chabad-affiliated center hopes to tear down its current building, at 1 Jefferson Rd. in Short Hills, and erect a 16,350-square-foot center on that property and an adjoining lot owned by a center member, totaling 1.858 acres. The construction would require four different variances.
Opponents worry about traffic and zoning issues in the residential neighborhood.
The crowd was halved since the last hearing in April, and few sported the partisan buttons that had divided them at that meeting. But their loyalties were often expressed during the hearing through rolled eyes or whispers of frustration.
For nearly four hours, attorney John Lamb, representing opponents of the Chai Center’s plans, cross-examined the center’s Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky.
Lamb went over in detail the expected daily, weekly, monthly, and annual uses of the building. His painstaking questioning of the rabbi became especially heated after the 9 p.m. break, as the attorney inquired about the capacity of the projected sanctuary.
Asked if he had previously said he would be willing to reduce the size of the sanctuary, Bogomilsky said he didn’t recall, and added, “If I did say that I withdraw that statement.”
Lamb continued, “Did you tell us that you had talked to developers in connection with this application and they told you to make an application for a facility with more seats than you actually needed?”
When Bogomilsky replied “No,” Lamb grew frustrated and insisted that Bogomilsky be reminded he was under oath, over objections from Bogomilsky’s attorney. Lamb then exploded, “I am going to hold you in contempt. I am not going to tolerate absolute lies!”
The evening ended as it had begun: hot, tedious, and charged. Small groups broke off to discuss their versions of events.
Some of those supporting the Chai Center suggested that opponents were objecting specifically to a synagogue.
“Every house of worship in the area is in a residential area,” said Saritte Harel of Millburn. “I live on Wyoming Avenue and there’s a church there, and every Sunday we stop for all the cars. But I like the fact that there’s a church in the area. It brings people together and that’s beautiful.”
Harel said there is a need for an Orthodox synagogue. “The Jewish community has grown so much in Millburn over the last years,” she said. “We have Reform and Conservative shuls. It’s time for a traditional place.”
Some objected to Lamb’s tone.
“I think the lawyer is very hostile, asking all those questions over again,” said Jerry Rosenthal of Springfield. “I think the rabbi gave very good answers.”
He also suggested there is no traffic issue.
“It’s a load of crap,” he said. “I come every Shabbat and there are less than 10 cars.”
The Chai Center presents “a hazard for homeowners who live there,” said a neighborhood resident who asked not to be named. “I know people who live there and [the Chai attendees] are always pulling in or pulling out and blocking things. It’s not fair. If this goes through, they should honor the property-loss values of the neighbors.”
Another opponent, Jane Greenwald, insisted there was no anti-Semitism at play.
“I’m Jewish and I live here in Short Hills,” she said. “This is about the traffic on Old Short Hills Road. It’s not a religious thing. The other side is trying to make it a religious issue.”
The next hearing is scheduled for Monday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Millburn High School.