Ahavath Torah-Chabad at Short Hills has applied for a zoning variance to build a 7,000-square-foot synagogue at 316 and 320 White Oak Ridge Road in Short Hills.
The new building will replace Chabad’s current 2,800-square-foot ranch-style structure, which has operated as a synagogue and Jewish programming center since 2000.
On Jan. 12, Rabbi Mendel Solomon, Chabad at Short Hills’ executive director, appeared before the Millburn Zoning Board of Adjustment. He will need a series of variances to move forward.
The new building, though much bigger than the current one, will retain the current ranch style. Plans for the main floor include four classrooms for the Hebrew School, a sanctuary, offices, and five restrooms. Downstairs, an open area will be used for kiddush.
Solomon places the total cost of the new building at between $2.8 and $3.2 million. To date, he said, he has raised about $250,000 and has pledges for just over $1 million more.
Variances are required for lot size and lot coverage.
Isadore Spiegel, who ran a trucking company before his death in 2012, started what was then a small Orthodox minyan in his Short Hills home in 1993. Following a series of rabbis, Solomon agreed to lead services and programs in 1995, but on a very part-time basis. He was already director of Gan Israel, the summer camp run by the Rabbinical College of America; director of Cheder Lubavitch, the RCA’s elementary school; and co-president of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest, a consortium of Orthodox rabbis.
Solomon stayed, and slowly built on the foundation of what had come to be called “Izzy’s shul,” though the community had outgrown Spiegel’s home and moved in 2000 to 320 White Oak Ridge Road.
More recently, with the help of one of its members, the community acquired an adjoining property at 316 White Oak Ridge Road.
“We have the perfect location,” Solomon told a reporter on a recent Thursday morning at the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Elizabeth after he dropped his children off at school. “We’re behind a school, across the street from the fire station, a parking lot, baseball fields, tennis courts, a pool, and a recreation center. It’s a good spot in a residential area. We’re not going to disturb anyone, and we blend in nicely.”
Solomon said he intends to continue to “blend” by hiring architects and engineers familiar with the style of building in Short Hills. The goal is that what they build “conforms to the homes on the street. We appreciate what the town and its residents are looking for,” he said.
“I realized two or three years ago that we need a better setting — more spacious to accommodate our needs. And the house is very old,” he said. But even with more space, he’s going to retain what he calls the “boutique style” of the congregation. “It’s nurturing. It’s quality over quantity. We want people to feel they are coming home.”
Solomon hopes his process before the zoning board goes more smoothly than it has for the Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills, just three miles away. The Chai Center is run by another Chabad-Lubavitch-trained rabbi, Mendel Bogomilsky. (Bogomilsky led services at “Izzy’s shul” in its early days.)
Efforts by the Chai Center to build a 16,350-square-foot synagogue on a double lot on Jefferson Avenue have been stalled for years by an ongoing zoning battle. That case is still winding through the court system.
Chabad of Short Hills will have at least one similar issue. The township requires three acres for a house of worship. Solomon’s Chabad, like the Chai Center, does not meet that criterion. With the two properties, Chabad of Short Hills has 1.47 acres.
Chabad of Short Hills has 60 children enrolled in its religious school, which currently meets at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and 84 family members. On a typical Shabbat, between 25 and 40 people come, with more on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Chabad of Short Hills defies some of the standard features of most Chabad houses affiliated with the hasidic outreach movement’s Brooklyn and Morristown headquarters. Members pay dues; other Chabad houses offer a kind of pay-what-you-will structure.
“I think people should belong. It’s less about the bottom line than knowing you belong in your heart. When you pay, you identify yourself as a member,” said Solomon.
And unlike many Chabad emissaries, Solomon ended up leading what is essentially now a Chabad House by chance. He only recently decided to give up most of his other duties, in consultation with the RCA, since he decided the time had come to devote more time to the shul. He still serves as co-president of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest.
Chabad of Short Hills’ next date before the zoning board is March 2.
Upon approval, the project is expected to take about one year to complete.