Chabad of the Shore faces an upward battle in its quest for a new home in Long Branch, but Rabbi Laibel Schapiro and his supporters are determined to move the project forward.
Chabad’s proposal to convert an abandoned movie theater into a 10,000-square-foot synagogue and community center faces some tough scrutiny by the city’s zoning board as well as a vocal group of protestors. Nearly 100 people attended the first public meeting before the zoning board on June 11, including many Chabad supporters.
Chabad’s challenge is to convince the zoning board to grant them a use variance to build a synagogue in a commercial area that is not zoned for a house of worship.
Chabad plans to replace the boarded-up theater with a 200-seat sanctuary and social hall, administrative offices, and classrooms for Hebrew school and special-needs youth programming. The architectural design is by Studio 5 Partnership in Glen Rock. The nonprofit organization is currently under contract for the purchase of the building, pending the zoning board decision.
“We are very committed to the project. We believe in the West End neighborhood of Long Branch,” Schapiro told NJJN. “Although that site is not zoned for a house of worship, it has been used for many years as a place of assembly. Our argument is that we are inherently beneficial to the community, and that there is a tremendous need in the area for Chabad.”
There are more than 900 apartment and condominium units with many hundreds of Jewish residents within walking distance of the targeted site, Schapiro said. Chabad has operated for five years out of a 1,500-square-foot building on Ocean and Brighton avenues, on the same block as the theater.
Opponents of the plan include West End business owners and residents who are concerned about the lack of parking for local businesses and the zoning restrictions. Red Bank attorney Ronald Gasiorowski represented the association in the June 11 public meeting, but when reached by telephone on June 28, Gasiorowski told NJJN he “no longer represented the group as of about one week ago.” He declined to explain why, or to state if the group is currently represented. Several West End business owners reached by NJJN declined to comment on Chabad’s petition, saying they did not wish to get involved.
Schapiro says he intends to allow the general public to use the center’s parking lot when it is not in use for major programs and holidays.
“Anyone else who would purchase the property would close the parking lot to the public. We are proposing it as a good will offer to the community,” the rabbi said. “We attract many hundreds of local families. Chabad is good for local business, and good for everything. We are offering to convert an eyesore into an attractive facility that will clean up the neighborhood.”
After testimony is presented from both sides, Chabad will need five affirmative votes from zoning board officials in order to be granted a use variance, said zoning board conflict attorney Maxwell X. Colby. There are seven board members, and the next hearing is scheduled for September.
“I don’t expect a vote to be taking place any time soon. I believe the objectors may be bringing witnesses of their own, and it will take some time and multiple hearings before there is a vote,” Colby told NJJN.
Public comments opposing the plan have mostly focused on potential parking issues, although some comments on the news site of the Long Branch-Eatontown Patch have taken on anti-Semitic undertones. According to one writer, “The last thing this area needs is another non-ratable organization — especially a synagogue.” In describing the June 11 meeting, another writer wrote: “At the end of the meeting you could obviously see who was behind the whole thing. Some snakes had slithered in at the tail end of the meeting.”
“The opposition is mostly about the parking, but many of the objectors are opposed for the wrong reasons,” Schapiro said. “I think part of it stems from a lack of understanding about what Chabad is all about and who we attract. Some people think all of Lakewood is going to move here, but they don’t understand that the people who come to Chabad are local people who live in the area and support local businesses.”
Chabad is represented by Steven Tripp, of the law firm Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer in Eatontown.