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Jewish center wins OK from city

Neighbors fought Dedham Street site

A fast-growing Orthodox Jewish community that has battled the city for nearly five years scored a major victory last week, defeating the last municipal obstacle to building a 12,000-square-foot synagogue in a residential neighborhood in Newton Highlands.

By a vote of 19 to 3, the Board of Aldermen approved Beth Menachem Chabad's plan to provide just nine parking spaces alongside its new center at 349 Dedham St., at least 60 fewer spaces than zoning rules would generally require.

Beth Menachem argued that it deserved the parking exemption since most of its members are forbidden by Jewish law to drive cars on the Sabbath - sundown Friday to sundown Saturday - and walk to synagogue for weekly services.

The board was tired of fighting with Beth Menachem Chabad over its expansion, and felt it could not legally stop the project, according to Ward 8 Alderman at Large Rick Lipof, one of the three members to vote against the parking variance.

"I think the board felt that we can't win this one, so we're going to live with it," said Lipof.

But it's inevitable that people in cars will come to the building and park on congested Dedham Street, he said.

"You don't build a building like that only for Saturdays," said Lipof. "With a building that large, how can you say you won't want to have events like a bat mitzvah or a bris?"

Neighbors say the site's lack of parking at its headquarters in a home at 229 Dedham St. has created dangerous traffic congestion at Dedham's intersection with Rachel Road. It is near Countryside Elementary, the city's largest primary school.

"The current level of risk to pedestrians and drivers at this intersection is at the tipping point. Further stress with a huge structure and overflowing parking needs posed danger that is unacceptable," wrote a group of 10 neighboring homeowners in an Aug. 7 letter to the board.

Neighbors Ellen and Charles Lipson echoed the sentiments with an Aug. 9 letter of their own, asking aldermen to delay the project until a solution to the "current and future traffic nightmare" could be found.

But the seven-year-old religious community has been resolute in its efforts to grow. In 2004, Beth Menachem threatened to sue the city for requiring it to provide more parking for its weekday morning services at 229 Dedham St., claiming unfair limits on its rights under the so-called Dover Amendment, a section of state law that allows religious institutions to bypass local zoning rules.

Relations between the religious group and the city grew tense, with Beth Menachem members suggesting that officials who opposed its interests were anti-Semitic. The fighting roiled the community of Newton, where an estimated one-third of residents are Jewish.

The implication of anti-Semitism was one that Lipof, who is Jewish and the son of Rabbi Emily Lipof of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, said he found deeply offensive.

"It never has been about religion," Rick Lipof said last week. "It's about a use of land that is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood."

In 2005, Beth Menachem bought a 33,650-square-foot Dedham Street property for $941,000, and earlier this year received a zoning variance to use the site for its new headquarters, with construction plans calling for an 8,000-square-foot main building with a 4,000-square-foot basement. The area's zoning rules call for a building footprint of no more than 6,700 square feet. The chabad also said it was disregarding an earlier promise made to neighbors that it would not operate a day-care or full-time school program at the new location.

Beth Menachem leader Rabbi Chaim Prus said his synagogue will avoid parking problems at the new headquarters by shuttling guests from rented parking spots at Countryside on special occasions.

He said Beth Menachem's mission is to serve its neighbors, not antagonize them.

"We believe this will be good for the community, and add to the growth of the community," said Prus. "This allows us to do a different type of programming that right now we cannot do."

Beth Menachem's current building has a maximum occupancy of 75, but the new synagogue would allow more than 200 members to worship at once.

Plans also call for kosher kitchen facilities, a ceremonial purifying bath called a mikvah, and evening adult education classes on the Talmud and Jewish mysticism now taught in private homes.

Beth Menachem members are generally Orthodox Jews, but the group welcomes people of any faith, Prus said.

The religious community is particularly appealing to adults who are deepening their interest in Judaism in midlife, as well as young couples looking for a suburban setting to raise a family. It is within the Greater Boston Eruv - a symbolic Jewish district where Orthodox Jews can move freely on the Sabbath.

Most Jews living in Newton count themselves as members of the Reform or Conservative movements. Members of Chabad-Lubavitch sects like Beth Menachem are Orthodox, wear knee-length suit coats and black hats, and do not shave their beards. They also host outreach centers and occasionally proselytize about their beliefs, something mainstream Jews do not do.

The site of Beth Menachem's new headquarters is occupied by a 200-year-old, 2,500-square-foot yellow farmhouse, which for the past year the group has offered to anyone interested in hauling it away.

So far, there has been some casual interest, but no "second phone calls," said Prus. The home will probably be torn down in the next six months or so, although plans are not yet firm, he said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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