Rabbis Facing Off Over Neighborhood Park in Florida

By Sara Liss

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Conservative and Hasidic rabbis often disagree over religious matters, but in this South Florida town they’re even butting heads over what to name a neighborhood park.

At issue is the campaign by some local residents to name the park after city commissioner and former mayor Sal Oliveri, who has played the lead role in attempts to stop the local Chabad Hasidic congregation from holding worship services in two houses located on a residential block.

The Chabad rabbi, Joseph Korf, has been critical of the proposal to name the park after Oliveri, alleging that the politician has discriminated against the congregation. Korf was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying that the proposal to name the park after Oliveri “does a disservice to all freedom-loving people.” Korf also was quoted as criticizing Rabbi Randall Konigsburg, religious leader of Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation, for backing the park-naming proposal.

In an e-mail to the Forward, Konigsburg defended his decision to support the proposal, citing his service with Oliveri on the Interfaith Council of Hollywood and noting that Oliveri represents his district. Konigsburg fired back his own shot at Korf.

“Rabbi Korf forgets that I was one of his earliest supporters when he first applied for zoning,” Konigsburg wrote from Israel, where he is on sabbatical. “He has never thanked [me] for that support nor has he called me about Oliveri. I cannot tell you why he is so upset.”

The flap over the park is just the latest chapter in a multiyear saga over Chabad’s push to transform two homes in a suburban residential neighborhood into a full-functioning religious center, after holding services at a nearby storefront for about a decade. The city, urged on by Oliveri, has opposed the Chabad’s efforts in court, insisting that the homes are zoned for residential use. The congregation, in turn, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Miami, charging that Oliveri and the city had discriminated against it.

The Chabad congregation has won the support of the U.S. Justice Department, which joined with synagogue in accusing the city of discrimination, saying that it had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Passed in 2000 with the support of Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum, the law requires that state and local governments show a “compelling” state interest before imposing a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of prisoners or enacting zoning regulations that restrict congregations.

Some Chabad leaders have said that Korf’s congregation received a boost two weeks ago when a federal appeals court, citing the same law, overturned a district court ruling, and upheld the right of an Orlando-area Chabad rabbi to hold services in his home.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales touted the Bush administration’s support for the Chabad congregation and other Orthodox synagogues during a June speech to leaders of the Orthodox Union that helped get the law passed. The Orthodox Union has no formal links to Chabad.

“To date, the Department of Justice has opened over 50 preliminary inquiries and 22 formal investigations under the Religious Land Use Act,” Gonzales said. He also noted that the Supreme Court recently upheld the half of the law protecting the religious rights of prisoners. “The Court’s reasoning applies with equal force to the land-use half of the law,” Gonzales said. “And we will continue to defend this important law on these grounds.”

Even if the Bush administration helps the Chabad congregation in Hollywood to win its zoning fight, it seems unlikely that the congregation would be able to stop the proposal to name the local park after Oliveri.

The naming campaign has the support of numerous local community leaders and clerics, as well as the Hollywood Hills Civic Association, which submitted the application for naming the park after Oliveri to the local city commissioners. The commissioners will decide the issue.

Christine DeMinico, president of the civic association, said that the committee nominated Oliveri because “he is a longtime community activist.”

“He has always stood up for the rights of Hollywood Hills, he’s a former mayor of Hollywood and this is his second term as commissioner,” DeMinico said.

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