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Cambridge Zoning Board Rejects Harvard Chabad’s Planned Expansion After Tense Hearing

The Chabad House at Harvard is located at 38 Banks Street.
The Chabad House at Harvard is located at 38 Banks Street. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Tilly R. Robinson, Crimson Staff Writer

The Cambridge Board of Zoning Appeal rejected Harvard Chabad’s plans to dramatically expand its headquarters at a hearing last month, following vocal opposition from some of the campus Jewish group’s neighbors.

Though the BZA approved a special permit that will allow Chabad to construct two additional parking spaces, the main part of the proposal — consolidating two of the congregation’s three historic houses on Banks Street into one space, adding more than 8,000 square feet to the buildings — failed to win the four votes required to approve the variance. Three of the five BZA members at the meeting voted in favor.

Chabad members say they need the additional indoor space to host religious services and community events, many of which currently take place outdoors. Members of the Kerry Corner Neighborhood Association, a group that has organized in opposition to the renovations, worry the expansion would bring additional traffic and noise to the area — claims that Chabad’s representatives contest.

The path forward for Harvard Chabad is not clear. After the BZA rejects a petition, it may not hear the same petition again for another two years, unless four of its members vote that the conditions that led to their rejection have undergone “specific and material changes” since the initial vote. All but one of the seven members of Cambridge’s Planning Board would have to concur with the BZA’s assessment.

At both an original hearing in May and the follow-up hearing in June, Harvard Chabad President Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi implied he might take the case to court under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which places restrictions on zoning laws that “substantially burden” the religious exercises of congregations.

Zarchi repeatedly alluded to Weil, Gotshal, & Manges LLP, an international corporate law firm serving as pro bono co-counsel for Chabad.

“This I want to say to the citizens of the city, and this is not us threatening, Weil Gotshal in New York is a pro bono — one of the world’s largest law firms,” he said at the June 20 hearing.

In an interview the week following the BZA’s vote, Zarchi declined to say whether Harvard Chabad intends to pursue legal action. But he indicated no intention to back down from the current renovation plans.

“This is far from the end of the road,” Zarchi said. “We’re actively engaged in the next steps for this project. I fully expect that we’ll build a home for the Jewish community on Banks Street, and we’ll have a lot more to say about this in the coming days.”

“If there are modifications to the project, that will only be to further enhance the project’s ability to fulfill its mission,” he added.

At the hearing, Chabad’s supporters made the case that blocking the renovation plans would unfairly burden the congregation. Currently, many of Chabad’s services and events are held outdoors — an arrangement that Trilogy Law attorney Sarah L. Rhatigan, who represented Chabad, described as “untenable.”

Harvard Chabad attendee Emily Anne Jacobstein was one of several speakers who said the outdoor programming became particularly difficult in the winter.

“My four-year-old is out there in a snowsuit in freezing weather, and y’all think that’s acceptable? That is just offensive,” she said.

Several speakers described the current setup as a double standard. Jacqueline Jowett, a St. Paul’s parishioner who spoke in support of the expansion, compared the church’s facilities to Chabad’s.

“We have plenty of space at our church for a family event,” Jowett said. “It really saddens me that the Jewish community is struggling for more space and, during winter, that they’re eating outside under a tent while we have warm space just down the street at a Catholic church.”

BZA member F. Daniel Hidalgo, who voted in support of Chabad’s petition, said he had been convinced that the expansion would be “an asset for the community at large” and that rejecting it would invite a possible legal challenge.

“I’m just really struggling to find any compelling government interest,” Hidalgo said, referring to the legal standard used to evaluate cases under RLUIPA. “I understand the neighbors’ concerns, but for me that doesn’t rise to the point that would override the interests of a religious community.”

Opponents of the petition argued that it was up to the court system, not the BZA, to decide whether zoning enforcement was compliant with federal law — or denied that RLUIPA was applicable in the first place.

“RLUIPA is not a blanket exception from zoning laws,” said Berl Hartman, a KCNA member who spoke in opposition to Chabad’s petition.

BZA associate member Carol Agate, who voted against the variance, said she worried Chabad’s RLUIPA claim presented a slippery slope: “If people are concerned about RLUIPA, is this saying that if Chabad continues to grow, and then they want to add a fourth story, that we’re bound to grant them whatever space they want?”

Agate and BZA chair Jim Monteverde ultimately said they voted against the proposal because its increased mass and floor area ratio — the ratio of floor square footage to lot size — were “really incompatible” with the neighborhood.

In letters and at the previous hearing, opponents of the project expressed concerns that it would introduce disruptive noise and lighting, crowd out parking space, and lead to a loss of trees and green space. Elizabeth H. Foote, who lives in the neighborhood, said she worried the expanded building would make it easier for Chabad to host larger events, many of which currently take place on Harvard’s campus, on Banks Street.

Rhatigan, the lawyer representing Chabad, said that allowing more gatherings to take place indoors would prevent noise and event lighting from traveling. Harvard Chabad director Elkie Zarchi, who is Hirschy Zarchi’s wife, said Chabad will need less frequent deliveries if the organization has more storage space.

During the nearly two-hour hearing, each side accused the other of negotiating in bad faith. KCNA representatives, who submitted a counterproposal in December with sample plans for a smaller expansion, said that Chabad had not been willing to negotiate over reducing the project’s square footage nor spoken with the organization since the May 9 hearing.

In letters before the hearing, Zarchi and congregation members alleged that opposition to the project was motivated by antisemitism. The allegation remained implicit throughout the hearing, where several speakers suggested neighbors had excluded Chabad repeatedly and intentionally.

“When someone tells you ‘you don’t belong here,’ there’s no conversation to be had,” Zarchi said. He took particular aim at opponents of the project who identified themselves as Jewish at the hearing.

“Somehow, if you call yourself a Jew, that gives you a license to fight a Jewish project and attack it,” he said.

In a letter submitted on behalf of the KCNA to the BZA three days before the hearing, Banks Street resident Alan Joslin, who is Jewish, called Zarchi’s allegations “surprising, hurtful, and untrue.”

“All of us — many of us are Jewish — deeply value all of our neighbors and we are especially glad that Harvard Chabad is part of our community,” Joslin wrote.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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