HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — A chasidic rabbi in this South Florida city says he is heading to federal court to fight a decision ordering his congregation to stop holding services at two adjacent houses in a residential neighborhood.
After a contentious seven-hour meeting that lasted until 3:30 a.m., the city commission here voted 5 to 2 to deny the request of the Hollywood Community Synagogue to stay at the location. The commission ruled that the residential area is not zoned for a house of worship.
The June 6 vote follows more than a year of controversy, with neighbors complaining that the synagogue has harmed the fabric of their residential neighborhood and congregation leaders accusing their critics of antisemitism. The dispute has ignited a firestorm in this heavily Jewish seaside city in Broward County, with an overall population of 130,000.
The congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Joseph Korf, could not be reached for comment. But in a recorded message on the telephone answering machine at Chabad of Hollywood, which runs the congregation, Korf can be heard saying the synagogue has no intention of moving and urging callers to contribute to a legal defense fund.
“Do not be alarmed by the recent city commission’s actions,” Korf says on the machine. “Everything will be just fine, God willing.”
A crowd of about 100 people, including unhappy neighbors and members of the congregation, showed up for the city commission meeting. During the meeting, Korf’s brother urged Jewish commissioners to vote for their coreligionists.
Later, City Commissioner Beam Furr said that he reluctantly voted against Chabad after studying several relevant court opinions. “It turns out that freedom of religion is not an absolute,” Furr said. “It doesn’t mean that a city doesn’t have some power over its zoning code. The city was within its rights to uphold its zoning.”
Furr said the city allows houses of worship in every zoning area of the city, but limits them to specific nonresidential neighborhoods. “Houses of worship, like schools, do hold together an area, and I like them,” he said. “If they had met the criteria, I would have voted yes.”
Just weeks before the vote, Korf seemed confident that his congregation would triumph. Korf told the Forward that he was looking to open at least two other synagogues in the city of Hollywood — possibly in houses.
“There’s a big demand here for us,” Korf said. “I’ve been here 12 years. I think it’s time we expanded, no?”
About two years ago, the congregation moved into the two modest one-story stucco houses after holding services at a nearby storefront for about 10 years. Korf said the congregation members decided to move after its lease at the storefront ran out, concluding that they needed a larger space, with a place for children to play.
Korf said that Chabad initially bought the houses with the intention of using them for classes and housing out-of-town guests — not services. But, he said, when the congregation couldn’t find another location for services, they decided to use the houses.
“There is no illegality and no law against having a house of worship here,” Korf said.
That argument was rejected by City Commissioner Sal Oliveri, whose district includes the synagogue. “My position is it is unlawful for them to be there,” Oliveri said. “If they stayed, it would set a precedent for the rest of the city.”
The controversy first erupted about a year ago when city of Hollywood inspectors discovered that the houses were being used for prayer services and religious classes. Neighbors started complaining to city agencies about noise, increased traffic and dozens of cars parked outside the synagogue.