The synagogue is a hazard, charge officials in a Cleveland suburb — with live wires hanging from the ceiling and no fire exits. Earlier this year, the city tried to shut it down.
But the Aleksander Shul, an Orthodox congregation in University Heights, is fighting back in court, and last month filed a lawsuit accusing the city of violating its rights to religious expression and harassing congregants by sending, on Rosh Hashanah, a private investigator to spy on it.
“On one of the holiest days of Jewish year, the private investigator sat for hours in a suspicious unmarked vehicle across the street from the Property,” the lawsuit reads. “Because of the recent rise in hate crimes against Jews, many Jewish residents and members of the Aleksander Shul were frightened by the presence of a suspicious man in an unmarked vehicle.”
The Aleksander Shul opened in 2009 when Rabbi Shnior Zalman Denciger began inviting neighbors to pray in his home, an unassuming house in a residential neighborhood. It’s the only option for many Orthodox Jews to pray in a minyan, the lawsuit reads, since they may not drive on Shabbat and certain holidays.
Earlier this year University Heights issued the synagogue a cease-and-desist order to block its operations.
But a Cuyahoga County judge in July issued another order that allowed the Aleksander Shul to continue to hold services on Shabbat and the High Holidays through Sukkot, with a maximum occupancy of 36 people. The city has alleged that the synagogue exceeded that limit on Rosh Hashanah.
Its mayor said he respects the Jewish community, but University Heights has a responsibility to uphold fire and zoning regulations.
“First of all this is a house, this is not a commercial building, this is not a house of worship, this house does not fulfill the building standards set forth by the state,” Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan said at a September City Council meeting, where some council members apologized for the investigator hired to watch the synagogue.
Brennan also said that he would like to resume negotiations with the synagogue and find a resolution to the dispute.
In the lawsuit suit, filed in federal court, the congregation asks that the city permit it to continue to operate, and for unspecified damages.
Stewart Ain, an award-winning veteran journalist, covers the Jewish community.