Miami Beach wants to shut down this synagogue. Those who pray there say it’s not a synagogue.
Before a group of Orthodox Jews bought a single-family home for their rabbi in a residential area of Miami Beach nearly three years ago, they met with the city’s mayor, his assistant and an assistant city attorney.
For years, according to court documents, neighbors had complained about the property, which sits a mile south of the famed Fountainbleu hotel. They said it was illegally used as a synagogue, and generated excessive traffic and noise. City officials were keen that the property would revert to a single-family home in keeping with the zoning code. According to the homebuyers’ lawyer, the city assured them that the house could be used for prayer services if they remained private — closed to all but friends and guests.
But within days of buying the 6,500-square-foot house for $1.2 million, the homeowners were cited for violating the city’s zoning code by opening their service’s doors to many more people than would be expected at a “private” service.
Lawsuits and counterclaims followed. City inspectors said video captured outside the home showed that sometimes dozens would show up to pray. The owners maintained that services remain private, and last spring sued the city in federal court for denying their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion.
“Just as any homeowner may invite friends for a Cub Scout meeting or a book club, Plaintiff and the full-time resident invite friends and family to join them for private prayer in their home,” they argue in the suit.
The city denied it was thwarting the homeowners religious expression, and at one point withdrew a citation against the owners. But it then resumed its case against them, shifting its focus from objecting to the number of people showing up at the three-bedroom house to citing it for operating a religious institution in a neighborhood where zoning laws prohibit them.
This fall the city asked a federal judge to shut down the services, arguing in a court document that it’s in the public interest for Miami Beach to enforce its laws, and that neighbors should not have to live near a home “used for institutional purposes.”
Last month, the owners again went to court, and amended their lawsuit to sue, in addition to the city, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who is Jewish, its planning director and other city officials.
Miami Beach officials have declined to comment on this story. Franklin Zemel, the lawyer for the homeowners, said neither they nor their rabbi, Arie Wohl, want to comment either.
In their suit against the city, filed on April 19, the group is identified as Congregation Bais Yeshaya D’Kerestir, Inc. They claim Miami Beach inspectors showed up to the home 126 times, conducted a warrantless search and cited them for installing a “jacuzzi” that was actually a mikvah the city had approved years earlier.
They also took issue with the surveillance camera the city installed outside the house. The homeowners contend that the footage it captured shows many Orthodox Jews walking around a neighborhood that is home to many Orthodox Jews, but no violation of city codes.
But the city argues in court documents that it is hardly singling out synagogues, in that near the home, where an “overlay district” allows for religious institutions, many synagogues operate. City officials also point to indications, based on body camera footage obtained by its code enforcers, that the house is a synagogue.
Among the items cited by the city: an industrial-size coffee urn; a commercial soap and paper towel dispenser; a community bulletin board with advertisements; COVID-19 protocol posters requiring mask wearing, social distancing, and hand sanitizing, including a sign stating “no mask no entry”; and benches to seat 30 people.
At the time of publication, no further court dates had been set in the case.