Thursday, March 3, 2011
Century Village, FL - Condo's Turmoil over Makeshift Synagogue Spills Over
A Jewish civil war brewing in Century Village took a road trip Wednesday afternoon to a Palm Beach County code enforcement hearing room, turning what is normally a sleepy venue of mostly empty seats into a mob scene of agitated retirees who tested both the limits of the building's fire code and each other's patience.
For weeks, residents of the condominium complex near West Palm Beach had been spreading the word to show up for the hearing on whether resident Issac Feder was improperly using one of the two condos he owns at Century Village.
Feder, 64, part of a small but growing sect of Orthodox Jews in Century Village, is a snowbird from Monroe, N.Y., who lives part of the year in a unit in the Kinswood building. But he owns another unit in the adjacent Golf's Edge building, which he and the other members of his religious sect have turned into a makeshift synagogue for the past two seasons.
Men dressed in traditional black garb and formal hats walk from other buildings in Century Village to conduct twice-daily prayer services in Feder's spare condo.
This has infuriated other condo residents, who are mostly Jewish but not Orthodox and don't want their building turned into an ultra-religious house of worship. And they've complained to the county, which initiated a code enforcement action against Feder.
"It's really not about zoning," said Sam Koenig, 64, an Orthodox Jew who lives in a different Century Village building and is sympathetic with Feder. "This crowd doesn't want this because it reminds them of an Eastern European shtetl, and makes them feel as if they're going back in time."
It wasn't hard to find confirmation of that opinion.
"I see their women davening and dressing like they're in Alaska," said Frances Merel, a Jewish resident in a nearby building. "I don't want to see it. They feel like the rules aren't for them. They're arrogant."
Her husband, Maynard, chimed in: "If they win, I'm going to turn my apartment into a mosque."
Village's 'greatest threat'
Jewish residents at Century Village talk freely about their condo community being overrun by the more zealous members of their own religion, whom they view as clannish and disrespectful of social norms - most notably, turning community pools into ritual cleansing baths.
"If they can get three or four people on the board, they can get control of a building," said resident Elaine Brown. "And then they can change the rules. This is the greatest threat to the Village we've ever seen."
Aron Sandel, one of the seasonal Orthodox Jews who lives in Century Village, says most of his critical Jewish neighbors are overreacting to people who are simply practicing their religion.
"We don't have weapons. No guns. Everything is quiet," Sandel said. "In order to pray, we need a minyan, and that's 10 men. Sometimes we have a hard time making the minyan."
The group has shunned the Orthodox synagogue outside the gates of Century Village. Last year, when the dispute began, Feder said he was too frail to walk outside Century Village to pray, so he used his spare condo as a gathering spot.
But he now says he sometimes lives in the spare condo, a claim that may be significant in the legal argument of his lawyer, Esther Zaretsky, but is scoffed at by his neighbors who showed up in droves on Wednesday.
"There was a big propaganda about this," Feder's wife, Judith said. "They want to show we are wrong."
Postponement — and groans
Golf's Edge president Cookey Courier, a Jewish snowbird from Michigan, helped spread the word about Wednesday's hearing with fliers advising residents to meet at the clubhouse and use carpools to get to the hearing.
The crowd overwhelmed the hearing room's capacity of 320 people. Villagers lined the walls, spread several deep on the wings and spilled into the hallways of the county's Jog Road building.
The fireworks, though, never really developed, because Feder's lawyer was able to postpone the matter to March 23, which brought groans from the audience.
"This is what they do," Courier said. "They postpone, postpone."
Carolyn Ansay, the special magistrate hearing the case, said she was sympathetic to all those who had packed the hearing room expecting a resolution.
"There's never been a code enforcement case that garnered the attention of this one," she said.
Maybe next time the county could find a bigger room, she told the crowd.
Marian Watnick, who was standing near the front, shouted a suggestion to the magistrate:
"What about the convention center?"