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Conflict in the Jewish Community:  Searching for Unity Over Beachwood Land Dispute

Monday, August 28, 2000 at 3:31 PM

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Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman likes to emphasize that he is an "observant" member of the Jewish faith. To be more precise, he follows the Modern Orthodox strain of Judaism, one of several gradations that exist in American culture. The sometimes troubling impact of those gradations in Greater Cleveland are examined in a new book. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports that the local search for a common Jewish identity has its roots in a three-year-old land transaction.

David C. Barnett- Several dozen men and boys packed into the Chabad Community Center for afternoon services, this past Friday. A small worship space has been created in what was a home on Green Road in Beachwood. In 1997, this property was the epicenter of a dispute that tore through the local Jewish community. It followed the fault lines that run through modern Judaism, pitting members of the Orthodox and Reform movements against each other.

Si Wachsberger- I think it was a case of the Orthodox - who I respect - came here and tried to make changes that were not consistent with the way that the majority of Beachwood residents felt.

DCB- Si Wachsberger is a former Beachwood council member who led a fight to prevent a coalition of Orthodox groups from turning this house and surrounding land into a religious campus, including a new Synagogue and day school. As it turns out, Wachsberger has roots in the three major movements of Judaism. His grandparents followed the strict Orthodox codes that dictate diet, dress, and observance of the Saturday sabbath. His parents were members of the Conservative movement, which accepts many Orthodox values, but makes some concessions to modern culture, such as driving a car on Saturdays. Wachsberger himself follows the Reform movement, which is the most liberal in adapting the observance of Jewish laws to contemporary life. But he doesn’t want to drag religion into what he sees as a zoning dispute.

SW- It’s never-the-less a residential neighborhood. And residential it has been for umpteen years. I take strong exception to converting it from residential to non-residential.

Ivan Soclof- When you see the veins on their throats, you know that this isn’t a zoning issue.

DCB- Ivan Soclof is a real estate developer whose knowledge of Beachwood’s zoning codes convinced him that it was entirely legal to build a synagogue and related institutions on the property. He cites “special use permits” in the local law that allow for the construction of such buildings along major thoroughfares.

IS- The opponents of this project are a sad example of the worst kind of bigotry that could possibly exist.

DCB- The story of the Beachwood zoning battle is replayed with great detail - some would say “sensational” detail - in a new book by New York writer Samuel Freedman. Called “Jew vs Jew - The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” the book describes communities across the U.S. where there have been conflicts between different Jewish groups. An entire chapter is devoted to the 1997 events in Beachwood, and that chapter was excerpted two weeks ago in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

For the past two years, Louis Malcmacher has worked with Cleveland’s Jewish Community Federation to heal the rifts that were dramatized in Beachwood

Louis Malcmacher- I’m a little disappointed that the book covered, in detail, what had happened then, but it really left out the community response. Which I think was a bigger part of the story than the actual event.

DCB- Malzmacher is co-chair of a mediation group called “B’Yachad,” a Hebrew expression that translates into “one-ness.” B’Yachad sponsors a variety of events, from small group encounters to large hall lectures, all with the intention of getting people to simply sit down together and talk.

LM- We found that there were groups within the Jewish community that really didn’t know each other very well. And they had some stereotypical ideas about each other. There were some tensions there - maybe even a little paranoia.

DCB- The layout in the Times Magazine featured big photos and striking pieces of text blown-up for dramatic effect, such as “While Si Wachsberger was gardening one Saturday morning, a group of Orthodox Jews passed and chided him for working on the Sabbath. He was furious. He felt his town was being swiped from under his feet.” Even Wachsberger was surprised at that description.

SW- The things that cause the press to dramatize something represent the activities of a minority of people on either side. For the most part, most of the Orthodox don’t try to force you to believe the way they do.

DCB- For Ivan Soclof, “the best interests of Judaism” involve people who actively live their religion. He has little use for adjectives like “Reform,” “Conservative” and “Orthodox” that some use to qualify their faith.

IS- I believe a Jew is a Jew. They elect to observe their Jewishness in different ways. I believe it is important that Jews feel strongly about their Jewishness.

DCB- Whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, Jews around the world know the concept of the “minion” - the minimal amount of people needed to conduct a religious service. While the composition of the minion varies from group to group, it still consists of ten people with the common goal of offering prayer and praise to one God. The challenge for modern Judaism is to find those ten people. In Beachwood, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* Jewish Cleveland On-Line
* Chabad Orthodox Jewish Center of Solon
* "Plans to build a synagogue are back on track for Chabad House of Cleveland" (Sun News)

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