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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Neighbors Fail to Upend At-Home Synagogue

PLANO, Texas (CN) - With Passover on the horizon, a judge refused to let a North Dallas housing development stop orthodox Jewish families from holding services in their homes.

Homes in the Highlands of McKamy have been the primary location of the Congregation Toras Chaim since 2011.

Before Rabbi Yaakov Rich started holding services at his home in the Highlands, there was only one other congregation in the entire Dallas Fort Worth area, 7 miles away from the Highlands, that shared the same outlook on the spiritual life.

Orthodox Jews must live within walking distance of a synagogue since their religion forbids them from driving on the Sabbath.

Mark Gothelf and his mother, Judith, own the other home in the Highlands where services have been held since 2013. Approximately 30 families belong to the congregation.

Though members do not drive to services on the Sabbath, when attendance at services is highest, some park their cars in the Highlands for prayer services and classes on non-Sabbath days.

Claiming that the services caused the value of his property in the Highlands to drop, David Schneider filed a pro se lawsuit in December 2013 against the Gothelfs.

Highlands of McKamy IV and V Community Improvement Association intervened in the suit and demanded that the Collin County District Court enjoin services at the Gothelfs' home.

Judge Jill Willis denied the motion at a hearing Thursday. Passover, the most observed of the Jewish holidays, begins at sundown Monday and ends on April 22.

In the opposition brief that the congregation and the Gothelfs filed, they noted that the Highlands had never before challenged prayer activities within the housing development.

This "unreasonable delay" led the synagogue to rely on the association's "non-opposition to its detriment," the 17-page brief states.

"In good faith reliance on the HOA's non-opposition, the congregation invested significant money to establish itself in the Highlands of McKamy," Haynes and Boone attorney John Tancabel wrote for the congregation. "Moreover, in the months before the HOA first opposed the congregation's activities, some of the congregation's members purchased property in the area with the good faith belief that the congregation would be able to have its activities in the neighborhood. If the HOA prevails on its claims, the congregation and some of its members would have changed their position to their detriment."

Claiming that the congregation's activities are "incidental to the use of the home as a single family residence," the congregation also said that the housing association "waived its right to enforce the residential use restriction because it has not attempted to prevent other non-residential uses of homes within the Highlands of McKamy."

Barring services in the Highlands would violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Ace and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because it would put a "substantial burden" on the religious practice of its members, the congregation said.

"The ability to worship in community is of central importance to Orthodox Jews," its brief states. "Cessation of the congregation for many months or even over a year would spur many of its members to move out of the neighborhood."

Other properties are not suitable to replace the Highlands homes as a site for future services, the congregation said.

"It discovered that all of the commercially zoned properties within walking distance of its members explicitly prohibited religious use and in any event were all leased," the brief states. "It concluded that the only viable residential locations were either in the northern part of the Highlands of McKamy or in the neighborhoods immediately to the east and west of this. Other residential areas were ruled out as unsuitable for various reasons: the homes were either outside of the Far North Dallas Eruv, were too far for its members to walk, were in gated communities, were apartments, were too small, were in areas where drugs were bought and sold and/or were too close to Ohev Shalom."

The brief defines an eruv as "a ritual enclosure that allows Orthodox Jews to carry certain objects outside of their homes on the Sabbath."

Residents of the Highlands belong to the 2-square-mile Far North Dallas Eruv, which operates under a leasing agreement with the city.

Ohev Shalom is a community of Orthodox Jews that does not share the same particular outlook on the spiritual life as the congregation, according to the brief.

The congregation said a temporary injunction would be "severe and irreparable," ending community religious practice for its members.

"This harm is far worse than the claimed impact the congregation's activities have on the neighborhood," it said.

Justin Butterfield with the Liberty Institute also represents the congregation and the Gothelfs.

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