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Not On Our Doorpost: Chicago Condo Bans Mezuzahs

Date

July 15, 2005

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11 minutes

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By Douglas Wertheimer, Editor
(This article was featured in the July 15 – August 4, 2005 issue of the Chicago Jewish Star.)

Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has one on the doorpost to her office, as does Senator Joseph Lieberman. Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish male astronaut, took one with him in 1985 as he circled the earth, as did the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, in 2003. Federal workers were explicitly permitted to place one on their office door at work following 1997 executive guidelines issued by President Bill Clinton.

These examples suggest the important ritual and symbolic role played by the mezuzah, an object containing a scroll with words from the Torah which Jews are man-dated to place on the out-side doorpost of their homes and on interior locations. It's a popularly observed ritual among Jews. Indeed, a 1993 poll found that 98 per cent of all Israelis stated that they had a mezuzah at least on their front door (making this practice the most widely performed of all Jewish religious commandments among Israelis). A 1999 South Florida Jewish population study determined that 89 percent of residents there post a mezuzah.

But if the president and board members of the Shore-line Towers Condominium Association at 6301 North Sheridan Road in Chicago have their way, no Jewish residents there will be permitted to affix a mezuzah to their apartment doorposts.

Jewish condo residents, upset at being prohibited from observing a fundamental Jewish practice, have been protesting that ban for over a year. They have involved local Jewish religious and legal groups and complained to city and state bodies. Last month there was an emotional confrontation over the issue at a shiva in the building; both sides have retained legal counsel.

Howard S. Dakoff, a lawyer involved in the case, has called the condo board's actions tantamount to anti-Semitism."

Yet the condo board and its president – while declining to explain its actions- remains determined to forbid the mezuzah from the hallways of the building.

Forbidden Objects

One Jewish tenant, who describes herself as tradition-al (rather than Orthodox) inobservance, told the Jewish Star earlier this month that she put up an exterior mezuzah (using double-sided adhesive tape on the metal doorframes) as soon as she moved into Shoreline Towers in March 2004.

In May, she said, tenants were notified to remove exterior objects for hallway re-modelling. Following completion of the work, this tenant – who asked that her name not used – replaced her mezuzah. But it soon disappeared. After some back-and-forth, she says she was eventually told that condo by-laws prohibited the exterior placement of mezuzahs. Judging from a condo Board of Directors meeting on Sept. 14, 2004, the ban on exterior items was absolute. A motion to that effect had reportedly been adopted by a 4-to-3 vote. The precise date and language of the motion, how-ever, have not been re-leased by the condo association's lawyer.

Meanwhile other Jewish tenants – some 10 to 20 percent of the 378 units in the building are thought to be occupied by Jews – were likewise upset to find their mezuzahs had been re-moved by the management. Dr. Marvin and Lynne Bloch had lived in the building for over 30 years. She has served on the condo association board for over a decade, and had unsuccessfully proposed a motion that would have allowed exterior mezuzah placement at aboard meeting. As an Orthodox family who had raised two children in the building, they resented being told they were no longer permitted to have a mezuzah on their doorpost.

They told the Chicago Rabbinical Council of the development. A July 28 letter to the condo board from Joseph S. Ozarowski, then the group's executive director, emphasized the requirement for Jews to observe the commandment, and asserted that to disallow the practice would violate Constitutional rights. Several months later, the Blochs' daughter, Helen, 31, brought up the matter at a meeting of the Decalogue Society of Lawyers, a Chicago association of Jewish attorneys. Its president, Michael B. Hyman, wrote the condo board on February 18, 2005 that its prohibition violated the tenants' free exercise of religion and was discriminatory under the terms of Chicago's Fair Housing Ordinance.

On April 22, Helen Bloch, a Chicago attorney, attended a fundraiser downtown for Illinois congressional representative Jan Schakowsky. She went up to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (whom she did not previously know) and told her about her experiences with the condo board. According to Bloch, Madigan said the board's action was a clear violation of the law. Madigan asked her for her business card and said she would take care of the matter, Bloch told the Jewish Star this month. But Bloch heard nothing further from Madigan. On May 20, the Bloch family, as well as another Jewish tenant, filed separate complaints with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations alleging housing discrimination on the basis of religion. In the following month, that same Jewish tenant lodged a complaint with the Civil Rights Bureau of Madigan's office against the condo board, claiming violation of religious rights.

Anguish at the Shiva

During the 12 months following May 2004, mezuzahs in the building continued to go up and down. While some tenants griped privately, those who actually did attempt to pressure the condo board found that their letters were ineffectual. A break in the standoff appeared possible following the death of Marvin Bloch on June 5, 2005. Condo board members, including Edward J. Frischholz, the president, offered to do whatever they could to help the Bloch family during the seven-day mourning period which followed the burial (that is, the shiva) of Dr. Bloch, ac-cording to Helen Bloch. The mezuzah went backup on the door. The good feelings, how-ever, proved to be short-lived.

Coming back from the funeral on June 7, Helen Bloch watched in embarrassment as Rabbi Asher Lopatin, of Chicago's An-she Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, reached his hand up to the doorpost to touch the mezuzah to kiss it (a common custom) only to be startled to find nothing there. From that point, the mezuzah placement conflict so absorbed those at the shiva that it became the main topic of conversation, according to a person present during that mourning period. The mezuzah was retrieved thanks to the door-man and re-affixed later during the day of June 7 (according to a knowledge, able source, the doorman was subsequently suspend-ed for two days for that action). On the following day, however, with the door to the Bloch condo ajar for easy access for visitors coming to the shiva (some 70-100 came throughout each day of the shiva), Helen Bloch spotted a maintenance man coming to takedown the mezuzah. She stopped him and convinced him to allow her to remove it (which she did do). But in anguish at being unable to observe a fundamental Jewish commandment during that stressful time, and shamed that her guests would be at a shiva house lacking this basic ritual item, she subsequently replaced the mezuzah.

Within an hour the maintenance man returned, telling Bloch that he was only following instructions. She told him to go back downstairs to the management office and say the mezuzah had disappeared. Howard S. Dakoff was a shiva visitor later that day. Helen Bloch button holed him and told him what had occurred. Dakoff, an attorney with seven years of experience in condominium and homeowners association law with the Chicago firm of Levenfeld Pearlstein, LLC, initially was in disbelief about the details of the case. But upon determining that there was in fact such a ban, Dakoff persuaded his firm to represent the Bloch family pro bono. Levenfeld Pearlstein has represented over 1,200 condo associations in the Metro Chicago area.

Dakoff called the condo board's actions "putrid". "It's akin to the restrictive covenants at the turn of the century forbidding the sale of land to 'Hebrews' or others," he told the Jewish Star last week. It's "de facto discrimination," he said. "What the condo board is doing is saying: 'Jews Not Welcome'."  Viewing the case as "of utmost importance for the Jewish community" and being a Jewish attorney, "I found I had a moral obligation to take an active interest in this case." The following day, June 9, Dakoff contacted the condo's attorney, Allan Goldberg, a real estate specialist at Arnstein & Lehr LLP. Attorneys at Arnstein & Lehr reportedly charge between $150 to $525 per hour. Dakoff said that he charges $250 an hour, and when he spoke with the Jewish Star had expended approximately $3,000 of his firm's time on the case.

When contacted by phone last week, Goldberg declined to speak about the case with the Jewish Star. Danielle Aeschbacher, Patrick Green, George Jakubowski, and president Edward Frischholz (all of whom are, or have been, condo board members) did not return calls placed to them by the Jewish Star. Goldberg agreed, according to Dakoff, not to enforce the mezuzah restriction during the shiva period and to then sort out the legal issues. In a letter that day which he emailed to Goldberg, Dakoff detailed the religious and legal basis for considering the condo association's ban to be unacceptable. Notwithstanding the lawyers' exchanges, at around noon on June 10 a maintenance man returned – reportedly at the instruction of a condo board member – to take down the mezuzah at the Bloch condo.

But the Blochs were determined that this would not happen. With the maintenance man at the door, Helen Bloch reached Mark D. Pearlstein, a partner at Levenfeld Pearlstein, on the telephone. Pearlstein, with over 25 years experience in condominium and homeowners association law, immediately fired off an email to Goldberg, the condo's attorney, reminding him of the agreement and remonstrating with him to "have respect for the family" and to allow them to complete the seven-day shiva period with the mezuzah in place. Pearlstein, who ironically served as the Shoreline Towers attorney for 12 years prior to Goldberg, told the Jewish Star last week that in all of his experience he had "never seen a situation like this where use of a religious item becomes cause for controversy."

While this is going on, Lynne Bloch stood in front of the mezuzah to prevent its removal. Completing the call, Helen Bloch handed the maintenance man a copy of Dakoff's June 9 letter, and he left. Nathan Bloch, the 19-year-old son, then went to the management office. "For the love of God, please leave us alone for seven days," he recalls telling Belinda Cotton, the assistant property manager. She responded that she was obligated to enforce condo rules, Bloch told the Jewish Star. Dakoff and Goldberg finally achieved an agreement to leave the mezuzah in place through June 14, which was the end of the two-day holiday of Shavuot. Returning to her condo the evening of that day, Lynne Bloch again found the mezuzah had been removed.

No Binding Legal Precedent

With condo residents already pursuing legal action through the city and state, Helen Bloch approached the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Clinic on July 5.At the Chicago clinic, in operation about 12 years, JMLS students investigate and, if necessary, litigate housing discrimination cases under faculty supervision as part of their graded work. The clinic receives about 600 inquiries a year, and agrees to pursue only 10-15. JMLS accepted the mezuzah dispute, clinical professor F. Willis Caruso told the Jewish Star last week, be-cause the case appears to clearly demonstrate "a difference in treatment based on religion." Caruso, who is not Jewish, served as general counsel for the Chicago Housing Authority and has litigated over 1,000 fair housing cases. Nonetheless, said Caruso, research by the four students working on the case has so far not revealed a court decision which offers a direct precedent.

Condo associations have attempted to ban mezuzahs from exterior placement in the past. Nathan Bloch, for example, uncovered one instance in Connecticut in 2003 which he described at a Shoreline Towers condo board meeting. Another ban occurred in Toronto in 2000. But while both cases were resolved by reversing the mezuzah ban, neither offers a binding legal precedent be-cause no court issued a determination. Caruso said that a new action which his group will take is to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which handles housing and discrimination cases. He is hoping that the condo board will voluntarily suspend its mezuzah ban while the case is examined. If that does not happen, Caruso said, he will seek an injunction to achieve that goal.

"We live in a pluralistic society," says Helen Bloch. What the condo board is doing "is completely wrong, offensive and discriminatory." She adds: "Are we going to go back 50 to 60 years ago, when Jews could not live in certain buildings?"


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