Ten years ago Rabbi Mendy and Sheiny Rivkin moved to Towson with a simple goal.
The couple wanted to make a home away from home for Jewish Towson University and Goucher College students.
“We have students come over for Shabbat dinner, for Shabbat lunch, they help me with my kids,” Sheiny said. “They really become part of our family, part of our day to day life.”
Chabad houses serve college communities all over the United States. Sheiny said it’s hard for college students to follow a traditional Jewish lifestyle on a college campus.
“For example, if you walk into a dorm and the doors open up you’re not allowed to do that on Shabbat. I have girls I tell them just sleep over I have so much gorgeous linen just stay here. You don’t have to go back on Shabbat and struggle waiting for someone to walk by, so you can run into your dorm. There’s so many like fine lines.”
Having somewhere to go makes it easier to pursue their career while maintaining their faith.
The number of students they welcomed into the Towson version grew, and so did the young family—seven kids now. The Rivkins wanted to give their family and the students they serve some more elbow room so they decided to expand.
In most other states a Chabad is zoned as residential. The couple said they have been open about what they do to Baltimore County and their neighbors since they moved in 2008.
According to court documents, the family was granted a permit to expand under zoning laws as a Synagogue. Those documents state that the family let the county know that they weren’t building a Synagogue or a community center, but that they would reduce the height of the proposed extension and make it look more like a house in the front.
The Rivkins got their first notice for a code violation, and after several more court visits and red tape they got the okay to expand and started in June of 2016. A couple of months later they came upon another setback halfway through construction. A neighbor found a covenant in a 1950 deed that said the extension was too close to the street.
The family offered to move the building back.
All of that lead to an order for the family to demolish the building and for the family to pay for it.
“We finally have it and they’re thinking of tearing it down,” said Sheiny. “It’s just like, it’s difficult. It’s hard but we’ll prevail. It’s going to be okay.”
Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford got involved writing a letter to new County Executive Johnny Olyzewski. Saying in part:
“It sets an unfortunate precedent of local government tearing down a religious structure over a simple zoning dispute between neighbors. Demolition of a 4,000 square foot addition is an extreme remedy for an issue that could have been addressed by the county prior to its completion months ago.”
The family now is now faced with an order to take down the newly built $800,000 Chabad. They are choosing to fight back to continue to spread love.
“We’re here to spread warmth and kindness and we opened up our home to spread that. We hope that the neighborhood could appreciate what we do and the people around us can appreciate what we do. We’re definitely here to just do good.”
The family has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against Baltimore County for defamation and unjustified zoning hearings.
The Sheiny’s say they have a few weeks before they must demolish their home if something isn’t changed.