A private investigator observed a Cleveland-area synagogue during the high holidays. His followers are indignant
(Cleveland Jewish News via JTA) – Ohio city hired private investigator to observe Jews entering and leaving a local synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah as evidence of an ongoing trial, outraging Orthodox Jews there and further fueling tensions in a local conflict over worship protocols.
University Heights officials said the investigator, who was hired by the mayor at an undisclosed cost, was there to monitor the number of people entering the Aleksander Shul to determine whether the congregation was following the rules ordered by the court on maximum occupancy. The city also said the community outrage was the result of a communication glitch resulting from the failure of the local federation to alert the synagogue to the investigator’s presence.
The Aleksander Shul has had a long-standing conflict with University Heights, an area with a large Jewish population and many synagogues. Operating from a private residence, the synagogue was cited in 2019 for failing to comply with local code and zoning ordinances which prohibit a private residence from serving as a “meeting house.” Earlier this year, the city attempted to block its operation and fined synagogue owner $ 65,000 for building code violation – he owns appealed the fine – as a prelude to sue the Aleksander Shul in June.
In addition to operating illegally as a meeting house, according to the complaint, the synagogue also carried out works and constructions without a building permit or city inspection. Aleksander Shul’s lawyers retorted that the mayor discriminated against orthodox Jews.
After attempting to close the synagogue in July, the city’s ordinance was temporarily suspended on July 27 by a Cuyahoga County judge, who issued an amended ordinance allowing Alexander’s Shul to continue operating on Shabbat and holidays until Sukkot, provided they occupy maximum occupancy. in the building was limited to 36. But the city said worshipers had violated the Rosh Hashanah occupancy limit.
“The investigator observed 50 people entering the house, in apparent violation of the court order limiting the capacity to 36 people,” University Heights Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan told the Cleveland Jewish News in an email from the September 13.
However, it was the presence of the investigator that drew the ire of the local community.
At a September 9 city council meeting, Rabbi Eric “Yitz” Frank, executive director of Agudath Israel of Ohio, which represents Orthodox families and day schools, called the incident an “outright scandal.” .
“Mothers walking with their children to the synagogue… were deeply traumatized by this event,” he said at the meeting.
Michele Weiss, the vice-mayor of University Heights who is Jewish, criticized Brennan and the law firm for allowing the move at the council meeting.
“A city should never spy on its own residents, especially on one of the holiest days of the year for our Jewish residents,” Weiss said at the meeting. “It is inconceivable that if it was Easter or Christmas it would even be considered. The city council is shocked by the behavior of the mayor and the outside law firm and will consider our options to deal with the situation. “
Weiss told the Cleveland Jewish News that the situation could have been handled in another way that did not inspire fear. She added that she first heard of the investigator when neighbors came to her home on September 7, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, to inform her.
“Wednesday night I was just making phone calls and texts all night,” she said.
Weiss said she spoke with the police chief and legal director on the morning of September 9 “to understand what that meant.”
In a September 13 email to CJN, Brennan blamed the Cleveland Jewish Federation security contractor JFC Security. Brennan and other city officials said they alerted the federation’s security director that an investigator would be present outside the services at the Aleksander Shul. But the contractor, Brennan wrote, “did not make this known to those working in the field, resulting in the confusion that the city expressly sought to avoid.”
A spokesperson for the federation responded, “The job of JFC Security, LLC is to work with law enforcement to help keep Jewish Cleveland safe. When we were notified of a suspicious vehicle, we reacted quickly as the community expected. “
Brennan, who was not present at the September 9 city council meeting due to the sudden illness and death of her father, told CJN that “the city nevertheless remains willing to use mediation to reach a settlement. mutually acceptable resolution “.
At the council meeting, Frank said it was up to the city to foster a sense of community.
“We have a responsibility to take clear steps to promote our sense of community, our sense of security and unity, and this is just one sad example of this rupture,” he said. “I would like to make sure this type of activity never happens again. And if residents continue to feel targeted or threatened, that in itself is a failure. “
A version of this story originally appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News. It has been reprinted with permission.