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At this inaugural meeting of a new Miami Beach homeowners association, the information table held cookies and juice as well as sign-up sheets where neighbors could leave their names and complete a questionnaire about their interests and concerns.
I was there because it was my neighborhood. One of the organizers had dropped off an informational flyer at my home, which is how I learned about the controversial issue that had prompted formation of the new group. The Miami Beach planning department and the city's advisory planning board had endorsed a proposal to change the zoning along the south side of 40th Street between Chase Avenue and Pine Tree Drive, near the heart of the area known as Mid-Beach. Its current zoning is residential. The proposal would change it to something called "RO/Residential Office." This was being done, according to the flyer, to allow houses of worship where once only single-family houses had been allowed.
The flyer's language was fashioned with care, and for good reason: Indelicate phrasing could have easily resulted in a charge of prejudice. "Our immediate concern is preventing the rezoning of the south side of 40th Street," it read. "The change was requested to permit several presently nonconforming uses by Orthodox Jewish religious groups to continue to function at their present locations.... While the need of the Orthodox Jewish community for sites on which to conduct religious-related activities is paramount, it is premature to conclude that the only location for these facilities is on the south side of 40th Street."
The meeting, held in an auditorium at the Miami Heart Institute, got under way the evening of June 21. Gary Hunt, the "provisional" president of the fledgling homeowners association (technically it didn't yet exist), coaxed everyone into coming up close to the stage so he could be heard. While he was doing that and fiddling with an enlarged map of the neighborhood, a number of late arrivals marched in and sat down right in front. All were men. All wore yarmulkes.
Hunt, an easy-going 47-year-old businessman, opened by explaining that the real problem with the proposed zoning change was not that it would permit Orthodox Jews to turn private homes into synagogues but that it would also permit office buildings up to three stories tall along this edge of the residential neighborhood. (The north side of 40th Street includes a post office and a series of parking lots supporting the businesses that line 41st Street.)
No sooner had Hunt begun a description of past zoning problems along 40th Street than one of the late arrivals abruptly interrupted to challenge the historical accuracy of Hunt's narrative. The outburst was so unexpected, so loud, and so obviously antagonistic that it was shocking.
The late arrival ignored entreaties to let Hunt continue. He was argumentative, combative to the point of being rude. And soon he was joined by other Orthodox men in the auditorium.
Within minutes Hunt had lost control of the meeting and pandemonium reigned. A dozen people were shouting at once, leveling all sorts of nasty accusations: This wasn't about zoning, it was about being anti-Orthodox. The so-called homeowners association was really a conspiracy against the neighborhood's Orthodox Jews. Not everyone had received the flyers announcing the meeting. One man bellowed, "If you had a mezuzah on your door, you didn't get a notice!"
Two of Hunt's fellow organizers, Bill Wax and Carol Herman, stepped forward in an attempt to come to his aid, but they too were shouted down by the Orthodox men in the crowd. Herman, trying to speak over the cacophony, seemed close to tears. "Excuse me!" she cried out at one point. "I have the floor!"
Before long her supporters in the audience fired their own verbal salvos: The Orthodox had lied to the city about using single-family homes as shuls, or synagogues. City commissioners always helped their own, and everybody knew the city commission was Jewish. If the Orthodox wouldn't oppose the zoning change, they could form their own homeowners association.
What had been planned as a friendly gathering of neighbors with a common problem degenerated into a confrontation that quickly turned ugly.
Who knows what might have happened had Rabbi Donald Bixon not managed to gain the floor. A boyish-looking 30-year-old who leads the Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Miami Beach, Bixon's eloquent appeal for unity and mutual respect temporarily lowered the temperature. Long enough, at least, for the warring sides to appoint an ad hoc committee that would explore possibilities for compromise.
With that action, the meeting sputtered to a disorderly close amid fresh bouts of arguing and a palpable sense of mistrust. Many of the approximately 65 people present, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, swarmed to the information table to plunk down $25 for membership in the new homeowners association.
"I think both sides felt threatened," Rabbi Bixon told me later. "Both sides felt that something they'd worked very hard to achieve was about to be taken away." He described the needs of Mid-Beach's substantial population of Orthodox Jews, whose religious codes require that they walk to their shuls on the Sabbath. That limitation, coupled with restrictive zoning in the area, had created the need for a specially zoned district where single-family homes could legally be used as synagogues.