Welcome to the Neighborhood

"We all have the same concerns," he added. "We want our investment in our homes protected. We want a place where our children can grow up and feel comfortable in the community. There's the ability for both sides to work together."

Hopes of working together suffered a setback just a couple of days after the meeting, however, when Gary Hunt and his cohorts scrapped the idea of forming a homeowners association. Presumably membership in such a group would be open to all property owners in the area, which meant the zoning issue would split neighbors as divisively as it did at the organizational meeting.

Instead Hunt and his like-minded associates would form a private advocacy group, Concerned Citizens for the Preservation of Single Family Zoning. Another flyer was circulated throughout the neighborhood, this one laying out in great detail the Orthodox community's successful efforts to have a zoning change approved by the planning board, the illegal use of private homes as shuls while the city turned a blind eye, and the ominous consequences of inaction: "Individual homeowners will be free to use their homes for nonconforming uses, particularly religious uses of all types, and then petition the city for a change in the zoning in order to confer legitimacy upon their illicit use."

An informational meeting was set for June 26. At this point in the developing storm I switched hats from homeowner to journalist in an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest. I was unable to attend the June 26 meeting, but by all accounts it unfolded with grim determination. The zoning change was believed to be a done deal. The "Orthos," as their opponents called them, were thought to be a powerfully influential group, which prompted one participant to admit, "Friends warned me: Don't go against the Orthos."

The only option that made any sense was unwavering opposition. If the city commission wouldn't listen to them, then they'd take their fight to the courts. Those at the meeting enthusiastically donated hundreds of dollars toward hiring Miami attorney Tucker Gibbs to represent them.

As money was being collected, one of the original organizers, Bill Wax, pointed out that the very next day the ad hoc committee was scheduled to meet. He was a member of that committee, an appointment he'd earned after valiant efforts to make peace during the shouting match at Miami Heart Institute. Now he asked his non-Orthodox neighbors whether there was any possibility of reconciliation. "There was a vote that there would be no compromise at all with the Orthodox," he told me a few days later. "They felt the area should remain single-family and that the Orthodox have been operating illegally and the city shouldn't kowtow to their needs by legitimizing them. The community feels that the Orthodox have been, how would you say it, underhanded? They've used single-family homes illegally [as shuls] for years. There's a complete distrust of the Orthodox."

Though Wax, a 42-year-old new-media entrepreneur, has lived in Miami Beach less than a year, he was fully aware of the history of controversy surrounding the city's Orthodox Jewish community. Back in 1980 the city made its first attempt at enforcing zoning codes by issuing a criminal cease-and-desist order against the Grosz family, whose Prairie Avenue home had become a popular shul that attracted dozens of faithful for morning prayers and Saturday services.

A legal battle ensued that dragged on for years and in 1984 ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which let stand an appeals court ruling upholding the city's right to enforce its zoning laws, even if they impinged on the Groszes' exercise of religious freedom. The assistant city attorney who handled the case boasted to the Miami Herald: "Now everybody knows where the city zoning stands."

Well, not quite.
In the years since then, the Grosz family has continued hosting religious services in defiance of the law. In fact, they have dramatically enlarged their house to accommodate more people. The city has taken no enforcement action, perhaps because no one wants to suffer the bad publicity sure to result from ordering the arrest of kindly old Rabbi Armin Grosz.

In 1990 some 60 Orthodox families jointly bought a home on the south side of 40th Street and converted it into a shul known as Congregation Anshei Gezah. It took a few months for city officials to catch on, but when it became obvious a religious institution was operating on a street zoned for single-family residences, they threatened to take legal action. With typical bureaucratic speed, that didn't happen until four years later, when the city finally filed a lawsuit against the congregation. Today that lawsuit remains unresolved and the Orthodox families continue to use the home as a place of worship.

The protracted nature of that litigation, in fact, contributed to the city's willingness to look anew at the zoning on 40th Street, which eventually led to the proposed zoning change that provoked the eruption of anger last month, anger that Bill Wax, Rabbi Donald Bixon, and others on the ad hoc committee hoped to ameliorate.

"We met at Bagel Time," recounted Rabbi Bixon, referring to the delicatessen on Alton Road just south of 41st Street. "We kicked around different ideas -- how we could have a meeting of the minds, what would be the best way to have everyone's interest represented. We pushed for having one homeowners association, not one for Jews and one for non-Jews or one for non-Orthodox, but one group. There was a feeling that the religious institutions could work to improve the neighborhood. We could request that 40th Street not be zoned for offices. We left it that we'd try to approach the city commission and Mayor [Neisen] Kasdin and have a preliminary meeting or a workshop."

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