By Randall P. Lieberman / Florida Sun-Sentinel
Despite receiving an anonymous threatening letter saying development on the project would be impeded, the Chabad of East Boca is moving ahead with its Boca Beach Jewish Center and My Israel project — a high-tech learning center and synagogue that is scheduled to break ground in the coming months at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton.
The lead gift for the project was made by Irving J. Litwak, a retired builder from New York who is donating the land and is dedicating the Harry & Celia Litwak Chabad Shul in his parents’ memory. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.
“We will not be intimidated as we look to expand,” said Rabbi Ruvi New of the Chabad of East Boca. “We want the whole local Jewish community to be informed and included in our plans and to support us.”
Added Litwak, who was also named in the threatening letter: “This coward will not face us, but he is not going to stop us. What the Chabad does is amazing. They serve Jewish people without asking any questions.”
This is not the first time the Chabad has attempted to expand.
In 2008, the Chabad was all set to move into a two-story, 23-000-square-foot building in the Golden Triangle neighborhood near Mizner Park. Litwak also was the donor of the land for this deal.
However, about 75 residents of the Golden Triangle neighborhood showed up at a Boca Raton City Council meeting and persuaded the council to approve parking rules to limit overflow parking from Mizner Park. These rules more than doubled the number of parking spaces that would have been required at the Chabad.
The Chabad, which had planned to seek off-site parking on occasions when parking was heaviest such as the High Holy Days, was forced to scrap its plans.
While some of the opposition may have been borne of parking concerns, New recalls thinly-veiled anti-Semitism on the part of some of the residents’ protest of the Chabad moving into their neighborhood.
New recalled: “There are two churches there on Mizner Boulevard. We assumed that if there was room for two churches, there could be room for one synagogue. We called a meeting of the neighbors to reach out and be upfront about our plans and receive feedback from them.
“The next morning signs reading ‘Save our Neighborhood’ were posted on numerous front lawns. Neighborhood meetings were called, from which members of my community who attempted to attend, were asked to leave. We received numerous threatening and hostile letters. Draw your own conclusions.”
Added Litwak: “They were against us because we were Jews putting up a shul. We faced terrible, terrible opposition.”
But New is happy to let bygones be bygones and sees the failed attempt to build on Mizner Boulevard as a blessing that led to the current location on Palmetto Park Road — one that has far greater visibility and accessibility. And New is thrilled that Litwak was willing to purchase the land again.
This time, New is determined not to let anything stand in the way of the building of the new Chabad Boca Beach Jewish Center.
New said: “Particularly in light of the shocking scenes we have seen unfold on the streets of Paris, London and here in the United States, it’s vitally important that we affirm our right to freely practice our faith and demonstrate our pride in Israel and not be intimidated by those who think otherwise.”
Added Litwak: “This time we don’t need anything from anyone. Plus, the number of the address is 770, the same as 770 Eastern Parkway, the address of Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. I think it’s beshert. So, I am reasonably sure the project is a go. We expect to be approved and have a permit by the end of the year.”
On the evening of March 17, the day after an article about the Chabad’s expansion plans appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, the current building the Chabad uses at 120 N.E. 1st Ave. in Boca Raton was vandalized. The incident was never classified as a hate crime.
New, while unnerved by the vandalism, was undaunted and went on with a March 20 concert in Mizner Park Amphitheatre to unveil plans for the center — which will include a high-tech, immersive and interactive museum celebrating the Land and People of Israel.
New said: “Our response to darkness is light. Our response to hate is love. If people come out and unite and celebrate with us, that’ll be the most effective response to this ugly crime.”
At the concert, Chabad member Marla Birman said: “This is a new, innovative and very exciting project that I’m proud to be a part of.”