Chabad Lubavitch of Northwest Connecticut has acquired a Church property at 69 West Street, with plans to house Connecticut’s Holocaust Museum of Tolerance.
In a statement issued this week, Chabad Lubavich, led by Rabbi Yoseph Eisenbach, extended thanks to the members, its clergy and counsel for enabling what it described as “a smooth transition and for ensuring that this important landmark remain in a community faith-based organization.”
Eisenbach would not comment further on the group’s plans for the church or the plan for a museum.
The place is one of the most historic buildings of faith on the Litchfield Green and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the announcement said.
In the interim, until Chabad completes its construction of the synagogue next door, the church will be used as its temporary house of worship. Chabad plans to maintain its historic significance without any modifications to the building, members said in the statement, adding that a dedication ceremony is scheduled for spring of 2021.
The Chabad group, led by Eisenbach, initially purchased the Deming House at 85 West St., and applied to the Litchfield Historic District Commission in 2007 to convert it, adding living space for the rabbi and his family, as well as spaces for worship and programs, and a mikvah pool, used by members for ceremonies.
In December 2007, the Historic District Commission denied Chabad’s application without prejudice, saying it would not approve an addition as large as that proposed by Chabad, which was ‘over five times as large’ as the original structure and dominate the original house in every aspect,” according to a story in the Register Citizen and the Litchfield County Times.
“The HDC invited the Chabad to submit a new proposal. HDC did not consider the (religious) needs of the Chabad in its decision, but analyzed Chabad’s use of the proposed interior ‘in an attempt to address what the (federal religions law) required of it,’” according to the ruling.
No new application was filed; instead, the Chabad filed a complaint in federal court against the borough in 2009, claiming it had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The suit remained in litigation for nearly 10 years.
In 2014, a federal judge threw out the case, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that the lawsuit could go forward. According to a story by the Associated Press, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals in New York City ruled that federal Judge Janet C. Hall in New Haven was wrong to dismiss the lawsuit. The panel said Hall erred by ruling that part of a federal law barring government interference in religious exercise didn’t apply to the case.
The appeals court panel, however, upheld Hall’s other rulings in the case, including her dismissals of Chabad Lubavitch’s claims that its constitutional rights to freedom of religion and equal protection were violated.
In 2017, a judge from the U.S. District Court in New Haven ruled that Chabad can build a modified version of its plan for 85 West St., and ordered the borough’s Historic District Commission to approve that plan, and gave both sides a month each to present and approve it.
Most recently in 2019, a circuit court judge granted the Chabad’s request for the Litchfield borough to pay its legal fees, totaling more than $700,000.
In its ruling filed in August 2019, the court ruled the borough must pay the Chabad $717,405 for legal fees and services. In its suit, the Chabad asked for more than $1.6 million. The court decided that half the legal fees were appropriate.
Attorney Ken Slater, who represents the Chabad, said at the time that he was happy with the court’s decision. “We’re very pleased that we were successful and got the court’s ruling,” he said. “We’re happy that there’s a conclusion.”
Litchfield Borough Warden Dirk Patterson said at that time that the borough had no resources to pay such fees, and the borough’s legal counsel disagreed with the decision.
“Under the judge’s order, the Chabad didn’t win anything,” said Litchfield attorney Jim Stedronsky, who represents the borough, at the time of the ruling. “So they shouldn’t be entitled to any attorney’s fees. However, the circuit court felt differently.”