Court battle percolates over synagogue slated for East Boca Raton

Rendering of Harry and Celia Litwak Chabad Center
Rendering of Harry and Celia Litwak Chabad Center

The battle over a synagogue and museum complex in East Boca Raton is intensifying.

Last May, the Boca Raton City Council approved the $10 million, 18,000-square foot Harry and Celia Litwak Chabad Center for 770 E. Palmetto Parkway, east of the Intracoastal Waterway. The decision followed tense debate. 

And since then, two Boca Raton residents—Kathleen MacDougall and Gerald Gagliardi—sued the city in Federal District Court in February, claiming the project resulted from secret dealings and special religious treatment that violated citizens’ First Amendment rights. Earlier this month, the city and the Chabad Center filed motions for the suit to be dismissed.

The original arguments against the project included concerns about the building’s size, increased traffic and noise, parking problems and proximity to surrounding homes.

MacDougall and Gagliardi’s lawyers declined to comment to The Real Deal. But their suit accuses the city of “engaging in activities that have established and continue to establish religion contrary to the prohibition contained in the First Amendment.” The city’s actions denied the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection and due process in land-use decisions by exercising religious preference, the suit says.

“This discriminatory preference, favoring one religious organization, violates the right of citizens — believers and non-believers alike — to government neutrality” in violation of the 14th amendment, the suit reads. “Any secular proposal of similar size and impact would not have received the special treatment accorded to the Chabad by the city,” according to the complaint.

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City officials also declined to comment. But the city’s motion for dismissal makes its views clear. “Neither the city’s amendment to its zoning code nor its approval of Chabad’s development for a religious center give rise to constitutional violations,” the motion says. 

Rabbi Ruvi New of Chabad East Boca Raton, also had harsh words for the suit. “It has no merit whatsoever, not legal, not moral,” he told TRD.

“What motivates people is between them and their hearts, but any objective observer would see” there is no basis for a suit, New said.

The city of Boca Raton gave Chabad permission to build a 40-foot-tall building in a neighborhood that generally has a 30-foot height limit. Some residents wanted a smaller project. The plan is for a two-story building with a 26,265-square-foot parking garage underground. The project includes a sanctuary with seating for up to 156 on the ground floor and a 5,967 square-foot interactive museum, My Israel, on the second floor. The top floor also holds another portion of the sanctuary with seats for 66.

If the center comes to fruition, it would represent the first religious building in Boca east of the Intracoastal.