Miami Beach to pay $1.3 million to settle Jewish congregation’s discrimination suit

Orthodox synagogue accused city of prejudice by sending inspectors more than once a week on average, for two years; congregation agrees to change noise, parking practices

Aerial photo of Miami Beach. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)
Aerial photo of Miami Beach. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

JTA — The city of Miami Beach has agreed to pay $1.3 million to a small Orthodox synagogue that accused it of discrimination by sending inspectors more than once a week on average for two years

At the same time, Congregation Bais Yeshaya D’Kerestir agreed to make changes to its parking and noise practices.

The agreement brings to a close an extended dispute over whether the congregation, which meets in a single-family home owned by its rabbi, Arie Wohl, was a religious institution or a private gathering.

The congregation argued that because its services are invitation-only, the building’s use is similar to that of any other private home and so should not be subject to scrutiny by city inspectors. It sued in April 2022, claiming that city officials had visited more than 126 times over the course of two years to enforce various city laws, including 60 times to enforce pandemic restrictions on large gatherings. (Orthodox services require a minyan, or quorum of at least 10 men, in order to recite certain prayers.)

The congregation also claimed that the city installed a video camera in 2021 that surveilled only its property, not neighboring buildings. Miami Beach was “wrongfully discriminating against Plaintiffs’ First Amendment protected rights of religious exercise and assembly through discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement of the City’s zoning ordinances,” the congregation alleged in a court complaint.

The city issued repeated code violations because it said a religious institution was operating in a residential building. The congregation is “not engaging in private prayer, but, rather, the entity is operating a religious institution in violation of the City’s zoning laws,” the city said in a court filing.

Miami Beach, Florida. (YouTube screen capture)

The city said neighbors of the congregation filed multiple complaints against the property related to building code issues. And it said that inspections of the property to ensure compliance with pandemic restrictions were conducted remotely by driving by, not visiting.

“We respectfully disagree with the premise that the city discriminates against any person or religion, simply because the city enforces the city code,” City Attorney Rafael Paz told Axios in January.

But ultimately, to avoid a longer fight in court, the city agreed to settle, agreeing to pay the congregation $1.3 million — $100,000 more than the buyer on behalf of the congregation paid in 2020.

The home is located just blocks from one of Miami Beach’s multiple waterways and within walking distance of multiple other synagogues and Jewish institutions and businesses. About 20,000 Jews live in Miami Beach, down from 34,000 in 1994, according to a study from the University of Miami, and roughly 18% of the city’s current population is Jewish.

Under the terms of the settlement, according to the Miami Herald, the synagogue must improve the condition of its driveway, will not use outdoor speakers for prayer activities, and will also limit the number of cars parked in the area outside the property. The city and the congregation have also agreed to a new process to address future code violations, and the congregation has agreed to not apply for a religious tax exemption at the property.

“Even if we had gone to trial and won, it wouldn’t have felt like we had won anything,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told The Miami Herald. “Ultimately, we do support the celebration of faith in our community.”

Congregation Bais Yeshaya D’Kerestir is far from the only synagogue to get entangled in local zoning issues. University Heights, Ohio, recently fought a court battle over compliance with a congregation called the Alexander Shul, which was settled in December with the synagogue paying $1.59 million. As part of that agreement, the city and the synagogue will construct a new synagogue that meets the state building code.

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