The Aleksander Shul, which has been embroiled in legal action with the city of University Heights, has countersued the city and Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan, alleging a “continued pattern of harassment and intimidation.”
Meanwhile, the city, the shul and other parties are heading into private mediation in an effort to resolve that dispute and the original action in which the city attempted to shut down the shul for zoning and code violations.
In the countersuit filed Sept. 14, University Realty USA, LLC, which owns the Aleksander Shul, Rabbi Shnior Zalman Denciger and the Aleksander Shul allege violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, provisions of the Ohio Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 and Ohio common law.
The counterclaim, filed by John P. Slagter of Tucker Ellis LLP of Cleveland, details the city’s efforts to close proposed Orthodox shuls in January and May of 2021 at 4136 University Parkway, Kehillat Heikal HaKodesh at 4464 Churchill Blvd., and at Daniel Grand’s home at 2343 Miramar Blvd.
In addition, the counterclaim alleges the city and Brennan, a first-term mayor who is being challenged by three contenders in the Nov. 2 election, “engaged in discrimination” by “fabricating false pretexts and engaging in falsehoods to shut down the Aleksander Shul.”
The counterclaim states Brennan “used his observation of parked cars as a pretext to accuse defendants of exceeding 15 people on the property” on Feb. 14, days before the city filed a cease and desist order against Aleksander Shul.
It also states the city “used the delay caused by the pandemic as a pretext to falsely claim that (the) defendant failed to make ‘timely serious attempts to obtain a special use permit,’” adding that Denciger did not allow anyone into the house during the pandemic, even his own adult children.
“There was no way for an architect to complete as-built drawings under the circumstances,” the counterclaim states.
In addition, the counterclaim says the city’s response to Orthodox Jewish prayer groups is in “response to a vocal group of residents motivated by animus toward Orthodox Jews.”
The counterclaim cites a March 4 hearing in the Daniel Grand application and a petition bearing 195 signatures opposed to the use of the Miramar Boulevard house as a Shabbos shul.
'Green Road ghetto'
Brennan “is attempting to confine Orthodox Jews to the Green Road ghetto,” the counterclaim states.
It also quotes Brennan, in a June 9 conversation with Denciger, saying “the demographics (of the city) are changing,” and that he “sympathizes” with those opposed to the shul because “people bought homes in the area with the expectation that it was going to be a certain way, and now it’s changed.”
The counterclaim also notes the Sept. 6, 2019 criminal charges against University Realty USA, which is now being appealed in the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Cleveland. The fines levied by then-Shaker Heights Municipal Judge K.J. Montgomery totaled $65,000.
The counterclaim also referenced the decision by Brennan to place a private investigator outside Aleksander Shul during Rosh Hashanah services Sept. 7 and 8, which caused fear among the Orthodox community. Brennan has said this was done to observe the number of people entering and exiting the building.
University Heights Police Chief Dustin Rogers said in an email to the CJN that on Aug. 27, he contacted Jim Hartnett, director of community-wide security at the Federation, by phone “generally informed him of the ongoing situation at this location, and also of the possibility of some type of private surveillance occurring in the future in the area of this location.”
Erika B. Rudin-Luria, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, said in a statement the Federation was not given specific information about the surveillance.
“At no time did the Jewish Federation of Cleveland or its security provider, JFC Security, LLC, have any advanced, specific details of the mayor’s plan with the private investigator he hired to monitor certain members of the University Heights community,” Rudin-Luria said in a Sept. 17 statement. “Therefore, when we were notified of suspicious activity coming from an unknown individual in a parked car, we responded immediately as the community and our partners in local law enforcement have come to expect from us.”
Impact of city's actions
The impact of the city’s actions, according to the counterclaim, were “malicious and in bad faith,” were done for “the sole purpose of harassing the defendants in an effort to prohibit religious exercise” and “were undertaken because of the particular religious denomination of the Aleksander Shul.”
In addition, the city’s actions will have the following impact, according to the counterclaim: force the Aleksander Shul to shut down; “greatly burden defendants’ religious exercise”; caused “immediate and severe” harm; and caused “financial damage.”
The counterclaim seeks orders:
• “enjoining the city, its officers, employees, agents, successors and all others acting in concert with them from applying their laws in a manner that violates” state and federal laws and the Ohio and U.S. constitutions;
• “compelling the city … to rescind all complaints, fines and notices of violation;”
• “directing the city to allow the defendants to use the property as a house of worship;”
• compensatory damages;
• full costs and attorneys’ fees’;
• and other relief.
As far as the city’s lawsuit against the shul, on Sept. 27 the parties held a telephone conference before Cuyahoga County Chief Magistrate Stephen M. Bucha III. They agreed to hire a private mediator and the hearing set for Oct. 1 and Oct. 4 at Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas is now delayed, according to a Sept. 27 email from Bucha.
Mike Cook, communications and civic engagement coordinator for the city of University Heights, said the dates for that hearing have been set for Dec. 3 and Dec. 6, he wrote in an email to the CJN Sept. 27.
Brennan, Cook said, would not comment.
“Comments on any open cases will be made in court or in filings,” Cook wrote.
Slagter emailed a comment to the CJN Sept. 27.
“Because this matter is in litigation I would prefer not to comment and let the judicial system properly decide this matter,” he wrote. “However, I am of the opinion that the action of the city and the mayor in its treatment of my client was improper.”