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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

It’s 7 p.m. on a Sunday.

Nineteen college students, male and female, gather around a table of chanukiot.

A little girl jumps up and down with glee, singing a Chanukah song while her Tati, Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, lights the first candle for the first night.

In the background, the joyful “Al HaNisim” tune recount the miracle of the Maccabees.

It’s a dark, misty night with slippery roads and fine rain falling. Christmas lights from neighboring homes pierce the night sky. The bright lights from the tall Towson Chabad House welcome a few more Towson University and Goucher College students safely in.

There, a colorful array of plastic dreidels is scattered across the floor awaiting a holiday spin. The dark-granite kitchen counter holds cardboard boxes of chocolate-covered doughnuts.

There is hardly a hint that this newly built warm, welcoming Chabad House, and the home for Rabbi and Sheiny Rivkin and their seven children, could be demolished by the wrecker’s ball by the end of this month.

A Baltimore County judge has ruled that the Chabad House, which expanded from 2,200 to 6,600 square feet was set too close to the curb and, secondly, breached residential zoning laws for a residence. The ruling was appealed last year, with Chabad offering to address the curb violation by moving the addition so that it will be the proscribed 115 feet away from the curb, but the county judge ordered Chabad to demolish the entire building, citing that the rabbi's home is no longer a residence.

Long-time neighbors have been quoted in the media as saying that the addition does not fit in with the character of the Aigburth Manor neighborhood, which is located directly across the street from the Towson University campus.

There has been talk on social media and in the press of anti-Semitism perhaps involved, with one reference comparing the demolition to Kristallnacht. Neighbors, however, deny any anti-Semitism, saying this is neighborhood covenant issue and nothing more.

Rabbi Rivkin told The Jewish Link that he is trying to shelter his student population from the legal machinations going on. And according to one student, Rebecca Shapiro, a 20-year-old junior from Marlboro, New Jersey, he and his wife are doing a great job.

“I come here all of the time,” said Shapiro, an elementary and special education major. “It’s like a first Jewish home for me. It’s a place to come and be with other Jewish people and have a home-cooked meal, pray and study.”

The Rivkins have encouraged her Jewish learning. She has traveled to Israel, she said, because of the Rivkins. She even wants to make aliyah.

Shapiro said that the tension over the Baltimore County ruling hasn’t changed anything for students as far she can tell.

“Nothing has changed,” she said. “If anything, there’s a passion about this place coming from the people who are committed to their religion.”

Rabbi Rivkin mingles with students near the many chanukiot before taking a seat in a comfortable room off of the kitchen. He is asked how he puts on a happy Chanukah front while knowing that the very building we sit in and the work he’s put into the building could be demolished.

He responds with a bit of annoyance to the question, saying, “I don’t plan the future, you do the best you can.”

The rabbi said that when he and his wife purchased the original 2,200-square-foot home, they knew that they’d one day need more space to facilitate the students’ needs from the two nearby college campuses. Also, his family was growing with more children on the way.

“For a lot of our kids, this is home,” he said. “We didn’t want to create an institution for them. That’s what their university is—an institution. We wanted this to be their home, their Jewish home. To be honest, this is happening because we have students coming to the house.”

He added that he didn’t think the students attending Chabad have been impacted by the news.

“They look at it and see that the issue makes no sense.”

“Somehow or another,” he continued, “we will be here. If we have to, we will rebuild. We are not going anywhere. We will fight this and we will win this.”

A little girl appears with a dreidel. Two college students walk by, their faces blissfully engaged with jelly doughnuts.

It was still Chanukah.

Even on Aigburth Road in Towson.