After Years of Wandering, a Dallas Synagogue Finds a Home -- and a Chilly Welcome

Rabbi Yaakov Rich outside his North Dallas synagogue.
Rabbi Yaakov Rich outside his North Dallas synagogue.
Mark Graham

It was just after sunset on March 11, and Rabbi Yaakov Rich was leading the men of Congregation Toras Chaim in a study of the Talmud, as is their ritual. They gather here every evening, shoulder to shoulder in white plastic folding chairs, heads bowed over the text, contemplating the dense meditations of the ancient rabbis. Each night they study a single one of the Talmud's 2,711 pages; Daf Yomi, as the page-a-day program is called, takes seven years to complete.

The Talmud study, as well as the thrice-daily prayers, Sabbath services, High Holy Day celebrations and most of the other rites that compose the rhythmic spiritual life of the shul, takes place in the sanctuary. It's a spare, white-washed room dominated by the ark, the ornate wooden cabinet that houses the synagogue's Torah scrolls. It used to be a living room — vaulted ceiling, compact marble fireplace, a trio of windows looking onto the front yard – before Toras Chaim repurposed the bottom floor of the house at 7103 Mumford Court as a synagogue. There have been a few minor alterations, like the keypad on the front door that stands in for a deadbolt, and the leather-bound Hebrew volumes inlaid with gold filigree, but otherwise it seems a typical suburban home, with a chandelier hanging over the foyer and a piano in the sitting room.

David Schneider pulled off a coup to take over the HOA, then used the HOA to sue the synagogue.
David Schneider pulled off a coup to take over the HOA, then used the HOA to sue the synagogue.
Mark Graham

The top floor belongs to Rich's 23-year-old son, Avroham. The living arrangement is a matter of pragmatism rather than of faith; his father thought it was time for him to spread his wings and leave the nest, and the congregation thought it would be beneficial if the house was also maintained as a residence. Avroham does not consider himself a member of the synagogue and typically keeps apart from the congregation, but this evening he tiptoed into the sanctuary and pulled his father aside. "Tati," he said, using the Yiddish word for dad, "I hate to show you this right now, but you need to come out and see this." Rich followed his son to the driveway, where the rabbi parked his weather-beaten Honda sedan. Crudely spray-painted across the trunk was a white swastika.

The congregation had been the target of neighbors' hostility since moving in during the summer of 2013, but the opposition — and the lawsuit the Highlands of McKamy homeowners association filed against the synagogue — were ostensibly grounded in secular complaints: traffic, parking, residential-only deed restrictions. Once, several months earlier, someone had ripped a ceremonial parchment called a mezuzah from the front doorframe and thrown it on the sidewalk, but never had they been confronted with such blatant anti-Semitism.

Rich gaped at the trunk, appalled. The swastika, stained with the blood of six million Jews, is as pure and potent a symbol of hatred as exists. To Rich, the very act of painting it is tantamount to violence against the Jewish faith. But Rich quickly composed himself. The congregation had been fighting for its right to exist in the neighborhood for nearly two years. He wasn't going to let a few lines of paint run them off.


The Highlands of McKamy IV and V is a quiet subdivision developers planted 30-odd years ago, just south of where Far North Dallas blurs into Plano at the George H. W. Bush Turnpike. The homes are nice but not ostentatious: 3,000 square feet, facades of earth-toned brick, maybe a swimming pool, and certainly an oak tree arching over the sidewalk out front. Sometimes, home listings swell to a half-million dollars.

The neighborhood has a single through-street, Meandering Way, which enters from the south, by a picturesque gazebo overlooking a shady creek, and dead-ends into bustling Frankford Road on the north. To the right stretch elongated cul-de-sacs. To the left, the streets set off purposefully only to double back to Meandering Way in a lazy U.

David Schneider was especially charmed by the neighborhood. In early 2013 he was searching for a house to share with Laura, his fiancée. Both had been previously married, and both had three adult children. They were looking for something in a well-established area close to their jobs and suitable for hosting their wedding. They found a house on Mumford Court, the Highlands of McKamy's northernmost street, that fit their criteria. They bought it in February 2013 and married that summer in a small backyard ceremony.

Around the time of the wedding, Schneider began noticing an unusual number of people coming and going from the house across the street. The home, he learned, had recently been purchased by an Orthodox Jewish man from New York who planned to host a religious study group, which was fine with Schneider, who refused to share his religious beliefs or affiliations. In August, he and Laura left for their honeymoon.

 

It wasn't until he returned that Schneider grew concerned. The traffic was heavier than could be explained by an occasional study group meeting. Sunday through Thursday cars came and went, a few parking behind the house but more of them using the street. On Saturdays people came on foot, the men in dark suits, the women pushing baby strollers. His concern turned to alarm when he attended the August meeting of the neighborhood's HOA board. There, Rabbi Rich stood up and told the board he was seeking a certificate of occupancy for the house from the city of Dallas.

"The second he said that, just this horrible, horrible feeling came over me," Schneider recalls. Dallas' normal zoning laws don't apply to places of worship. Churches can legally operate just about anywhere they can find space: a commercial strip center, a warehouse or industrial area, a single-family home. There is no such exemption, however, from the city's building codes. Churches, like any other non-residential use, must obtain a permit before they begin operating, to ensure that the building is safe and has enough parking. Numerous churches and synagogues operate in residential neighborhoods in Dallas, including Ohev Shalom, an Orthodox shul a half mile from Congregation Toras Chaim. Granting them COs is fairly routine.

Schneider recognized Rich's announcement for what it was: a declaration that the house across the street wasn't just hosting a study group. "If they're getting a certificate of occupancy," he thought, "they're a full-on synagogue."

Schneider is an unassuming, middle-aged IT manager with rimless glasses and an apologetic grin. He says he has nothing against synagogues or Orthodox Judaism. He has no problem with the two Jewish day schools and the Judaica store at the corner of Frankford and Hillcrest roads, a quarter mile from his house. The horror he felt came from the realization that the single-family home across the street wasn't being used as a single-family home. He simply worried that if he and Laura ever decided to sell, the presence of a heavily trafficked religious institution would scare off prospective buyers and hurt the sale price.

Schneider took his complaints to the HOA board, along with a copy of deed restrictions stipulating that each house in the Highlands of McKamy could only be used as a "single-family private dwelling." He demanded immediate and aggressive action — in other words, a lawsuit.

James Vasil, the HOA's treasurer at the time, said the board had been hearing complaints, mostly about parking, since Toras Chaim began operating on Mumford Court. Some neighbors had, like Schneider, lobbied for litigation, but board members had done some research and decided against it. The language in the deed restrictions was probably too fuzzy to enforce, and there was a significant chance that the HOA would lose. They opted instead to leave enforcement to the city, which was leaning on Toras Chaim to speed up its pursuit of a CO.

Schneider found the board's inaction unconscionable. "I think of a house that doesn't mow their lawn, doesn't repair their fence, and I compare that with allowing a neighborhood that's a residential neighborhood [with] residential-only deed restrictions to become a non-residential neighborhood, I can't see why that's not the most important thing an HOA board would want to attend to," he says. His interactions with board members became increasingly personal and strident. Vasil, the treasurer, became so disgusted that he accelerated his plans by several years and left the neighborhood. The breaking point, he says, was a particularly vicious email from Schneider attacking the integrity and intelligence of President Cookie Peadon, by all accounts a kindly older lady who had rescued the HOA from an apathy-induced coma several years before. (Schneider acknowledges sending emails to Peadon and the old board but denies that they could be construed as insulting or offensive.

Schneider stayed the course. If the HOA wasn't going to sue to shut down Congregation Toras Chaim, then he would.

Suing neighbors, like writing wonky academic papers on theoretical physics and listening to the Beatles, is something of a hobby for Schneider. In 2000, while living in West Plano, he sued his next-door neighbor for building a backyard fence that interfered with his view of the country club. He referenced this case in an August 2013 email to Toras Chaim president Ben Nise. "Although I am not an attorney, I am capable and experienced in reading and interpreting the relevant law," he wrote. "In fact, I have litigated regarding similar covenants to force a neighbor to comply." In the email, Schneider claimed the neighbor complied "after a day in court." But court records show that a judge threw his case out.

By the time he mailed Toras Chaim a cease-and-desist letter on October 4, 2013, he had his lawsuit ready. His argument was straightforward: the Highlands of McKamy has residential-only deed restrictions; a synagogue is not a residence; therefore, Toras Chaim must stop using the house as a synagogue. His legal research, done primarily on Google, convinced him that it was an open-and-shut case. Over the past half century, Texas courts have routinely ruled that residential-only deed restrictions preclude churches.

"It was really pretty straightforward," Schneider says. "Honestly the only thing I really thought that was going to be a problem in my case was just proving that they were a church."

On December 17, confident of a speedy victory, he drove to the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney and sued Congregation Toras Chaim.


Congregation Toras Chaim is a young synagogue, but its roots in the Highlands of McKamy run deeper than Schneider's. Rich founded the shul in 2007 in a house on Hillcrest Road, just outside the HOA's western boundary. It moved into the neighborhood proper three years later, after plans for constructing a new building fell apart and services relocated to Rich's house, which was then on Bremerton Court.

The area was already a hub of Orthodox Judaism. The center of gravity of Dallas' Orthodox community had gradually shifted northward along Preston Road, from its traditional stronghold in Preston Hollow to Far North Dallas and Plano. By 2001, the area around Hillcrest and Frankford roads boasted three Orthodox synagogues within a mile of one another. The population was swelling fast enough that Jewish leaders successfully petitioned Dallas officials for permission to establish the city's second eruv, a ritual enclosure around a community, made largely by string wires and PVC pipe on telephone poles. Jewish law prohibits the faithful from carrying things outside their home on the Sabbath; the eruv functions as a work-around, turning the entire neighborhood into an extension of each home. When the eruv is up — and a rabbi checks it before sundown every Friday — Jews living within it can do things like carry house keys and push strollers on their walk to the synagogue, which makes their Saturdays more manageable.

 

The eruv, which encompasses two-and-a-half square miles between Arapaho Road on the south and Frankford Road on the north, attracted even more Orthodox Jews to the area. Though the area was already crowded with synagogues, Rich felt that shuls like Ohev Shalom and Chabad of Dallas didn't put the proper emphasis on study. He envisioned a place of "very quiet, serious davening," or prayer. "Our focus is, I would say, less social, more real growth and real study."

Rich wears his salt-and-pepper beard untrimmed, and speaks with the measured but joyful tones of someone who's devoted his life to thinking deeply about deep things. He wasn't always so sober-minded about his faith. He was born in Toronto to a family of non-practicing Jews. He intended to follow his father into the accounting business, but after graduating from college, he decided to take a year off before pursuing his MBA. During that sabbatical, he traveled to Israel.

His destination had less to do with faith or heritage and more to do with logistics: He thought it'd be a strong hub for European ski trips. Pretty soon, though, he fell for an Israeli woman. She refused to date someone who wasn't religious, so he started attending outreach classes at Hebrew University. When his year abroad came to a close, he followed her to New York, where he decided to enroll in a yeshiva, a seminary for Orthodox rabbis.

Rich was intoxicated by the experience, by the mathematic rigor of the Talmud and the unexpected joy of learned men devoting themselves to probing the mysteries of God and existence. He discovered a richness and meaning in his life he'd never fathomed when he was training to be an accountant.

He broke up with his Israeli girlfriend, who didn't share his newfound zeal. But the separation carried little sting for Rich. He'd gone through the motions of Judaism to impress a woman, but in doing so he'd grown closer to God. "The Talmud says sometimes you do things for not the right reasons but it ends up becoming for the right reasons."

Two years later he married his wife, Susan, and moved to Seattle to join a kollel, a post-graduate institute where married rabbis receive stipends to study the Talmud and provide outreach to less observant Jews. In 1996, he was recruited to lead a local kollel, the Dallas Area Torah Association. DATA founder Bentzi Epstein says he was struck by Rich's intellect and impressed by some of the outreach he'd spearheaded in Seattle. It didn't hurt that Rich also had solid graphic design chops.

Rich left DATA after a few years to teach at Yavneh Academy, a local Jewish high school, and do graphic design work. He left Yavneh in 2007 to establish Toras Chaim, with about 10 families living in the Far North Dallas eruv, continuing the graphic design work for a few months while the synagogue got on its feet.

It was a modest start. Services were held in a converted garage. Many days the congregation struggled to achieve minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish men required for certain rites. Membership gradually swelled to a couple dozen families, and the synagogue began considering a move. It acquired an empty parcel of land along Hillcrest Road but couldn't afford to build on it. Instead, the congregation moved in with Rich on Bremerton Court, at the heart of the Highlands of McKamy HOA.

In three years on Bremerton Court, Rich says he never heard a complaint from neighbors. The parking and frequent comings and goings weren't an issue, but the location had other problems. Despite the coded lock Rich installed on the front door, members felt uncomfortable barging into his family's home. It was also uncomfortably cozy: Rich and his wife have 10 children; all but a couple were living at home at the time.

 

The congregation searched for something more suitable, but their options were limited. It had to be located within walking distance of the members or they couldn't attend Shabbat services. The three accessible commercial strip centers were leased up. They didn't want to go west of Hillcrest Road for fear of intruding upon Ohev Shalom. They considered moving south of McCallum Road, but that area, full of aging apartments, is a "very rough neighborhood not suitable for mothers and children to be walking," Rich says. That left the Highlands of McKamy.

To finance the congregation's new digs, Rich connected with Mark Gothelf, a Dallas native who'd been living in New York but was looking to return home and join Toras Chaim. While surfing Trulia.com, a real estate website, he found an available house on Mumford Court, just two blocks from Rich's house. He and his 80-year-old mother took out a loan and bought the property for $310,000, with the understanding that the synagogue would pay down the mortgage.

It was a time of celebration. For that year's Purim spiel, an annual comic play commemorating the Jews' salvation in the Book of Esther, Rich dramatized Toras Chaim's search for a permanent home as Moses' quest to lead the Israelites' escape from Egypt, complete with papier-mache staffs and plastic pharaoh headdress. The skit was larded with jokes about the plagues visited upon Rich's home, but the message was clear. Their time in the wilderness was over. They had a home.


Before Schneider moved in, the Highlands of McKamy was a sleepy place. A few dedicated volunteers like Peadon ran the board while most of the rest of the neighborhood went about their lives. Not that they were missing much. The board mainly occupied itself with mundane tasks, like planning neighborhood get-togethers and handing out yard-of-the-month awards. For months its biggest priority had been shoring up the leaning brick wall that runs along the neighborhood's southern edge. That all changed with Schneider.

Schneider wasn't the only person in the neighborhood upset by the presence of Congregation Toras Chaim. The traffic, plus the synagogue's chutzpah in moving into a residential-only neighborhood, irked a vocal minority of residents, not all of whom were directly impacted by Toras Chaim's day-to-day activity. Longtime board member Ted Day, who lives several blocks away, angrily resigned from his post once it became clear the HOA wasn't going to sue; he, like Schneider, felt it was the HOA's duty to aggressively enforce its residential-only deed restrictions.

Beyond invoking the deed restrictions and baseless claims of lower property values, evidence that the synagogue was causing harm was thin. That would become clear once neighbors were called to testify in Schneider's lawsuit. "One day, a huge pile of dirt appeared on the property that was visible from the street," Schneider complained during a deposition. "One time, a window air-conditioning unit, which is unscreened, appeared in the living room window."

Neighbor Marilyn Frey's two sons sometimes had trouble pulling their pickups into Mumford Court when they came to visit. Another neighbor, Robert Colmery, was troubled by the 6 a.m. traffic. "I have two Labrador retrievers," he said. "What it does, they start barking. It triggers my neighbors' dogs; they start barking, which wakes up my twins, [who] are 17 years old." Even worse, he occasionally has to stop his truck to let pedestrians pass. "Just this Sunday, when I was trying to turn into the Court after going on a hunting trip, there was a young lady trying to push a baby carriage across the street, and I had to stop and let them go." Another time, it was a blind man.

But without Schneider, it's likely that residents would have nursed such grievances in relative quiet — or maybe even cordially approached the synagogue with them — rather than dragging the HOA into a fight that would tear the neighborhood apart.

Schneider recruited a slate of candidates and mounted an aggressive campaign to topple the HOA's board of directors. Their key plank was expressed in the signs they hammered into their front yards: "Keep us residential only." But a lot of neighbors were either unaware of the synagogue or indifferent to it, so Schneider seized on the previous board's decision to increase annual dues from $240 to $360, and plastered the neighborhood with flyers accusing them of mismanagement and secrecy. At the HOA's annual meeting in February 2014, Schneider and his slate were swept into office by a comfortable majority of those in attendance, who represented about a third of the neighborhood's 247 homes. Within a month, the new board had voted to have the HOA join Schneider's lawsuit against the synagogue.

Hervey Levin, a neighbor and vocal opponent of the lawsuit, bristles when people say the HOA sued the synagogue. That's technically true, he says, but it's more accurate to say that Schneider staged a coup and dragged the Highlands of McKamy into his personal legal battle, which most residents wanted no part in.

Schneider prefers to portray it as an exercise in democracy. There was a passionate campaign about important issues. It just so happened that more of his supporters showed up at the polls. And he insists that his takeover of the board was a matter of principle, blithely sweeping aside accusations that he did so for personal benefit. The way Schneider frames it, the HOA's involvement had no bearing on how he handled the case. He'd still pay his own filing fees, still interrogate Rich and others in hours-long depositions, still advocate in court. His explanations seem either naive or disingenuous, though, as the HOA employed an actual, practicing attorney, who had a six-figure war chest Schneider couldn't hope to match.

 

In the months following the new board's election, Levin helped lead a coalition aimed at stopping Schneider. They went door-to-door with a petition to prevent the HOA from filing lawsuits, but the HOA sued Toras Chaim a few days before they had the required signatures. In July, five months into his year-long term, a majority of homeowners voted to recall Schneider, though the other board members narrowly survived and pushed forward with litigation. In January, they forced a special meeting where neighbors voted 100-67 to stop litigation, only to be stymied by legalistic maneuvering on the part of the board.

Levin likens the experience to being on a "plane that's been hijacked, and the passengers have to involuntarily go where the hijackers take them." They were fighting desperately to regain control of the aircraft, but they couldn't get to the cockpit.


>Even by small-shul standards, Congregation Toras Chaim is a tight-knit group of believers. Part of this comes with being observant Jews, whose rites and rituals — keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, covering their heads with kippot — are designed to set them apart from the broader population. But the bond between Toras Chaim members goes beyond that. They are lawyers and caterers, teachers and housewives, all of whom have subjugated their secular roles to the exercise of an uncommonly demanding faith. They see each other every day. They celebrate births and marriages together, and mourn deaths. They are as much family as church.

The controversy that has hovered over their shul for the past two years has caused its members to pull further within their shell, leaving Rich, avuncular and eloquent, to speak on their behalf. Rich says the recent strife has only served to galvanize the congregation and strengthen them in their faith.

After Schneider began threatening Toras Chaim with a lawsuit, the synagogue reached out to the Liberty Institute, a Plano-based legal nonprofit with an evangelical Christian bent and a genius for turning minor culture-war skirmishes into high-profile crusades for religious liberty. It is most famous for the "Candy Cane Case," a decade-long legal battle against Plano ISD for banning students from passing out candy-cane pens affixed with cards that read, in part, "Jesus is the Christ." More recently it championed Craig James, whom Fox Sports Southwest hired — and then promptly fired — as a college football analyst, claiming the former SMU football star was being punished for his religious beliefs, specifically his opposition to gay marriage.

The Liberty Institute immediately realized that Schneider's suit posed an existential threat to Congregation Toras Chaim. If he were to prevail, it would "effectively end Orthodox Jewish practice in the community," says senior counsel Justin Butterfield. "So we said, you know, that's exactly the type of case we want to take."

Butterfield met with Schneider once before he filed his lawsuit in an attempt to reach an agreement. Neither will speak to the details of the negotiations, other than to say that each proposed compromises that the other found unacceptable, which is unsurprising. Both sides had already staked out their positions, which were irreconcilable. Schneider wanted the synagogue to move somewhere else. Toras Chaim wanted Mumford Court to be its permanent home.

Toras Chaim's legal case hinged on two related laws. The first was the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently invoked in a decision allowing a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas to grow a beard, but which also protects religious groups from discriminatory zoning restrictions. The other was Texas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a cousin to a recently passed Indiana law accused of codifying discrimination against gays and lesbians. Both laws are designed to protect religious groups from undue government interference. In order for a government to restrict religious practice, it must prove both that the regulation serves a "compelling governmental interest" and that it is the "least restrictive means" of achieving that interest. A court, for example, would likely accept that a city has an interest in keeping residential streets from being clogged by church traffic. But rather than order the church to lay down a parking lot, it might suggest a shuttle service or other compromise.

The synagogue's legal strategy threw Schneider for a loop. The Texas property law cases he'd relied upon to build his case had been decided decades earlier, long before RFRA or RLUIPA, both less than 20 years old, were passed. Courts had yet to address how those laws might apply to an HOA's private deed restrictions.

Schneider was also unprepared for the Liberty Institute's finely tuned public relations machine. In his mind, it was a case of someone signing a contract — the deed restrictions — and then ignoring it. Liberty played it as a case of religious persecution. "Alarmingly, houses of worship — including small bodies like Congregation Toras Chaim — have been increasingly victimized in recent years by unreasonable regulation and litigation that frequently violates their rights," read an early fundraising plea on the nonprofit's website.

The Liberty Institute stopped short of calling Schneider an anti-Semite, but just barely. In a court filing it says Schneider has routinely demonstrated a "hostility to the faith of Orthodox Jews," which is a stretch. One of the pieces of evidence Liberty cites is an unfinished essay Schneider is writing, for fun, on the documentary hypothesis, a mainstream vein of biblical scholarship that holds that the Torah was written by multiple human authors — hardly The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It seems obvious Schneider sues neighbors because he is an uptight homeowner, not because he takes issue with any particular faith. His course of action would have been the same had Toras Chaim been a Buddhist temple or a Baptist church.

Then again, Schneider didn't exactly help his case. Last October he sued his next door neighbor, a Toras Chaim member, for erecting a ceremonial structure called a sukkah in his driveway, for the weeklong harvest festival of Sukkot. He announced the lawsuit in a screed on NextDoor, a neighbors-only social media site, describing the sukkah, a wooden structure wrapped in clean white canvas, as "unusual" and an "eyesore." Schneider says he filed the sukkah lawsuit "more for completeness than anything else," since one of Toras Chaim's defenses was that the HOA's deed restrictions weren't being uniformly enforced. He calls the Liberty Institute's accusations "shocking" and "wildly inappropriate."

"Two people can have a different view of the law, and that doesn't make one of the two anti-Semitic," he says. He offers the metaphor of a police officer who pulls over a speeding rabbi. "Is the motorcycle policeman [an anti-Semite]? Rabbi's violating the rules. You expect if you violate the rules to have the consequences that are appropriate for whatever your violation is. This is no different."

Schneider and Toras Chaim finally faced off on February 4 in Collin County District Judge Jill Willis' wood-paneled courtroom. After months of heated rhetoric about religious freedom and property rights and increasingly bitter neighborhood infighting, the hearing was anticlimactic. Schneider and David Surratt, the HOA's attorney, took turns calmly explaining how Toras Chaim had violated the Highlands of McKamy's deed. Liberty Institute attorneys countered that the synagogue was protected by RFRA and RLUIPA. Rabbi Rich sat in the front pew, watching the proceeding serenely. Thirty minutes later, Willis quietly issued her ruling: RFRA and RLUIPA protected Toras Chaim from the HOA's deed restrictions. It could stay.


In the courthouse lobby, Rich stood with Butterfield in front of a bank of TV news cameras. "I'm so unbelievably grateful," he gushed. Schneider was more subdued but remained unapologetic and didn't rule out an appeal. "All I want to see is a residential neighborhood." He added, "Hopefully everyone can go on being happy neighbors."

That hasn't happened yet. Four days after the hearing, Schneider's former colleagues on the board were replaced by a new slate of candidates opposed to the lawsuit. Their lingering bitterness is almost palpable in the weekly newsletters they email to the neighborhood. A recent missive blasted Schneider's board for hiding how much the lawsuit had cost the HOA, before announcing a wine tasting and upcoming garden club meeting. The legal bill: $103,294.92 and counting.

 

Toras Chaim celebrated its hard-fought legal victory with a modest dessert reception, but the afterglow was short-lived. Within a month, the city of Dallas sued the synagogue over its failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy. Rich says the city's demands, including a dozen parking spaces, a sprinkler system and a firewall between the congregation downstairs and the living quarters upstairs, are excessive. The Liberty Institute is representing the synagogue in that case as well, arguing once again that it's protected by RFRA and RLUIPA. Daniel Dalton, a religious land use attorney in Michigan and author of a book on RLUIPA, says Toras Chaim could have a tough time beating the city. There might be a work-around for parking, but judges tend to be less flexible on fire and building codes since they help protect public safety.

Rich prefers to cast Toras Chaim's tribulations in an optimistic light, even the swastika. He likes to tell of being stopped on Meandering Way by a driver who asked if he knew the rabbi. When Rich identified himself, the man choked up. "You know, an act like this never should have happened," he said. "This is not indicative of who we are as a neighborhood, and I just want to apologize on behalf of everybody." Rich reported the swastika incident to Dallas police and the Anti-Defamation League, and Schneider has even offered a cash reward. The case remains unsolved.

Throughout it all, the congregation has continued to meet. On a Saturday morning in March, the day before Easter, bearded men in suits of black and charcoal trudged through the cloying scent of crepe myrtle blossoms along Meandering Way, headed for an early-morning Passover service. Meanwhile, Gentiles wrapped in DayGlo spandex zip down the jogging trail that hugs the neighborhood, as the white gazebo stands ready for the neighborhood egg hunt later that morning.

Facing off against the city is a daunting task, but the congregation, and Rich, refuse to be moved. "I jokingly said to somebody that I was running out of material to speak about on Sabbath morning," Rich says. "So thank God I have new things to talk about now."


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