While Congregation Toras Chaim fights the city of Dallas for the right to operate out of a Far North Dallas house -- and thus to continue existing -- another peculiar legal tussle over the rites of Orthodox Judaism is playing out directly across the street.
Last October, the residents of 7104 Mumford Court observed the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot by erecting a ceremonial structure known as a sukkah in their driveway. It was a makeshift thing, somewhere between a tent and a shed, meant to stand in for the fragile dwellings the Israelites sheltered under during their 40 years in the wilderness. During the holiday, Jews will take meals, and often sleep, in the sukkah.
Unfortunately for them, they happen to live next door to David Schneider, the homeowner who was already suing Congregation Toras Chaim for violating the neighborhood's residential-only deed restrictions. On October 10, two days into the holiday, he filed a lawsuit in Collin County District Court against the homeowners, whose listed address is in Flushing, New York, and the occupants of the home, whom he named as John and Connie Doe. (Note: This was the filing the Collin County District Clerk initially refused to give us.)
Schneider claimed, much as he did in the suit against CTC, that the sukkah violated the neighborhoods deed restrictions. To wit, Article VI, Section I of the Highlands of McKamy IV/V deed covenants states that "No temporary structure may be placed on lot except during construction."
The next day, he took to the neighborhood's NextDoor page to announce the lawsuit, calling the sukkah an "eyesore" and "unusual."
This past Sunday, the renters of a house on the corner of Meandering and Mumford built an unusual structure in their driveway. It would be hard not to notice this eyesore if you have driven by, it even has colored lights on it at night to attract attention. I have since learned that the structure is called a Sukkah. The past couple of nights, a number of men have been meeting inside. At night, it is common for people to sleep inside this type of structure and I assume that is being done here too ... Tuesday, I sent a letter to the absentee landlords in New York (as well as the occupants) instructing them to remove it immediately and refrain from future violations of the covenants. I made it clear I was open to compromise. But they chose not to respond.
I hope you are as disturbed and dismayed by the appearance of this unusual structure as I am ...
Schneider isn't the first Gentile property owner to be weirded out by a sukkah. There have been legal fights in Boston, Connecticut, California, New York and presumably lots of other places stretching back decades. The issue is common enough that HOA law firms publish advice on how associations can handle sukkahs. ("Our recommendation is to allow the Sukkahs (provided they are temporary), but to regulate them.")
The Liberty Institute has used Schneider's sukkah lawsuit -- and a wonky paper he wrote for fun on the documentary hypothesis, a well-worn corner of biblical scholarship that holds that the Torah was stitched together from different authors -- as evidence of his "hostility to the faith of Orthodox Jews."
Schneider resents the notion that he's being anti-Semitic -- "I just consider it wildly inappropriate," he told me when we met a couple of weeks ago. He also addressed this in his NextDoor post announcing the lawsuit:
Please note that I have no objection to the free exercise of religion that does NOT violate deed restrictions nor violates City of Dallas law. Nor do I have any prejudice against any religion. I welcome neighbors of any faith, but ask that contractual obligations be honored by all. If you don't like the terms of a contract, don't sign it.
Neither the New York landlords nor the residents of 7104 Mumford -- who are members of CTC -- have filed a formal response to the lawsuit. Liberty Institute attorney Justin Butterfield, who is not directly involved in the sukkah litigation, says the same legal principles that protected the synagogue from the HOA protect the sukkah from Schneider. He adds in an email that "these continuing legal attacks against Orthodox Jewish religious practice have fostered an environment of anti-Semitism -- exemplified by the swastikas painted on Rabbi Rich's car and nearby fences -- that is intolerable and must stop."
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There hasn't been any movement in the sukkah lawsuit since the landlords were served in December. "There's not really a big time pressure because the next time around [i.e. Sukkot] is not 'til I believe next October," Schneider says. But he doesn't intend to let the case drop. One of CTC's defenses in the HOA suit was that the board wasn't enforcing the deed restrictions against other non-residential uses, like a backyard swim school and a law office. He went to court over the sukkah "more for completeness than anything else."
"In all fairness, I am not the policeman for the entire neighborhood. There are other non-residential uses going on in the neighborhood ... [but] only those within proximity to me would be something, in all reasonableness, that I would want to pursue. As it happened, there was the people across the street put up a sukkah for one of the religious observances, and I won't kid you, it was a problem to me."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.