An Orthodox Jewish congregation may soon be worshiping inside an 87-year-old country house in old Somerton.
The Somerton Civic Association on Jan. 8 voted not to oppose two zoning variances sought by leaders of the Lubavitch Center for Russian Jewry for the distinctive blue house at the corner of Byberry and Proctor roads. The plan was not without detractors, however, as both variances passed the SCA membership by close voting margins.
The Lubavitch Center is now based at 13070 Bustleton Ave., but plans to buy and inhabit the 2,400-square-foot, three-story home. The wood-frame structure sits on a .82-acre parcel of land and formerly housed a doctor’s office, in addition to residential space.
Rabbi Sholom Goldschmid heads the congregation, according to Jack Bienenfeld, who identified himself as a friend of the rabbi and presented the plans on his behalf.
In the long term, the congregation hopes to build a 40- by 60-foot, single-story addition to the house for use as worship space. The group also plans to expand a 19-vehicle private parking lot on the property to accommodate 23 vehicles.
The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections denied the congregation necessary permits for the changes because religious worship is not a permitted use for residential properties under the zoning code and because the proposed parking lot expansion would extend too close to the property’s boundary lines. The 60-by-40 addition is permitted as a matter of right.
According to Bienenfeld, the congregation is relatively small, probably fewer than 60 members, and is not expected to grow drastically. Members walk to services on the Sabbath, which begins sundown Friday and ends sundown Saturday.
Some neighbors questioned the wisdom of drawing more traffic of any kind to an intersection already flooded with cars routinely. Plus, there are two churches on the same stretch of Proctor Road, including St. Christopher’s Roman Catholic Church. There are no sidewalks along Proctor Road.
The house will continue to serve as a single-family dwelling, too, Bienenfeld said. The congregation’s purchase of the property is pending, subject to zoning approvals.
SCA members voted 21-17 not to oppose religious services on the site and 19-16 not to oppose the parking lot expansion. The civic association did not report abstentions for the votes.
In unrelated business, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams encouraged SCA members to protect themselves against crime by locking the doors and windows to their homes and cars, and by leaving a light on inside the house to deter burglars from targeting it.
One SCA member asked Williams why he has chosen to withdraw charges in dozens of narcotics cases investigated by the Philadelphia Police Department’s Narcotics Field Unit South.
Williams said that he has followed the U.S. Attorney’s lead in refusing to use certain narcotics officers as witnesses in court proceedings. When pressed on what the officers did to warrant the refusal, Williams said, “Because of their history.”
The prosecutor did not elaborate on that history. The police department has acknowledged transferring six members of the narcotics unit after Williams’ office declared it would no longer consider them for court testimony. The six have not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing and have not been disciplined formally by the police department. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org