Unorthodox Behavior

Rabbi Nachman Wilhelm says some people in his St. Paul neighborhood are out to get him
Tony Nelson

On a dreary late morning in mid-July, Rabbi Nachman Wilhelm bustles through the brown-paneled rooms of his two-and-a-half story house in west St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood, home to the Lubavitch Yeshiva boarding school. He finds some photos of the 19th-century house, taken just a couple of years ago. The place appears to be in fair shape--at least in a frat-house sort of way. Whether anyone could live in it now is doubtful, the rabbi admits, gesturing to a hole in the ceiling and noting where he just removed a broken bathroom sink. As Wilhelm heads out into the rain and toward a two-car garage previously converted into an office space, he laments the pale blue vacancy notices the city posted on his property two weeks earlier. Besides having to pay the city a standard one-time $200 fee for owning a vacant house, Wilhelm says he has also been ordered to put new locks on all the doors to keep vagrants out. So when he finds that a side door on the garage has been forced open, his face reddens. A broken lock lies on the doorframe and there is a sleeping bag and a stash of empty beer cans on the tiled floor inside. There is also a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich. "Not even kosher," the rabbi says with a pained smile.

Director of the Lubavitch Yeshiva, which is part of Minnesota's Wexler Learning Institute, Wilhelm has owned and operated this boarding school at 225 N. Wilder street for four years. But over the past few months pressure from disgruntled neighbors and city officials has left him with no other choice but to look for an alternate site. So, just a few weeks before the start of another school year, Lubavitch Yeshiva is without a home. "I gave my heart and soul into this place, but I couldn't keep it up financially after the inspectors came in," Wilhelm explains. "I'm not a fighter. If they want me to go, I'd like to leave in peace."

Yeshiva is a Hebrew word that, when translated strictly, means a seminary for boys training to be Orthodox rabbis. Lubavitch is a 200-year-old subsect of Hasidic Judaism that has roots in Libavitsh, Russia. In the past half-century, after the movement was nearly eradicated by the Holocaust, Lubavitch has become an international force because of its high profile in community service and politics. From its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, the movement has grown to 1,400 Lubavitch institutions in 35 countries.

For close to a decade, boys ranging from 14 to 22 years of age have come from all over the world to study at Lubavitch Yeshiva--which began in 1992 in the basement of the Adath Israel Synagogue in St. Paul. In recent years there have been as many as 30 students registered at once. On more than one occasion close to 20 students have been living in the boarding house at one time, packing the attic and basement. Initially, according to Wilhelm and community leaders such as St. Paul City Council member Jay Benanav, neighbors welcomed the private school. They believed it would bring diversity to the community. But along the way some grumbling started. Allegedly the boys were unsupervised. They played basketball in the driveway too late at night. They sat on the house's roof and taunted younger children in the middle-class neighborhood. The school's van, often driven by students, routinely ran stop signs. By late last year neighbors were flooding the yeshiva and the city's zoning committee with letters of complaint.

"Your continuing activities are an unabated infringement upon the enjoyment of my property, which is located directly across Wilder Street from yours," read one letter written to Wilhelm in September.

"The Lubavitch People have consistently for 3 years violated my rights and the rights of the community," another Merriam Park resident wrote to a St. Paul zoning official in February.

"There was no one there to supervise after 5 p.m., no one that I would call an adult, and that's the rabbi's problem," says Randy Herman, who teaches social work nearby at St. Thomas University and lives a half-block away from the boarding school. "I never felt [the students] were dangerous or in a gang, it was just childish stuff, like shining a spotlight in other people's windows. They were just teenage boys being teenage boys who were unsupervised."

In August of 1999 Herman learned that Wilhelm was thinking of moving the yeshiva to a larger space. Hoping to turn it into a house for international students, he made an offer on the property. But before signing any papers, Herman discovered that the St. Paul Fire Department had no record of the house being used as a school or residence. Wilhelm had not applied to the city for a certificate of occupancy, which, among other things, would allow more than four unrelated adults to live in the house. Herman also learned that there was nothing in the city's zoning codes that specifically applied to a private boarding school. "The house was never made to meet any standards that any other group or business would have to, nothing had ever been done for it," Herman says. The deal fell through in December.  

At about the same time, frustrated neighbors began bristling at issues unrelated to the building's structural problems. "It was just a lack of communication between two parties most of the time," says Katy Anderson, who has lived in Merriam Park for eight years. "It was always a lack of follow-through on the rabbi's part." Eventually the fire department received an anonymous complaint that the building was housing students.

By February the Merriam Park Executive Council and the St. Paul City Council were scrambling to apply zoning guidelines to the yeshiva that were originally written for businesses, lodges, and residences. They were also trying to get Wilhelm to meet basic safety codes for a house. In May the two councils agreed to grant an official "determination of similar use." The use of the property as a boarding school would be regulated by a combination of existing housing and business codes. The city was also going to enforce 24-hour adult supervision, along with an overnight "quiet time."

But Wilhelm ignored pleas from inspectors and neighbors to clean up the property and rein in the students. So on May 18 city inspectors came en masse, ringing up 67 violations. Wilhelm claims some of the worst problems--a sagging roof and an out-of-date furnace--were there before he bought the house. Even so, the smaller violations such as a missing doorjamb, peeling paint, and a worn hallway carpet added up quickly. And because few improvements were made before a followup inspection on June 23, the property was declared vacant on July 6. To meet the code requirements and tear down the blue signs, Wilhelm would have to spend more than $50,000--money he does not have.

Wilhelm admits he was confused by the regulations and ultimately was overwhelmed by the bureaucratic steps required to maintain the school. He also allows that some city officials were helpful in keeping his operation afloat. At the same time, though, he claims that the city's inspections blindsided him, and that the vacancy notice was hasty. Steve Zaccard, St. Paul's fire marshal, maintains that the inspections were business as usual, noting that the city performs at least one team inspection every Thursday afternoon. Because it came to light that the yeshiva was a residence and a school--and now needed an occupancy certificate-- plumbing, electrical, fire, building, and mechanical inspections were required.

Because of the traditional, nonsecular nature of Lubavitch Yeshiva, Wilhelm feels that he was unfairly singled out. By all accounts, including those of Benanav and Herman, the New York native from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is a patient, insightful teacher who has a love for St. Paul. He even wears a Twins cap over his yarmulke when it is raining. But lately he has felt like something of an outsider in his own neighborhood. The decision to try to relocate instead of struggling to come up to code came easy in light of the escalating neighborhood tension. "My primary job is to teach rabbis; I fell into all of this," he says, referring to various rifts. "There was a period where it turned nasty, and it's not an appropriate place for a school once there's a rough feeling in the air....You can't deny the codes, but there were some people who were out to get me." In the end, though, the rabbi recoils at speaking directly about anti-Semitism: "I don't want to sell my own agenda or make this a Rodney King incident."

"It [the Yeshiva] is an insular community," Herman observes, before recalling a neighborhood block party that the yeshiva threw a couple of months back, capped with a goodwill speech by Wilhelm. It was a warm gesture, he says, but too little too late: "It gave me insight into any Orthodox viewpoint. It is a different world, and I could see in a sense how they would think all the problems were directed at them personally."

Sharon Arad, who is Jewish and has lived in Merriam Park for five years, believes the fact that the students and rabbis alike seemed aloof created frustration among the neighbors. "The people there at the school were as different from me as they are from other people in the neighborhood. There was definitely an attempt from the neighbors to understand the religion," she says, "but the students were just so isolated."  

Council member Benanav says that the neighbors were actually more tolerant of the yeshiva because they wanted to see it flourish. "The neighbors wanted it to work," he says. "But when the problems persisted and went unanswered, they were definitely frustrated." Benanav seems to harbor no small amount of disappointment: "Everybody had good intentions. Sometimes it's just a mismatch."

Rabbi Wilhelm is beginning to search for answers elsewhere. "Well, you know about Passover and the manna from heaven," he says. "I'm waiting for it, but now I'm waiting for a building to fall out of the sky."

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