Congregation Toras Chaim sits on the corner of a noiseless street, in an affluent neighborhood of Far North Dallas, a beige water tower looming over its shoulder. From the street, the home—which lawyers have termed "the Mumford House"—looks like any of the neighboring houses, a mid-70s family home, with an intricate garden full of elaborate succulents and blooming willows and giant decorative stones. A few houses down, two people shine a yellow Mustang at the curve of the cul-de-sac. A group of young boys practice coach-pitch baseball. Chirping birds. Smiling joggers and unconcerned dogs on walks, trotting along tree-lined streets that curve into cul-de-sacs.
It's a crime watch neighborhood; the signs stalk the foremost curbs as you pass the entrance gates and appear sporadically throughout the branching streets.
Many of these homes fetch half-a-million dollars, sometime more, backed by the Highlands of McKamy homeowners' association that makes sure the yards stay trim and the unsightly fences come down.
Source: First Liberty
Rabbi Yaakov Rich, the congregation's leader, lives nearby, in a house full of books. Books in Hebrew, books in Aramaic, books in English—leather-bound, paperback, and a mixture of something in between. Rows and rows of sacred texts line the walls of each room.
Rabbi Rich only wants to be a good neighbor.
He and the congregation have lived and worshipped within the Far North Dallas eruv, sectioned off by the PVC pipe markers, for at least a decade. The area has long been a hub for Orthodox Judaism.
As you might expect, the on-paper reason for the congregation's strife is as boring and convoluted as you'd expect, full of legalese and mundane letters and descriptions of petty interactions that sprawl over hundreds of pages. We reached out to both City neighborhood and officials in Far North Dallas, and the overwhelming response was the legalistic equivalent of a shrug or a nervous, long-winded explanation.
Terms like Texas home rule city and Certificate of Occupancy float around. Interestingly, zoning is not the issue here. Dallas zoning laws allow places of worship to exist within neighborhoods. As far as we can discern, the legal case hinges on the congregation's need for parking. (The Mumford House has abundant parking, in the front and the back—the cement driveway and parking lot that wind around the house is about the size of two basketball courts.)
The feeling that the case is motivated by something deeper, something far more personal, is unshakeable. That feeling is valid.
Source: First Liberty
Congregation Toras Chaim was founded in 2007. David Schneider moved into the house across from them in 2013. The congregation predates Schneider by a decade or so, although the Mumford Home is a recent addition to the congregation. Rabbi Rich had held congregation in the converted garage of his home for three years, without a single complaint from neighbors. That Toras Chaim's legal problems began in 2013 is no coincidence. From the start, Schneider took umbrage with his new neighbors.
The aggressiveness is disproportionate to the excuse he gives.
Claims of religious persecution are easy to believe. At the very least, Schneider is a cantankerous neighbor—the type of guy who would sue a neighbor for building a fence that blocked his view to the country club, which Schneider literally did In 2000, while living in West Plano, a city bordering Dallas. Tellingly, Schneider—the man who has largely led the charge against Toras Chaim for conducting a religious service in a home—held his marriage ceremony in his own backyard.
Here are a few of Schneider's in-court complaints: "One day, a huge pile of dirt appeared on the property that was visible from the street," and, "One time, a window air-conditioning unit, which is unscreened, appeared in the living room window."
If you, like us, can't understand what is motivating all of the hostility, you're not alone. And, hopefully nothing like this will ever happen to you, in a sunny neighborhood full of manicured lawns and shiny cars and Crime Watch Neighborhood signs.