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Ritual bath brawl - Turmoil over new mikvah

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The religious organization seeking to replace a colonial-style home at the corner of East 28th Street and Avenue R with a new facility for ritual baths won the blessing of Community Board 15 this week – and the consternation of some of its neighbors.

Sephardic Mikvah Israel already operates a ritual bath for women at 810 Avenue S, but group leaders say that facility is overcrowded.

The group is now seeking a variance from the Board of Standards & Appeals to convert the vacant single-family home at 2802 Avenue R into a new 2,740-square-foot mikvah.

In August, the Department of Buildings found that the application was non-compliant with front and side yard requirements – triggering the request for a variance.

Critics charge that granting the variance would violate the character of the block.

At an ugly and contentious Community Board 15 public hearing held last week at Kingsborough Community College, supporters of the new mikvah angered some when it was suggested that unhappy homeowners could sell their houses and “move to Pennsylvania or wherever.”

“I know they made fun of me about keeping the trees,” said longtime resident of the block Sharon Serkin. “The attitude is this is our neighborhood now we’ll do what we want. Someone who is religious turned to me and said, how disrespect­ful.”

Supporters of Sephardic Mikvah Israel tuned out en masse for last week’s Community Board 15’s public hearing and submitted a petition reportedly containing the names of 90 area residents in support of the project.

Advocates dismissed concerns about the “institutio­nalized” and “jailhouse” look of the proposed mikvah, saying that critics were “getting caught up in the cosmetics.”

Community Board 15 member Morris Harary boomed that “people’s needs matter, not trees.”

Members of Community Board 15’s Zoning & Variance Committee were never shown the proposed mikvah, however. Instead, an image of the existing home at 2802 Avenue R was projected on a wall throughout the night.

This week Community Board 15 Chairperson Thesesa Scavo publicly addressed the Manhattan Beach Neighborhood Association at P.S. 195 on Irwin Street, and denied charges that she had in any way shown favoritism to mikvah supporters.

Opponents like Serkin insist that the issue is not a religious one, but rather one of preservation.

Some invoked State Senator Carl Kruger when he blasted the operators of Cherry Hill Market last month with “chipping away” at the special district in Sheepshead Bay.

Kruger, however, immediately sent a letter to Community 15 denouncing the reference and voiced his support for the new mikvah.

At a meeting before the full board held a day after the public hearing, City Councilmember Lew Fidler called for a compromise and attempted to strike an accord between Sephardic Mikvah Israel and neighborhood critics that would preserve more greenery and affect the façade of the proposed mikvah.

Community Board 15 member Eileen O’Brien advanced a motion to that end, but it was defeated.

At one point during the proceedings, one angry resident was actually ejected from the room.

Local resident Kathy Jaworski later criticized Fidler – who did not attend the public hearing a day earlier – for not showing up sooner and doing more.

“The pervasive attitude among newcomers is not to blend in but to come in like bulldozers,” Jaworski said.

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