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FL County Magistrate Rules Jewish Couple Can't Use Condo for Prayer

"You can pray in your home, but you can't buy a home just to pray in."

A Palm Beach County, FL couple was at the center of a religious freedom debate on Wednesday when a local magistrate decided that their prayer practices were not up to code. Literally.

Isaac Feder and his wife Judith, Hasidic Jews, have drawn the ire of their neighbors and the county for turning an extra condo they own in the Century Village condominium complex into a makeshift synagogue. According to those in the community, the Feders' constant praying, and the coming and going, is disruptive. They complained to the county, which in turn found that Feders were violating zoning laws.

An attorney for the county argued that it is illegal to use the second condo in the village as a only house of prayer instead of just, well, a house. Local station WPBF summarized the county's argument: "You can pray in your home, but you can't buy a home just to pray in."

For weeks a battle raged between the neighbors, the Feders, and those who supported the couple. The Feders --- which only live in the area during the winter -- says they sometimes sleep at the extra condo, as well as entertaining guests in it. In the end, the neighbors, and the county, didn't buy it:

But what's interesting is that the riff between the neighbors isn't really between Jews and Christians, Jews and atheists, or even Jews and Muslims. Rather, as Palm Beach Post writer Frank Cerabino says, almost the entire village is Jewish -- so the debate is between Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

According to Cerabino, the more modern residents are upset about a transformation they see happening withing the village:

Jewish residents at Century Village talk freely about their condo community being overrun by the more zealous members of their own religion, whom they view as clannish and disrespectful of social norms - most notably, turning community pools into ritual cleansing baths.

"If they can get three or four people on the board, they can get control of a building," said resident Elaine Brown. "And then they can change the rules. This is the greatest threat to the Village we've ever seen."

Aron Sandel, a seasonal resident and an Orthodox Jews who lives in the complex, denies the group is disruptive, and feels many of those critical of the Orthodox members are overreacting.

"We don't have weapons. No guns. Everything is quiet," he told the Post. "In order to pray, we need a minyan, and that's 10 men. Sometimes we have a hard time making the minyan."

"It's really not about zoning," Sam Koenig, a 64-year-old Orthodox Jew within the complex, told the Post. "This crowd doesn't want this because it reminds them of an Eastern European shtetl, and makes them feel as if they're going back in time."

"If they win, I'm going to turn my apartment into a mosque," Maynard Merel, a modern Jewish resident vowed.

They didn't.

For now, there won't be anymore prayer gatherings at the Feder's extra apartment. And no mosque at the Merels' place either.

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