‘Chabad House’ tells the tale of a local battle for survival

Friday, June 13, 2003 | by dan pine

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin is proud of his pugnacious Brooklyn heritage. It always came in handy during a fight.

But for Dalfin, the struggle to establish a Chabad House in laid-back Marin County took every last bit of moxie he could muster.

Today Chabad of Marin, located in Lucas Valley near San Rafael, is thriving. Resident Rabbis Yisroel Rice and Hillel Scop have been embraced as pillars of the local Jewish community.

Today there's peace in the valley. But about a dozen years ago, Chabad of Marin stood at the center of a furious pitched battle between a few fervently religious Jews and a well-financed, well-organized group of angry -- and, some say, anti-Semitic -- neighbors.

Now, years after resolution of the conflict, and long after Dalfin left the Bay Area to return to New York, the rabbi has put together a new book, "Chabad House," a comprehensive history of the saga.

Ultimately, it's a cautionary tale about constitutional freedoms, competing secular and religious interests, the American legal system and the myriad ways to manipulate it.

It all began in the late 1980s when Dalfin came to Marin at the request of a small, but growing local Orthodox community. He had also received his marching orders from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, who conferred shaliach (emissary) status on the eager young rabbi and sent him west.

Despite Marin's reputation for hot-tub liberalism -- and tolerance -- Dalfin encountered resistance to Chabad's presence almost immediately.

Chabad occupied first one, then a second house on a quiet street in Lucas Valley, a community that boasted a powerful homeowners' association.

"They usually got what they wanted," remembers Dalfin. "When George Lucas wanted to build a new facility nearby, they stopped him."

The association and its allies on the Marin County Board of Supervisors galvanized quickly to resist Chabad's presence, thwarting Dalfin with every conceivable zoning, fire and housing code infraction they could find or dream up.

Some of the hostile neighbors worked themselves into quite a lather, occasionally letting slip unmistakably anti-Semitic statements along the lines of "we don't want your kind here."

The struggle went on for years. Use permits were issued, then revoked. Permission to hold High Holy Day services at the Idylberry Road facility was granted, then rescinded then re-granted. Lawsuits were filed, won, lost, overturned.

Some of those leading the charge against Chabad were Jews. Says Dalfin, "With a non-Jewish anti-Semite, you know what you're getting, but when your own brothers and sisters are against you, that was the greatest pain."

Dalfin credits the late Luvabitcher rebbe for his perseverance. "I'm a tough New Yorker," he says, "the son of Holocaust survivors. But many times I thought, 'Who needs this? I'll just give up.' But the rebbe pushed me to continue. His philosophy was, once you're there you don't give up."

The conflict culminated with a landmark 1991 ruling by the California State Supreme Court stating Chabad had a perfect right to be in the neighborhood and did not constitute a nuisance.

"The whole thing boiled down to fear and lack of trust," says the rabbi. "Why is it quiet today? Because people trust each other now."

To write the book, Dalfin drew on his meticulously archived collection of documents, which included newspaper articles, court and municipal government rulings, as well as personal and legal correspondence.

At first, Dalfin's book appears to be a daunting read, but the roiling personal passions on both sides come through the dry legalese, making "Chabad House" at times as riveting as a spy novel.

"I hope someone will make a movie of this," says Dalfin. "It is a good story. As for casting, I think should play myself."

To a great extent, Dalfin credits Rice for the synagogue's smooth sailing in recent years. "He was an integral part of the success," says Dalfin. "He's very bright, well-spoken, and a great intermediary. Because of him, things calmed down. I was seen as a threat; he wasn't."

As for the greatest lessons of the experience, Dalfin is circumspect. "If you believe in something, you need perseverance," he says. "We're proud of our Jewishness, and we don't shove it under the carpet like some in the community wanted us to do."