UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — Members of the University Heights Orthodox Jewish community were left on edge and concerned after the city hired a private investigator in an unmarked SUV to park in front of their residential shul, or synagogue, during Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) services, to make sure they were in compliance with occupancy limits.
Heidi Denziger, who is a member of the Aleksander Shul, told News 5 the move by the city was unnecessary, inappropriate and sent panic through her community during one of the holiest days of the year.
“I saw a car quite close to our house, a black car with someone that looked like they were videoing," Denziger said. “It was there for quite a while, which is a pretty scary thing because there are kids around.”
“It’s really something that really scared us all, what this car was doing here, why it was sitting here spying on us. Especially in Jewish history we’ve had so many people that want to harm us, and just not to know why a car is standing outside.”
The Sept. 7 incident was discussed during the University Heights City Council meeting on Sept. 9, with Rabbi Eric Frank expressing his concerns to council members.
Frank said the incident left mothers walking with their children to services in the neighborhood “deeply traumatized," and was a “huge concern."
Some members of University Heights city council publicly apologized to the Jewish community and said they didn't condone hiring a private investigator.
University Heights Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan responded quickly to our story and the concerns expressed by the neighborhood. Brennan said he has immense respect for the Jewish community, and said the move to post the private investigator was simply to insure safety.
Brennan said the city contacted the Jewish Federation of Cleveland to tell them when the investigator would be posted outside the shul to make sure occupancy didn't exceed the agreed upon limit of 36 people.
Brennan said the city is in the midst of a lawsuit and restraining order with the owners of the residential shul, because the shul is operating outside city code and state law. Brennan said he hopes both sides can again sit down and negotiate a settlement that will increase safety and end all litigation.
“They have time and time again failed to follow through with what they represented they were going to do," Brennan said.
“First of all this is a house, this is not a commercial building, this is not a house of worship, this house does not fulfill the building standards set forth by the state. There are safety issues here, there are fire considerations here, we conducted an administrative search warrant back in April, there were live wires hanging from the ceiling of the house.”
"This facility is not equipped with emergency exits to allow them to escape. We would like to come back to the negotiations table, we’d like to speak candidly and be able to craft a resolution.”
However, in responding to our story, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland said they were never contacted about the private investigator, and issued the following statement:
“At no time did the Jewish Federation of Cleveland or its security provider, JFC Security, LLC, have any advanced, specific details of the mayor's plan with the private investigator he hired to monitor certain members of the University Heights community. Therefore, when we were notified of suspicious activity coming from an unknown individual in a parked car, we responded immediately as the community and our partners in local law enforcement have come to expect from us.”
– Erika B. Rudin-Luria, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland
Meanwhile shul member Yosef Ellis, who's wife is suffering from ALS, told News 5 the shul owners have done everything asked by the city while both sides work toward a settlement.
"We only have prayer services upstairs in the main house not in the basement, and only have prayer services on the Sabbath when everybody walks, so that nobody parks here," Ellis said. “This is the only shul that my wife can attend, the only Synagogue that she can attend, because she’s in a wheelchair.”
“It’s a signal to us that they don’t trust that we are keeping the agreement. It caused great distress to everybody, we thought we were under attack, somebody spying on us.”