Condo board's stance against mezuzah is totally meshuganeh

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Michael Mayo

Published March 18, 2007


Condo silliness has long been a staple of South Florida life, but the plight of Laurie Richter just might take the crazy cake.

Or, as they used to say in the old country, "Who knew a mezuzah could make so many people meshuganeh?"

Last December, Richter sublet a condominium at The Port, a Fort Lauderdale highrise across from Port Everglades. As is the custom of many observant Jews, Richter affixed a mezuzah to the doorjamb outside her new residence.

A mezuzah is a small decorative case containing two biblical excerpts. Hanging them on doorposts is one of the 613 commandments of Judaism.

Richter, 28, an attorney who grew up in Hollywood, never thought the unobtrusive 5-inch religious symbol would be a problem. Especially when she noticed so many Christmas wreaths hanging on doors when she moved in last year.

But in late January, she got notice from condominium management saying the mezuzah wasn't kosher, so to speak.

The condo association cited Richter for making an unapproved "alteration" to the condominium's common area. The unit's owner, Richard Scrabis of Fort Lauderdale, was told he faced fines up to $1,000, if the mezuzah wasn't removed.

Richter couldn't believe it.

"It never crossed my mind that a mezuzah wouldn't be allowed," she said Friday. "This whole thing keeps getting crazier."

Richter's mezuzah is still up, everyone has lawyered up, and the situation has caught the attention of the U.S. Attorney's Office, the state Attorney General's Office and the Legislature.

"We are taking a careful look," U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta told my colleague Vanessa Blum earlier this month. "You can't allow Christmas wreaths and not allow other religious displays. That is just wrong."

Attorneys for Richter and the condo association want to hash out a resolution before it becomes a federal case. Richter said she doesn't want money, just the right to hang the mezuzah, an apology and a promise of no retribution if she wants to renew her lease.

A proposed settlement has blown up because it wasn't broad enough to satisfy the state Attorney General's Office, and things seem to be getting more acrimonious.

On Friday, Henry H. Fox, the condo association's attorney, said Richter had "unfortunately inflamed the circumstances by her continued discussions with the press."

Richter's attorney, Russell Berg, said the condominium's rules and its inconsistent enforcement violate the Federal Fair Housing Act, which bans religious discrimination.

Fox disagrees. He said no race, religion or ethnicity is precluded from buying or renting units in the building, but all must conform to the condominium association rules, no matter how overbearing or restrictive they seem.

"One of the things about moving into a condominium is you give up certain rights," Fox said.

"Not the right to observe my religion," Richter said. "That's one right I'd never give up. It's just something no reasonable person would expect. I never would have moved in if I knew they didn't allow mezuzahs."

I asked Fox how it was possible that with all the condos, condo rules and Jewish residents in South Florida, this has never been a problem anywhere else before.

"I can't speak for other associations," Fox said.

Common sense suggests this shouldn't be so hard to resolve.

"If displaying a mezuzah outside a condo is prohibited, then we've hit an all-time low," said State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton. "I can't believe that in South Florida this is even an issue."

State Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, has added a provision to a proposed condo bill that would specifically allow "the attachment of religiously mandated objects to the front-door area of a condominium unit."

It's sad this situation even requires a legislative fix.

Even sadder is the apparent stubbornness of the condo association. Don't these people realize how callous they look?

Maybe they'll win in court. In the court of public opinion, The Port's already a loser.

Lauderdale condo bans religious symbol on doorposts