West Montgomery Street, as residents like to point out, is the most historic street in Rockville, the city that has been the Montgomery County seat since 1776 and is a four-time winner of an All-American City award.
The tree-lined historic district along West Montgomery is a far cry from the other side of town, where Rockville Pike -- the multilane, divided highway lined with fast-food restaurants -- inches commuters into town. d
Rockville residents fear their grip on the American dream street is slipping as Rockville Pike's commercialism creeps closer to their Victorian homes, and steel skeletons for new county office buildings loom on the horizon. h
That is why, residents say, 28 families went to court last fall to stop a Hasidic rabbi from teaching his faith on West Montgomery Street.
"It's not prejudice," claims Stephen Fortunato, one homeowner who donated money to finance the lawsuit. "It's zoning. This is a beautiful pocket in a business area. If we let our vigilance down, we will be engulfed."
The residents lost the case last month, when Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. matthias decided that religion-related activities at the rabbi's residence were permissible in the residential zone.
Now at dusk on some Friday nights, residents say they can hear the ancient sing-song chant of Hebrew Sabbath prayers.
"It's awful having to put up with this stuff," said Joseph Inglefritz, the 68-year-old retired civil engineer whose Federalist home stands next to Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan's Colonial Williamsburg-style house. Inglefritz throws his head back and imitates the Hebrew prayers.
Inglefritz was one of the initiators of the suit that claimed the bearded young rabbi, who teaches the tenets of the 17th century Judaism practiced by the Hasidic sect, would "destroy the fragile historic character of the neighborhood."
"These people are kooks. They're some kind of cult," Inglefritz shouts, seated against the backdrop of his embossed Williamsburg-reproduction wallpaper and his wife's collection of statuettes of the madonna. "My wife is scared. They're creepy."
Inglefritz's other next-door neighbor, Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, claims to know nothing about the situation.
But throughout the neighborhood, many people are seething about what they call -- in spite of the fact that the Jewish religion does not have parishes -- "the Jewish parish house."
"There's a lot we don't know," shrugged James Vitol as he and his wife wallpapered an upstairs room. "We don't know what he's going to do."
"He's not connected to a church or synagogue and he doesn't have a parish," adds his wife, Mary Tyler Vitol, who proudly says she is a fifth-generation Rockvillian whose great-grandfather was the first minister of the United Methodist Church on West Montgomery Avenue.
The Vitols and other neighbors said they feared the rabbi's visitors would create a parking problem in streets already congested by Pumphrey's Funeral Home, Chestnut Lodge Hospital, half a dozen churches and myriad law offices.
Rabbi Kaplan, 30, a skullcap on his head and fringe from a religious garment protruding from his suit jacket, smiles enigmatically when asked why he has come to Rockville, where Jews are more apt to go shopping and to theaters than to Sabbath services.
"We want Jews to turn back to Judaism," he says in the bouncing intonation of his native Brooklyn. "There's a lot of room here for our outreach work."
Rabbi Kaplan explains he is a member of the Friends of Lubavitch, the Russian town where the religious movement started in the 1600s. The Lubavitch now have a network of chabad houses throughout the United States.
Chabad is an acronym that stands for three Hebrew words meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These words, Kaplan explains, are the philosophy of the movement which emphasizes intellectual study leading to devoted service to God.
Kaplan says he will live in the chabab house on West Montgomery Street with his wife and two small children, now at another home in Baltimore. He will also hold discussions and prayer sessions as well as counsel small groups of Jews.
"There'll be no more than eight people -- at the most 12," he says shaking his head. "I don't understand what they're making such a gesheft (commotion) about."
Rabbi Kaplan insists he does not want to convert Christians to his faith.
"Please," he laughs. "I have enough trouble with Jews. We simply want to be heard. We don't believe everyone has to be like us."
Five years ago, Rabbi Kaplan, a tall, dark-eyed man, moved to Baltimore with his family.
Baltimore, he says, has fewer Jews than Washington but a higher Jewish consciousness. There was more work to be done here, he decided. So the luvavitch group bought the house on West Montgomery Street last spring for $135,000, not knowing anything about the historic district.
"I wanted to be out in Rockville and Potomac where there are more young Jewish familes with children," Rabbi Kaplan said. "Today Jewish children grow up not knowing what a real shabbis (Sabbath) is."
After moving in, Rabbi Kaplan decided to check with the city government to make sure he could hold small services and seminars.
Rockville's planners didn't know what to make of it. The chabad house was clearly more than a residence but less than a synagogue. The best-fitting definition they could find in the zoning manual was "parish house," a clergyman's residence with related religious activities.
The planning commission approved the house 3-to-1, with one member, David Abuhove, abstaining. Abuhove is Jewish and said he could not be objective.
Abuhove said, "I clearly saw there was much misunderstanding about what would go on in the house. He (Rabbi Kaplan) talked about teaching but it's more like tutoring. He wasn't explaining it clearly nor was his lawyer. I did my best to explain what it was all about but I was very upset by the whole thing."
About 50 local residents who attended the meeting to oppose the rabbi were furious when the house was approved, observers recall. "They were shouting and shaking their fists. It was appalling," said one observer.
Following the planning commission meeting, citizens submitted a three-page petition to Rockville's mayor, William E. Hanna Jr., and the City Council, protesting the planning board's decision.
But the mayor and council decided the planning board had acted properly and that they could not overturn the decision. In an apparent attempt to mollify the citizens, the mayor asked the planners to tighten regulations on permits for nonresidential uses in a residential neighborhood.
Still determined to stop the rabbi, citizens met at the Presbyterian Church on West Montgomery Street, about two blocks from the Lubavitch house, and decided to go to court.
Within 15 minutes, residents pledged $3,000, according to Inglefritz. Among the donors were Montgomery County attorney Paul McGuckian and his wife Eileen, who is president of Rockville's preservation society, Peerless Rockville.
"As neighbors, we would prefer the house remain in residential use," said Eileen McGuckian. "I didn't make a distinction between Hassidic Jews and law offices."
Paul McGuckian points out that several years ago he helped his neighbors defeat a Danish club from opening a meeting house in the area. But some neighbors who are on the rabbi's side claim the Danes were different.
"The Danish club would have been about 300 people drinking and partying," said Lynn Wagman, a young housewife on West Montgomery Street. "He (Rabbi Kaplan) just wanted to move in with his wife and little children the same age as mine. We have several ministers in the neighborhood and they have meetings all the time. But a rabbi moves in and he's not supposed to read the Bible. I was shocked."
Rabbi Kaplan's neighbor on the other side, Margaret Johnston, a psychologist who also has an office in her West Montgomery home, wrote a letter defending the rabbi.
"He's a very nice young man," she told a reporter. "I don't see any reason why he can't live here in peace and harmony. He makes less noise than the teen-age parties up and down the street."
But no one has called on the rabbi, either to be friendly or satisfy curiosity. Nor has the rabbi invited any of his neighbors to come see him and learn about his faith.
Inglefritz says he calls the police when cars belonging to the rabbi's visitors are on his property or in a nearby public alley that others say was filled with cars when Gilchrist ran for county executive.
Inglefritz said he called the police when there was trash in the rabbi's yard and he also called the historic commission when Rabbi Kaplan was putting asphalt shingles instead of cedar shingles on the house's dilapidated roof.
Next door, Rabbi Kaplan looks up from his holy books and his mouth twists into an ironic smile. "I guess I'll just have to put up with it," he says of Inglefritz's hostility. "We're used to it."
But other neighbors say they will try to adjust to the situation.
"They're not going to run him out of town with a pitchfork or anything," laughs a 15-year-old-boy whose parents were active in the suit against Rabbi Kaplan. "I don't know why they all made such a fuss."