Zoning issue stalls Miriam Academy bid for B’nai El building


By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Miriam Academy, a private high school for students with learning disabilities, has reached an agreement with Congregation Shaare Emeth to purchase the former B’nai El Congregation building, but the deal must still receive zoning approval from the Village of Westwood.

The school, run by a foundation that has Jewish roots, would move from its location inside Parkway United Church of Christ in Town and Country after the foundation invested $5 million to renovate the B’nai El building at 11411 N. Forty Drive, according to a Miriam Foundation news release. 

Miriam Foundation would like to expand the school to 120 students from 55, said Andrew Thorp, executive director of the foundation.

“It’s ideal for us because it’s small, it’s quiet, it’s on a dead-end street there, and it checks all our boxes,” Thorp said of the property, which has been vacant since 2012 and is located in both Westwood and Frontenac.  

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

But while the Frontenac Board of Aldermen approved a permit for Miriam to use the property, the Westwood trustees have not approved the move, and that does not appear to be a certainty.

Westwood trustees considered the school’s application at an April 23 meeting but did not vote on it. At that meeting, trustees heard from several people affiliated with Miriam who advocated for the project.

Fred Berger, the chairman of Westwood’s trustees, said he had not decided how he would vote on the zoning. He said the owners of B’nai El have violated its residential zoning by leasing out parts of the building to a number of different schools. Since 1989, the B’nai El building has been used by schools for Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran and deaf students.

“It has been used illegally for some period of time now without proper permits from the Village of Westwood, so there has been a disregard and disrespect with respect to our ordinances by the owners of that facility, and that is something that concerns me,” Berger said. “I don’t know why you reward somebody for bad behavior. But in any event, I’m going to look at all the factors.”

Congregation Shaare Emeth took control of the property in 2016 when it merged with B’nai El, which had been using space inside Shaare Emeth.

The parties did not reveal the terms of the proposed sale. 

“I am as positive as I can be that it’s going to happen,” said Mike Lefton, Shaare Emeth president. “Based on the meeting I attended [on April 23], there appeared to be overwhelming support from all those in attendance for the Miriam plan, so I’m confident that we will eventually get this over the finish line.”

On Berger’s charge that the owners have violated zoning regulations, Lefton said, “I can’t comment on the validity of any of that. I also don’t see the relevance of that to the issue at hand, which is the use of the property by Miriam.”

Previous efforts to sell the property failed. Barry Simon Development and Fischer & Frichtel Custom Homes had reached an agreement with Shaare Emeth to purchase the property in 2017, but Westwood did not approve a rezoning that would have allowed the developer to build homes on lots smaller than an acre.   

Miriam Academy would like to open in the new building for the 2020-2021 school year, Thorp said. 

Berger, despite his criticism of how the property has been used, said he found compelling the stories of Miriam advocates who spoke at the hearing. 

“I think it’s very clear that Miriam has made a lot of difference in people’s lives, and that’s a mitzvah,” he said.