Yom Kippur Raid Roils Staid L.A. Neighborhood

By Rebecca Spence

Published October 03, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
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Los Angeles - A recent incident at an Orthodox day school in one of this city’s epicenters of Jewish life is inflaming tensions in a neighborhood long plagued by ethnic controversy.

On the holiest night of the Jewish calendar year, two inspectors for the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety arrived unannounced at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, where some 200 students and parents were attending a Kol Nidre service. The inspectors attempted to halt the service, saying that it was in violation of the school’s conditional use permit, but they were rebuffed by a cadre of worshippers, and the service continued.

According to Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, Yavneh’s spiritual leader, the building and safety inspectors — who had already visited the school eight times this year and found no violations — were responding to a call received 10 days prior from an unknown Hancock Park resident. That call tipped off the inspectors to the fact that because of the September 21 holiday, worshippers would most likely stay past 8 p.m. on a Friday, thereby violating the terms of their permit.

The episode marks the latest chapter in a land use battle that has roiled the leafy, upscale neighborhood for a decade. In Hancock Park, where Orthodox Jews now make up more than 20% of the population of what was once a staid WASPy neighborhood, Yavneh, as well as an Orthodox synagogue, Etz Chaim, have met with an onslaught of complaints — and even lawsuits — from residents who say that the institutions are violating their usage permits.

Even before Orthodox Jews began moving into the neighborhood in large numbers 20 years ago, Hancock Park was reputed to be hostile toward minorities. In previous decades, such luminaries as Nat King Cole had difficulty buying property in the neighborhood, which once had homes whose deeds forbade their sale to Jews and African Americans.

Both Etz Chaim, built atop the remains of a dilapidated private home on Third Street, and Yavneh, at Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue, have long been at loggerheads with the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, whose members have waged campaigns to keep the Jewish institutions in line with zoning laws. Until now, Orthodox community members in Hancock Park have been reluctant to attribute their land use problems to anti-Jewish bias, but, some local Orthodox leaders say, this newest incident has forced them to consider it as a possibility.

“These are people with basically no rational basis for wanting to restrict Yavneh from having religious services,” said Steve Usdan, a Yavneh board member who has three children at the school. “But they constantly argue for that restriction, which leads one to the conclusion that in the absence of some rational concern, they may object to Orthodox Jews praying in their neighborhood.”

Leaders of the 460-student day school, which also draws students from L.A.’s two other Orthodox-heavy communities — the San Fernando Valley and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — say that they have made every effort to maintain good relations with their neighbors and remain within their legal land use rights. Still, they say, private citizens, some of whom belong to the local homeowners association, have not let up in their efforts to nab the school. A phone call to the Hancock Park Homeowners Association seeking comment was not returned.

The Etz Chaim feud, which has become increasingly nasty in recent years, made it all the way to the highest reaches by inspiring Congress to pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. That law, the City of Los Angeles determined, allowed the synagogue to remain open. Etz Chaim was recently dealt a blow, however, when in August, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a neighborhood group suing to shut it down.

In the case of Etz Chaim, it is not only non-Jewish neighbors who have registered their displeasure with the institution. Some Reform and Conservative Jews, who live side by side with Orthodox Jews in Hancock Park, have also weighed in on the matter, grumbling that the Orthodox are constantly pushing the boundary, said David Myers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some said that the Yavneh episode, while ignited by the actions of municipal employees, has had the reverse effect of strengthening ties between Orthodox residents of Hancock Park and the City of Los Angeles. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa responded immediately, convening a meeting at City Hall on the Sunday night following Yom Kippur and even making a personal appearance at Yavneh to apologize for the incident.

At that same appearance, in which the mayor shook a lulav in honor of the festival of Sukkot, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, announced that at the behest of the city, employees of the Department of Building and Safety would undergo professional development training at the Wiesenthal Center to sensitize them to ethnic diversity and tolerance issues.

Villaraigosa also ordered an investigation into the event and the “policies and procedures allowing the Department of Building and Safety to respond to this complaint in the midst of a solemn religious observance,” according to a strongly worded apology issued September 24 by the mayor and city council members who represent the district.

Jewish leaders across the city lauded Villaraigosa for his swift actions. The president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, John Fishel, said that to the mayor’s credit, he wasted no time in responding.

“If there is a silver lining in this, it is a sensitization among many city officials as to why what occurred was not acceptable,” Fishel said.

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