Jewish Neighbors Confront Expanding Jewish Museum

By Rebecca Spence

Published November 21, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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Los Angeles — As the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance tries to expand its reach, it is facing opposition on two fronts.

The Los Angeles-based Holocaust remembrance museum is taking heat from its neighbors — the vast majority of them Jewish — for its plans to build a “cultural center” as an addition to its 80,000-square-foot facility. The fracas represents the second time in recent years that a proposed Museum of Tolerance building project has raised eyebrows: The museum’s plans to establish a site in Jerusalem brought the ire of Muslim officials there, who argued that the museum would be built atop an old Muslim burial ground. A lawsuit to settle that issue is still pending in Israeli courts.

The center, named after famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and founded by Marvin Hier, an Orthodox rabbi from Canada, has strong political allies in Southern California. And Hier wields significant power in Hollywood circles. His center’s film division, Moriah Films, has produced two Oscar-winning documentaries, and he counts such heavyweights as David Geffen and Michael Eisner among his donors.

While the Los Angeles turf war has yet to make it to the halls of justice, some neighbors say they will stop at nothing to keep the museum from going through with its plans. “We will oppose it every level,” said Susan Gans, an entertainment lawyer who has lived for 24 years in her single-family home, located one block east of the museum. “While we fully support the mission of the museum and its program, we feel that this expansion is completely inappropriate,” she said.

Gans — who, like 80% to 90% of the quiet West Los Angeles neighborhood’s residents, is Jewish — has led efforts in recent months to stop the expansion from moving forward. At issue is the museum’s proposal, which has yet to be approved by the city planning commission, to build a 13,500-square-foot addition with a rooftop garden and to annex 7,400 square feet of the neighboring yeshiva. Part of the additional space would be rented out for private parties, including weddings and bar mitzvahs, according to the museum’s plan. The proposed expansion reaches beyond the scope of the museum’s current conditional-use permit, which was negotiated with neighbors five years before the museum opened on Pico Boulevard in 1993.

The owners of some 70 homes out of 88 that surround the museum have signed a petition opposing the plan, according to Gans. The Wiesenthal Center has circulated its own petition in support of the expansion.

Museum officials argue that their proposal takes into consideration the needs of the building’s neighbors. By enclosing the outdoor memorial garden, which now serves as a 100-foot buffer with the closest house, the museum will be alleviating any potential noise disturbances, said Liebe Geft, the museum’s director.

“I’m very confident that the proposal is very respectful,” Geft said. “I happen to be a neighbor, and I’m looking at this from both sides.”

Geft’s boss, Hier, has gained the backing of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the local city councilman, Jack Weiss, who has publicly come out in favor of the museum’s expansion. Neighborhood activists complain that Weiss has continually rebuffed their requests for a meeting with him.

Earlier this year, Hier was deemed America’s most influential rabbi by Newsweek magazine’s 2007 ranking of the country’s top 50 rabbis.

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