Preschool Plan Pits Antiquities Museum Against Hasidim in Ritzy L.A. Enclave
Los Angeles — A brewing land-use dispute that involves a Southern California Chabad-Lubavitch branch, a powerful Los Angeles art museum and a host of outraged neighbors is stoking tensions between the Hasidic Orthodox sect and residents of one of this city’s wealthiest enclaves.
The fracas began when a Chabad group in Pacific Palisades — a tony L.A. community of some 25,000, nestled near Malibu — made plans to relocate its nonsectarian preschool to a warehouse that abuts the Getty Villa, an antiquities museum that is part of the J. Paul Getty Trust. The 3,000-square-foot warehouse, owned by a private citizen and used for 25 years as a Getty storage facility, is also flanked by a Mormon church and rests in a canyon not far from a cluster of pricey homes.
In recent months, as Chabad made minor adjustments to the warehouse property — installing windows, placing tables and chairs inside, and putting up play structure equipment — the Getty balked at Chabad’s use of a service road that the museum claims is private. At the same time, a local neighborhood group raised hackles over potential noise pollution and traffic problems, and both the Getty and irate neighbors have expressed concerns that Chabad acted without proper permissions from the museum or the City of Los Angeles, an allegation that Chabad officials staunchly deny.
This is not the first time that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic sect of Judaism that sends emissaries across the globe to promote Torah learning, has found itself embroiled in thorny zoning disputes. A case in Hollywood, Fla., that began in 1999, when a Chabad group purchased two homes and started to transform one into a synagogue, erupted into a protracted, years-long legal battle that involved allegations of antisemitism. While Pacific Palisades Chabad officials argue that neighbors have misunderstood their intentions in this case, and that they are planning to secure all necessary permits to operate the Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center come September, some local residents say that Chabad’s approach has been brazen and cavalier.
“I’m embarrassed that it’s a subsection of my own religion that is behaving toward the community, of which I am a member, in this very aggressive manner,” said Mike Lofchie, who is a board member of the local neighborhood association, the Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, and a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Their style is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. ” Lofchie said, referring to Chabad.
Rabbi Zushe Cunin, director of Chabad of Pacific Palisades since 1992, fiercely rebutted accusations that his group had acted inappropriately. Cunin, 38, also said he was disturbed that other Jews put such a negative spin on Chabad’s actions and that they were basing their conclusions on misinformation.
Much of the dispute centers on zoning technicalities. The Getty insists that the service access road is their private property, and in June, after forbidding Chabad officials from using it, the organization put up a fence.
A Getty spokeswoman, Julie Jaskol, also said that the institution was first and foremost concerned with safety issues. “It’s a heavily traveled narrow road that you can’t turn around on, and they’re proposing to have 50 to 100 preschoolers on it,” Jaskol said.
Chabad officials maintain that the Getty access road is, in fact, partially public property and that they’ve done nothing wrong. “There’s a right of way for 26 years to that building,” Cunin said. “There’s a city road to that building. Any permission that needs to be asked is from the city,” he said.
A lawyer for Chabad, Benjamin Reznik — who has long represented the sect in its California real estate dealings — said that thus far, the Pacific Palisades Chabad has not given the building any adjustments that would require permits. “They have not occupied it, and don’t plan to until they’ve gone through the proper hearings,” he said.
Chabad, Reznik said, is initiating the permitting process with the City of Los Angeles for both a conditional-use permit and the required coastal development permit.
At least one local Jewish resident is defending Cunin and the Pacific Palisades Chabad. Laurie Rosenthal, whose son attended the preschool in its previous location in Temescal Gateway Park, said that she trusts Cunin. “Chabad can be rough, and sometimes they come in and do what they want to do,” Rosenthal said. “But I don’t know that they’ve done that in this neighborhood.”