The Chabad sect of Hasidic Jews moved five clients of its homeless program into a Jewish student housing cooperative in Westwood Thursday, dealing a serious blow to efforts to maintain the independence of the 15-year-old residence.
The action came one day after a Los Angeles police sergeant ordered a van full of Chabad members out of the building.
Sgt. Doug Abney, who was called by the residents, said he acted Wednesday to give an attorney protesting the religious group's claim to the house a chance to go to court to get a restraining order.
But since no one did, there was no reason to interfere again Thursday, he said. "The only documents I have ever been shown are from Chabad. They have a title deed, and the other side never showed me anything."
Given that, he said, "we tended to agree that it's their building, so they can begin to occupy portions of it. If the other side disagrees, they can go to court and prove it."
Rabbi Boruch Schlomo Cunin, West Coast director of the New York-based religious group, said he plans to move Chabad's homeless men's rehabilitation program out of Chabad headquarters two blocks away and into the Bayit house.
Chabad's virtual takeover of the house on Landfair Avenue came after several weeks of talks between attorneys for the Hasidic group and supporters of the residents of the Bayit (Hebrew for house, or home).
Attorney Rob Martin, who represents a group of former Bayit residents and prominent Jewish community members, said there was not enough time available to get a court order and that he thought talks would continue.
But Jeff Kichaven, representing Chabad, said that his clients decided to go ahead after a telephone conversation in which Greg Smith, a partner in Martin's law firm, said no court action would be taken.
"If they wanted Chabad not to exercise its title today, it was up to them to take action today, and they didn't," Kichaven said. "Chabad viewed itself as being within its rights."
But Smith said he told Kichaven's partner, Marshall Grossman, that he did not go to court for a reason. He said he and others interested in the case preferred to seek a settlement through a Jewish religious tribunal called the Beit Din (House of Law).
"My understanding is that Jews are obligated in a dispute among themselves to use the Beit Din ," said Smith, who is president of an Orthodox congregation that meets in Westwood.
"If Rabbi Cunin chooses not to follow that route, that's up to him, and we're free to go to the secular courts. His actions speak louder than words."
At this point, Smith said, "We are considering our options."
Cunin, for his part, said that he has not been called to a Beit Din.
"The reason we moved as fast as we did was because we found out they had 15 people ready to pack the house with," Cunin said.
"I'm an observant, religious Jew, and when properly summoned, I would never not reply to a summons to a Beit Din ," Cunin said.
"Obviously, these people realize they have no moral, legal or ethical grounds," he said. "They're just fighting it in the newspapers."
Bayit residents said they had no plans to move new people into the house, but that another six residents were hoping to return after the summer vacation.
Since 1974, the Bayit has been home to a changing complement of students, ranging from agnostic to deeply religious. But all of them have been drawn to its Jewish lifestyle, complete with kosher kitchen and weekly observance of the Sabbath.
It was home to a full house of 18 students during the 1989-90 school year, but only seven people live there now.
In a letter distributed to the remaining residents, Cunin said that Chabad's homeless program would be moving in July 1, but that male UCLA students would be allowed to stay on.
Women were offered housing at a Chabad-owned building nearby.
Cunin told the police that Chabad is on record as the owner of the property, and that it has taken out title insurance to guarantee its claim.
But Martin and Smith contend that the transactions last December were invalid, and that the effort to install homeless men last week amounted to an illegal eviction of the remaining residents.
With outsiders sharing their facilities, the students would quickly leave, Martin said. Graduate student Naomi Abrahami, a one-year resident of the Bayit, agreed.
"They (Chabad) said they were not evicting us, but this is a communal home," she said. "I don't just live in my room. I have to go to the dining room and the bathroom."
Abrahami left for a two-week vacation Thursday morning, but Ed Shapiro, another resident, said the entry of the five formerly homeless men was "very frustrating."
"It disrupts the entire house. The whole thing was done aggressively," he said.
Once part of the Bayit Project, a chain of 24 Jewish student houses supported by San Fernando Valley businessman Michael Goland, the Westwood Bayit is one of only two still operating.
Founded by an independent group of students, the Westwood Bayit suffered financial hardships until the property was bought by Goland, who has helped finance the election bids of pro-Israel candidates for the U.S. Congress. Goland was convicted in May on a misdemeanor charge of making an illegal campaign donation.
Bayit Project publications once listed a Board of Governors made up of 20 people, most of whom are now being represented by Smith and Martin in their claim to control the assets of the Bayit Project.
The board had not met for more than a year when its membership was cut to three--Goland, his business associate Lyle Weissman, and Chabad Rabbi Mendel Itkin--in the summer of 1989.
Weissman and Itkin signed the Westwood property and another in Berkeley over to Chabad, along with a now-vacant house in Santa Barbara. Chabad put up no money in the transaction, which included the assumption of about $500,000 of debt.
Itkin, who supervised the move on Thursday, declined to comment on his role in the transfer of the property, but said he thought the homeless men and the remaining students would get along.
"They're a lot of nice kids," he said of the current residents.
As for the two women living in the house, "we've got to take it one day at a time," he said. "I'm sure they'll make the right decision."
However, Yakov Monastirsky, one of the five men who was moved in by Chabad, said he was worried about possible violence.
"Could there be any terrorist action? Do you think they could kick me out?" he asked. "For me, it's important to have a place to sleep."
Monastirsky, a Soviet emigre, said he came to Los Angeles to stay with a distant relative, only to find himself on the street when the relative moved to New York.
"I was there (Chabad headquarters on Gayley Avenue) for two days, and they simply told me we're moving to another place," he said.
Mark Seiver, said he went to Chabad headquarters two weeks ago after he lost his job, his van and his apartment.
"Chabad House is not designed for the homeless," he said. "It's designed for the internal workings of a religious institution. We imposed on the rabbis, and the rabbis imposed on us. Here (at the Bayit) we have a place where we can clean up and go get a job and get our lives back together again."
BACKGROUND Purchased in 1982 by San Fernando Valley businessman Michael Goland after its residents had trouble keeping it going, the Westwood Bayit was owned by a parent organization called the Bayit Project. In December, ownership was transferred to the Chabad sect of Orthodox Jews in a controversial transaction. Chabad, which has been running a shelter for homeless men in its house on Gayley Avenue since 1984, plans to move the program into the house on Landfair Avenue, while allowing current residents to stay on. Opposing attorneys dismiss this as a maneuver designed to avoid a court fight over evictions.