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House of Prayer Splits Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

Every Friday toward dusk, one of Los Angeles’ most coveted neighborhoods undergoes a metamorphosis. Scores of Orthodox Jewish men in dark suits and wide-brimmed black hats emerge from their homes, setting off on foot into the slow-fading light.

Their peaceful march through Hancock Park belies tensions that pit neighbor against neighbor.

Following Jewish laws that forbid driving on the Sabbath, young fathers, with sons in tow, head west toward the synagogues on La Brea Boulevard nearly a mile away. But about 30 men move against the flow, filing past lush lawns toward a cavernous house on South June Street -- a house that for 30 years has doubled as a rabbi’s home and his congregation’s synagogue.

Climbing the steps toward an imposing iron door, the men -- many of them elderly -- slip into the cool, dimly lighted interior. They drape themselves in prayer shawls and, with eyes closed, begin rocking forward and back in the short, staccato motions of davening, or praying. The house fills with the hushed rhythms of Hebrew. Lost in prayer, the men forget for a moment that homeowners throughout Hancock Park want to ban their weekly gatherings.

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At its simplest, this is a story about zoning laws and building permits. But Congregation Etz Chaim’s three decades in Hancock Park are, in fact, a much more convoluted tale about a neighborhood aching from the pains of change.

A long-running legal battle continues over Etz Chaim’s right to gather in prayer and to build an expansive new house of worship. Beneath the legal briefs and appeals are cultural tectonic plates that have been grinding against each other as two passionate groups struggle over who defines a community.

“This is a very, very special place,” said Larry Faigin, a 30-year Hancock Park resident. “All I’ve ever asked is that my neighbors maintain their homes as I maintain mine. This congregation did not move into this neighborhood to invest in it; they moved in to use it in a way that is not intended.”

Congregants fume at such words.

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“A small group thinks they have a kingdom here,” said Chaim Baruch Rubin, the congregation’s rabbi. “I hate to tell them, but feudal lords went out a long time ago. I don’t accept that I have to bow down to them. The audacity of saying that you can’t pray in your own home!”

The homeowners say Etz Chaim’s building, and another now under construction, aren’t homes at all, but synagogues that threaten the pristine, residential identity of their neighborhood. The Orthodox Jews of Etz Chaim insist that they have equal claim to the neighborhood and a legal right to pray where they wish.

Once an oil field, Hancock Park was divided into sweeping residential plots after World War I. Lavish houses -- English Tudors, Spanish Colonials and Greek Revivals -- soon filled the expanse.

As in other parts of Los Angeles, a covenant written into the deeds of Hancock Park houses forbade their sale to Jews or members of other minority groups. The neighborhood remained relatively stable until droves of wealthy urbanites began heading for the tranquillity of the suburbs.

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“During the white flight of the 1970s, the old Protestant elite of Hancock Park moved out,” said sociologist Bruce Phillips, an expert on Jewish demographics in Los Angeles. “Property values were down and Orthodox Jews were willing to purchase.”

Some of the first Orthodox to arrive in Hancock Park were Rubin’s parents, who bought the house on South June Street in 1964.

Also a rabbi, Rubin’s father once led a Boyle Heights congregation. By the late 1970s, the younger Rubin recalls, members of Hancock Park’s growing Orthodox population were seeking out his father.

Informal prayers at the house evolved into the formal gatherings of a congregation. The first floor of the house was expanded to accommodate the 30 or 40 men who prayed there. As Orthodox families continued moving into the neighborhood in the 1980s, they were joined by a different set of Angelenos: those rediscovering that most of Hancock Park’s 1,170 homes were architectural gems.

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“Hancock Park is an oasis that was left virtually untouched. It is replete with the original architecture of the 1920s and 1930s,” said Barry Peele, a real estate broker who specializes in the area. “An old house is like a piece of art; you can’t re-create it,” he said, adding that few neighborhoods in the city can match the stately architecture of Hancock Park.

As Orthodox Jews and architecture connoisseurs moved in, two distinct universes crystallized in the neighborhood. Eventually, the cultures clashed.

“The Orthodox are the definition of insularity,” said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy. “They do not root themselves in their community, and are perceived as a group unto themselves. This ghetto mind-set doesn’t work in a place like L.A.”

It worked, in fact, relatively well for Etz Chaim, as long as it kept a low profile. The congregation never obtained a permit for its gatherings, but city officials looked the other way.

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In 1995 the congregation began renting a run-down house a few blocks away, at Highland Avenue and 3rd Street, and applied for a city permit to use the residentially zoned house for prayer services.

For neighborhood homeowners, this was too much. The gatherings at South June Street were one thing, they said, but officially transforming an ordinary house into a house of worship was another.

“This is a dangerous precedent if unchallenged,” said Leonard Hill, a longtime resident. “If we don’t protect the fabric of this community, we’ll quickly see it ripped to shreds -- not only by Rabbi Rubin but by ministers, mullahs and rabbis all over. My God, even the Wiccan s are going to come out.”

City officials denied Etz Chaim’s permit request again and again. Eventually, the congregation sued the city in federal and state courts, but judges had no more sympathy than the city.

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The passage of a federal religious rights law, however, gave Etz Chaim new life.

Signed by President Clinton in 2000, the law all but prohibits local governments from restricting a religious group’s use of property if doing so would substantially hinder the group’s ability to worship. The law bolstered Etz Chaim’s argument that, because their elderly members are unable to walk to the nearest synagogue, they had a right to worship in Hancock Park.

Soon after the law went into effect, then-City Atty. James K. Hahn ordered his staff to negotiate a settlement: Etz Chaim could use the Highland house as a synagogue if it agreed to restore the building to reflect the “residential character and architecture” of Hancock Park.

Having recently bought the Highland house, the congregation began an ambitious renovation, which soon evolved into plans to completely rebuild the property. In what city lawyers now admit was a mistake, Etz Chaim was granted permission for the building now under construction -- a hulking, sharp-edged structure of 8,100 square feet, replete with ceremonial baths in the basement.

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Permits in hand, Rabbi Rubin set demolition crews to work.

“I couldn’t figure out what was ... happening,” Ed Cazier, 78, recalled of the morning he turned a corner to see only a staircase and wall where the old house had stood. “Whatever was happening, it couldn’t be good.”

News of the settlement spread. “There was this realization that we had to do something for our own account,” Cazier said.

A handful of residents hastily formed the nonprofit League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates and joined Cazier in filing a federal lawsuit. The group aims, not only to halt construction of the new synagogue, but also to ban Etz Chaim from praying at June Street.

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Hill, the group’s volunteer president, dislikes what he calls the congregation’s “McMansion” and worries about the noise and traffic -- both foot and car -- that could come with it. Most troubling to him is his fear that, if Etz Chaim is allowed to set down roots, Hancock Park will be destroyed as other religious groups, one after another, convert houses into churches or temples.

Though many in the neighborhood agree with Hill, others aren’t worried. “It’s not my architectural cup of tea,” Allen Graf said of the new house. “But a bunch of people praying in a house? Come on -- that should be the least of our worries.”

Rubin and other members of Etz Chaim scoff when told Hancock Park will be overrun with houses of worship. Their situation, they say, is unique because of their older members.

Of the 30 men praying at the South June Street house on a recent Saturday, about a quarter were elderly and some had trouble walking. “I’ve lost my koyach,” a frail 90-year-old Leopold Tessler said, using the Yiddish word for energy or strength. “I cannot walk. I’m weak. If I couldn’t pray here, it would be the worst thing in the world.”

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The elderly members of Etz Chaim should not be granted special protection, counters Marci Hamilton, an attorney who has challenged the religion rights law in several cases nationwide.

Hamilton, who has been retained by the homeowners league, believes the legislation that empowered Etz Chaim elevates religious groups above the law and has far-reaching implications for control of the land by both homeowners and local governments.

If they wanted to, Hamilton says, the congregants could move closer to the synagogues on La Brea. Hill was more blunt: “Whoever said their walk had to be convenient?”

Convenience does, in fact, play a role in the laws of the Jewish Sabbath, said Richard Kalmin, a professor of rabbinics at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Kalmin says Jewish teachings and laws are clear that Jews should take the least exhaustive route to Sabbath services. And respect for elders, he adds, is paramount.

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Hancock Park, however, is not overflowing with sympathy. “They’re pushy and not very neighborly,” said Larry Gosh, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977. “I don’t want to be in anyone’s business, but I’m your neighbor. At least a ‘hello’ would be nice.”

Rabbi Rubin angrily rebuts such claims. “If anything, it comes from the other way around,” he said. “You get a cold shoulder or a look in the eye to stay away.”

Rubin insists that the congregation never intended to demolish the house on Highland, but was left no choice by the terms of the settlement that made renovations impractical. The rabbi acknowledges, however, that he also wanted to send a message.

“I grew up listening to stories about my father being pushed around because of how he looked and what he wore,” the rabbi said. The homeowners’ complaints, he added, only encourage Etz Chaim to “back up and say, ‘We’re not going to be pushed around.’ ”

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Rubin accuses some neighbors of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments. “In 1970 they saw one rabbi walking down the street and it didn’t bother anybody,” he says. “Then they saw two Orthodox, then three, and then they saw families walking around with carriages.

“They’ll talk about zoning, architecture and preservation because they sound terrible when they say, ‘We want the Jews out of the neighborhood.’ ”

Hill, who is Jewish, flatly dismisses the accusations. “Let them buy up the whole block if they want,” he said, insisting that the only issue is whether use of residential homes by institutions should be allowed. Kotkin, of the Davenport Institute, says he doesn’t believe the claims of anti-Semitism but thinks a “not in my backyard” sentiment is at play.

Meanwhile, the new synagogue might be ready in January and the groups find themselves at impasse, living side by side but not together.

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On a recent Sabbath, a young woman in sweatpants, T-shirt and headphones jogged past a group of Orthodox men and boys. Over her shoulder, she gave them a curious look and padded away. The Etz Chaim members didn’t even notice her as they checked their watches and hurried in the opposite direction to be in time for the morning’s prayers.


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