Change drives tension in staid Hancock Park
Gitel Rubin was recently strolling with her son in her Hancock Park neighborhood when, she said, a neighbor drove by, rolled down her window and yelled out. The driver was upset that Rubin’s family was expanding a newly purchased home to 10,000 square feet to make room for their six children, said Rubin, an Orthodox Jew.
“We’re watching your project carefully!,” Rubin said the driver yelled. “You better make sure you’re leaving enough yard space and not overbuilding for your large family!”
A year or two before, Rubin said, a longtime neighbor turned a cold shoulder to her and her father at a community meeting over whether to renew the conditional use permit of their neighborhood Jewish day school.
“Don’t talk to me,” Rubin said the man told her father. “I’m on the other side.”
As Orthodox Jews increase their presence in Hancock Park, this genteel Los Angeles neighborhood of gracious homes and leafy trees has become a battleground over religion, land use and historic preservation.
Neighbors have clashed over two major land use issues -- whether the day school, the Yavneh Hebrew Academy on 3rd Street and Las Palmas Avenue, is improperly using its space as a synagogue, and whether an Orthodox Jewish congregation properly converted a home into a synagogue on 3rd Street and Highland Avenue in an area zoned for single-family residences. Both issues are currently embroiled in litigation.
Grumbles have surfaced over other issues as well. Some residents complain that Orthodox Jews are tearing down architecturally significant homes and erecting megahomes for their large families -- concerns that have added momentum to a move to declare Hancock Park a historic preservation zone. Others complain that some members of the Orthodox community have disregarded Hancock Park’s premium on open lawn space and erected fences in violation of city building codes.
The tensions came to a head Sept. 21 when Los Angeles building inspectors disrupted a Yom Kippur service to check for violations of an 8 p.m. curfew at Yavneh, causing a furor on the holiest night of the Jewish calendar. Yavneh families said they were particularly outraged that a neighbor called inspectors in advance of the service in what several characterized as a sting operation.
“This never would have happened five, 10 years ago,” said Rubin, whose family moved to Hancock Park in 1972.
Susie Salzberg, who moved to Hancock Park 11 years ago, said she had never felt bias as an Orthodox Jew until the Yom Kippur incident. She has also been careful to avoid accusing anyone of anti-Semitism, a charge she said is sometimes overused. But the incident pushed her over the top, she said, stirring frightful memories of stories she heard from her parents about Nazis bursting into synagogues and taking people away.
“As a child of Holocaust survivors, what that incident screamed was, ‘You’re Jewish, get out of here,’ ” Salzberg said. “It felt very anti-Semitic.”
Other residents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, said the conflicts have never been about Jews, orthodoxy or religion -- but simply land use and compliance with rules. The Hancock Park Homeowners Assn., which has raised concerns over many of the land-use issues, merely wants to protect the area’s quiet, residential character and architectural legacy of spacious, classic homes designed by the likes of Paul Williams, according to board member Marguerite Byrne.
Byrne and her husband, Richard, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, moved to Hancock Park four decades ago to find a bigger home for their six children. The couple, prominent Roman Catholics active in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said they never particularly noticed when the neighborhood began changing but when it did they tried to reach out. Marguerite Byrne said, for instance, that they supported opening three slots on the homeowners association board to Orthodox Jews, despite some objections by others to a quota system.
“I don’t see this as anti-Semitism at all,” Richard Byrne said about the conflicts. “We’re simply opposed in most cases to their proposals to change zoning and have religious practices in a residential neighborhood. Their response to us is anti-Semitism, and it makes it very difficult to address the issues on their merits.”
Some of their Jewish neighbors agree.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t the issue here,” said Robert Goodkind, a board member and Reform Jew. “The issue is living in a community that requires a fair degree of compliance by all members of the community.”
Daniel Korobkin of the Yavneh school said he was optimistic that the Yom Kippur incident would finally draw people together. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa immediately apologized for it, as did Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose 4th District includes Hancock Park, and Councilman Jack Weiss, whose 5th District abuts the area. The three leaders promised a full investigation, which is underway, and cultural sensitivity training for building and safety employees.
In an interview, LaBonge said he planned to take an active role in easing tensions.
“This is a very serious matter right now,” LaBonge said. “I hope to use all of my personal skills to get through this. It may take months or years.”
Some residents, however, objected to the apology. They said building inspectors were only doing their job in ensuring that Yavneh complied with its conditional use permit, which bars general religious services and imposes an 8 p.m. curfew on school activities, among other things.
In a letter last week to city officials, attorneys for the Concerned Residents of Hancock Park said hundreds of residents have complained for years about traffic, parking and noise caused by “Yavnev’s frequent and substantial non-compliance” with its use permit.
“Why should the Department of Building and Safety be required to apologize for doing its job?” said the Sept. 26 letter from three attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
Hancock Park, one of the older neighborhoods in Los Angeles, was developed in the 1920s by the Henry Hancock family with profits from oil drilling. Early residents included some of the most prominent members of Los Angeles society at the time, including the Chandlers, Huntingtons, Van de Kamps, Dohenys and Van Nuys.
By the time Ruth Marmelzat arrived more than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court had barred racial discrimination in restrictive housing covenants, and jazz musician Nat King Cole was fighting to move in against neighborhood protest petitions and a cross-burning on his lawn. But Marmelzat said her family of German Jews had no problem buying a home, and several other Jewish families already lived in the neighborhood when she arrived.
Today, the Hancock Park Homeowners Assn. counts about 1,200 homes within the boundaries of Melrose Avenue, Wilshire Boulevard and both sides of Highland and Rossmore avenues. The association’s board of directors includes six Jews among its 16 current members, Marguerite Byrne said.
The neighborhood is home to celebrities, including actors Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith; an international collection of residences of consuls general, including Turkey’s eye-popping red quarters; and an increasingly diverse demographic drawing Asian and black residents, including PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, a recent arrival.
But the most conspicuous residents may be Orthodox Jewish families, who are frequently seen strolling the streets in black suits and dresses. David Rubin, a former Yavneh president, said Orthodox Jews began increasing their presence more than a decade ago. The area is within walking distance of the many synagogues in the La Brea Avenue area, a requirement for Orthodox families, who may not drive or turn on electricity on their holy days.
Some of the families say they moved to the area to be closer to Yavneh and take advantage of better housing values than in places like Beverly Hills. Others say they chose Hancock Park for the more spacious homes.
“I’ve been in the Fairfax community since 1960 and used to ride my bike through Hancock Park, wishing we could live here,” said Samuel H. Gruenbaum, president of Western Dental Services Inc., who moved to Hancock Park in 1990. “The streets, the homes are beautiful.”
Although there are no clear figures on the Orthodox community’s size in Hancock Park, estimates have ranged from 20% by the Jewish Journal to 50% by some real estate agents.
Marmelzat and Byrne of the homeowners association said the Orthodox presence was never controversial until the mid-1990s, when Congregation Etz Chaim purchased a home on Highland Avenue and 3rd Street and applied for a conditional use permit to use it for religious services. The request was repeatedly denied and is now the subject of litigation.
The school, meanwhile, has also drawn criticism for improperly holding religious services, such as bar mitzvahs, requesting a security fence around the property on 3rd Street and other actions.
Korobkin, the Yavneh rabbi, argued that religious services are part of the school curriculum and questioned why neighbors should care, since he said they are held quietly indoors and draw no traffic. A few years ago, he said, he tried to ease tensions by reaching out to other clergy in the area and his neighbors. Among other things, Korobkin said, he proposed a community blood drive to underscore common bonds, but was rebuffed.
“The traditional Hancock Park residents view the Orthodox Jewish residents as the other, the outsider,” Korobkin said. The Yom Kippur incident, he added, “made it more apparent than ever that part of the motivation behind opposition to Yavneh is pure bigotry.”
Other issues have been the construction of megahomes and fences without permits. David Rubin, whose wife said she was shouted to on the street about their project, said he has fully complied with all building codes and is lovingly restoring the home’s original features, including redwood siding and gutters. He said his current three-bedroom home on Hudson Avenue was too small for six children.
Rubin said some of the tension could be traced to cultural and religious ignorance. Religious rules of modesty inhibit Orthodox Jews from hailing strangers of the opposite sex on the street, leading to possible perceptions that they are unfriendly, he said. Many Orthodox families walk down the middle of the street, a practice that annoys some neighbors, but do so to avoid setting off motion detector lights on the Sabbath or because their large families can’t comfortably fit on a narrow sidewalk, he said.
Aware of such perceptions, Korobkin, the rabbi, said he has urged families to initiate greetings to neighbors on the street, attend block parties, engage in community service and otherwise reach out to demystify themselves to non-Orthodox neighbors.
“I do acknowledge that we have to try harder,” Korobkin said. “Because we are seen as the other, we have to make an extra effort to extend our hand.
“We’re all people, and we should figure out a way to get along,” he said.