A Healer Returns


Daniel Libeskind is coming back to New York to help heal the
wounds created on Sept. 11. He won’t be working with words or medicine but with
stone, cement, glass and steel.

“My hopes are that out of the tragedy that happened, from
the depths of the ground, something will soar into the life of New York that
reaffirms the values we share: democracy and family and freedom and
independence,” said Libeskind, whose architectural designs were chosen to
replace the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror
attacks.

The decision, announced Feb. 27 in New York, means both a
homecoming for Libeskind and the weaving together of themes that wind through
much of his work: openness, contrast of dark and light, the interplay of memory
and dreams for the future.

While Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin is a sprawling
zigzag that hugs the earth, his main tower in Manhattan would soar toward the
heavens. Yet the two designs have something in common: Both contain elements of
sadness and hope.

“I have learned many things” through working in Berlin,
including that “one has to believe the future holds something better than the
past,” the 57-year-old Libeskind explained.

Like his Jewish Museum, which contains a space for
meditation on the destruction of European Jewry, the design for lower Manhattan
includes a memorial at the original foundation of the World Trade Center, where
some 2,800 people were killed. Relatives of some victims already have said they
appreciate the fact that Libeskind did not want to build over the pit.

Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946 to two Holocaust
survivors. He became an American citizen in 1965 and studied music in Israel
and New York.

He was described as a musical genius but ultimately decided
to study architecture. He earned degrees in 1970 from New York City’s Cooper
Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and in 1972 from the School of Comparative
Studies at Essex University in England.

Libeskind and his wife, Nina, moved to Berlin with their
three children in 1989, after Libeskind won the competition to design the
city’s Jewish Museum. It was his first contract, but his first completed
building was the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum that opened in Osnabrck, Germany,
in July 1998. His Imperial War Museum in North Manchester, England, opened in
July 2002.

He has a number of other works in progress, including the
Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Maurice Wohl Auditorium at Bar-Ilan University
near

Tel Aviv.

The Jewish Museum, the work for which he is most famous, was
completed in 1999. Its unique design drew hundreds of thousands of visitors
even while the building was still empty. The museum was to open to the public
on Sept. 11, 2001, but the event was postponed two days because of the tragic
events in the United States.

“When the attacks happened, I felt personally attacked,”
Libeskind said in a telephone interview from his Berlin office. “My
brother-in-law worked for 30 years in that tower. He had just retired” and so
escaped the fate of thousands of others.

Working on the Berlin museum “prepared me to compete for the
project in New York,” Libeskind said. “I believe the memory of what happened”
in New York “is an eternal part of the place and has to be seriously addressed.
And it is so important to also have something that soars.”

Libeskind said it was essential that people feel comfortable
going to work again at the site.

“It should not be just a symbolic entity. It should affirm
that people work every day at a height that is safe,” he said.

Site developer Larry Silverstein reportedly wanted more
office space in the design proposals.

But “it’s not realistic that anyone would want to work at
that height or that any investor would build it,” Libeskind said. So he created
a place that transforms itself with gardens, an observatory and a restaurant as
it rises to 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year of American independence.

The main tower would be the world’s tallest building. Several
smaller structures would surround it, with the original four-and-a-half-acre
World Trade Center foundation as a focal point.

Libeskind has said it would cost approximately $330 million
to build his design. Construction reportedly would be funded partly by
insurance payments for the destroyed buildings. The plan may go through changes
before it is realized, Libeskind said.

“I think every design evolves, if it is good, and this one
will also,” he said.

Libeskind’s museum has changed Berlin. One of Germany’s most
visited institutions, it has exhibits covering nearly 2,000 years of German
Jewish life. The museum is expecting its one millionth visitor, according to
Eva Soederman, spokeswoman for the Jewish Museum.

School classes provide a large number of the visitors, and
students come away with an understanding that Jews are not merely Holocaust
victims but a people with a rich history, tradition and faith.

Berlin also has changed the Libeskind family — in
particular, his daughter Rachel, who became a bat mitzvah one day before the
gala opening of her father’s building. Speaking to the Oranienburgerstrasse
congregation that morning, Rachel said the history around every corner in
Berlin had affected her self-awareness as a Jew.

“I am the most religious member of the family,” she said.

“That still is true,” her father said with a laugh. “And she
will bring that to New York, a city that has a vital and deeply rooted Jewish
community. That is one of the reasons I am happy we are going there.”  

The Battle Over Mesivta


At a shabby, deserted golf course in an isolated area of Calabasas, a half-started construction site sits idle, and some 31 yeshiva bocherim learn Talmud at the makeshift campus of Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman had opened the high school with nine students in 1997, hoping to transform it into a first-class yeshiva complete with dormitories, a beit midrash (study hall) and a basketball court. But, now five years later, his plans are stuck in the mud, because of a legal battle with a nearby homeowners association.

The protracted court case, which is now awaiting an environmental impact report (EIR) from the school, shows how badly a school building project can go when met with fiery opposition by the surrounding community.

The opposition first began in July of 1998, when one-third of the residents of Mountain View Estates — a gated community of million-dollar homes located a half-mile west of the yeshiva — signed a petition protesting the project and brought it before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Among their objections were noise, traffic congestion, airborne contamination from digging at the site and "negative impact on the visual quality" of the rustic neighborhood. Representatives of Mountain View’s homeowners association even staged a protest for visiting members of the county’s regional planning commission on at least one occasion.

Despite the residents’ objections the board granted Mesivta a conditional-use permit. But the fight wasn’t over. Following the ruling in 1999, Mountain View sued the County for awarding Mesivta the conditional-use permit without an EIR. Last year, the homeowners won in the appellate court, which ordered Mesivta leaders to cease construction until they could come up with a full EIR. Gottesman said he hopes to have the document completed by the end of the year.

Gottesman said he is "disappointed but not heartbroken" by the legal battle. "Our momentum has slowed down but it hasn’t been lost," he said. He hopes that the homeowners association’s new board of directors — rumored to be voted in soon — will be able to conduct better relations between the two groups.

But could the whole process have been avoided if Gottesman had worked with the homeowners’ group prior to embarking on the project?

Initially, Gottesman had been surprised at the objections. He had intended to be a good neighbor, he said, meeting with Calabasas city officials and representatives of the community of Hidden Hills — but not with those at Mountain View. After the battle began in earnest, Gottesman told The Journal in August 1998 that he could have done things differently.

"I admit it was a mistake on my part, not to get in touch with them earlier," Gottesman had said. "Now the hard-earned funds for teaching Torah are instead being used to pay legal fees."

Several current and former members of the Mountain View Estates homeowners association board were contacted for comment, but all declined to speak to The Journal.

Despite the unfinished campus, the school has managed to attract 31 students this year, split among the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Mesivta even graduated its first class of seniors last June, although there will be no such class this year because of the county’s restriction on enrollment for the 1999-2000 school year.

Currently, the school employs three teachers fulltime and eleven parttime, plus a trio of kitchen and ground staff. Most of the students live on campus in rudimentary dormitories, although a few commute in from the city with their teachers.

A majority of the infrastructure has been completed, Gottesman said, for what will be an 11-building campus, including grading the property, installing retaining walls and constructing the paved areas for several buildings. They have also put in a sewer system and conduits for water and gas lines.

That work, plus the initial purchase of the 8.5-acre property and legal fees, amounted of $2.5 million, Gottesman said — nearly all of the money raised to date. The rabbi said he has additional commitments that should bring in another $400,000, but will need to raise $6 million on top of that to complete the project.

"There’s a lot of money yet to be raised. We have no mortgage and we have taken no loans, but if we have to we will take out a construction loan," Gottesman said. "The advantage of the project is we don’t need one lump sum, because there are 11 small buildings instead of one big one, so we will be able to go in phases."

"I certainly see a challenge ahead but I am optimistic," Gottesman said. "I think as soon as people see action, action begets action. The action of construction begets the action of donation."

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