Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, sensitivity to block another Yom Kippur showdown


One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom “to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007…and to make recommendations.”

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued “awareness seminars” for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a “cultural diversity” program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor’s recommendations and that the fault for last year’s incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack ofsensitivity.

There is no chance that last year’s incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, “justice is on the side of Yavneh – it’s not even close.”



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Surgery Offers Hope to Dystonia Victims


Twelve-year-old Josh Gaskin walks to the front door and shakes a visitor’s hand. While this gesture would seem routine for most adolescents, two years ago it would have been impossible for Josh.

By the time he had reached the fourth grade, Josh’s dystonia caused his right hand to involuntarily clench into a fist so tight that he could only open it by force. His feet turned inward, requiring him to wear braces. The symptoms had forced Josh to quit his baseball and basketball teams after six years of playing, leaving him depressed and angry.

Josh’s mother, Andrea, had read about an unusual procedure that might hold hope for her son. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves placing tiny electrodes deep in the brain. The electrodes are connected by wires running internally down each side of the neck to small pulse generators implanted under the skin of the chest.

The electrical pulses disrupt the brain signals that cause involuntary movement. The procedure had been used extensively to relieve Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and had recently been found to help some dystonia patients.

Andrea was intrigued. Still, DBS involves multiple surgical procedures. At the time, few procedures had been done for dystonia patients, and only a handful of them had involved children.

“Deep inside, I knew that this was going to be for us,” she said. “My husband was more hesitant…. You’re dealing with the brain and things can happen.”

But Andrea felt strongly. “The way I looked at it, why let it get worse before I make him better. The more your body starts twisting, the harder you have to work to put it back to what it was,” she said. “I didn’t want him go through any more suffering.”

In April 2004, Josh underwent DBS surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. During the procedure, a metal halo was screwed into his skull to assure no movement. The doctor drilled a small hole in Josh’s skull and inserted the electrodes.

Josh was a awake for much of the six-hour surgery, because his doctors needed to ask him questions in order to place the electrodes most effectively. Two days after his surgery, Josh’s doctors inserted batteries into the device.

By the following day, Josh was able to play video games with his father at Times Square’s ESPN Zone. Within a month, he could walk without the foot braces. He began shooting hoops and hitting baseballs.

“I had forgotten how it felt to open my arms,” Josh said. “It felt good to go back to normal.”

Josh suffered a setback last June, when one of the leads caused a leakage of brain fluid, and the apparatus on one side of his body had to be removed. Within six months, his walking was worse than it had been before the surgery.

Last March, he returned to New York to have the device re-implanted, and has been slowly improving ever since. He can write again. He plays basketball and runs track at school. He hopes to re-join a sports league, and is practicing his skills. His speech remains slurred as it was prior to the surgery, but he hopes that it, too, will slowly improve.

Each month, Josh must visit the doctor to have his electrical settings fine tuned. He will need surgery to have his batteries replaced every three to four years.

Nevertheless, neither Josh nor his mother have any regrets. “It’s not for everybody, but for us, this surgery has been a blessing,” Andrea said. “We’ve seen a big improvement.”

Before the procedure, “I was angry, mad and sad. I didn’t know why I had [dystonia],” Josh said. “Now, I have a better outlook.”

As he recounted his story, Josh was asked about scabs on both his knees. They weren’t from surgery. He had been fooling around on his parent’s treadmill, put it on maximum and fell. Just like any other normal 12-year-old kid. — NSS