Chabad Brings Brooklyn to L.A.

Amid the kosher restaraunts, Judaica stores and storefront
synagogues on a particular stretch of Pico Boulevard, a little  piece of Brooklyn
has just been built.

OK, the new three-story, 47,000-square-foot brown-brick
building is hardly little, but it is straight out of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Crown
Heights address that houses the central Chabad center and the headquarters of
their former spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, otherwise
known as “the Rebbe.”

After nearly 10 years, $10 million and lengthy negotiations
with the city council and Pico neighbors, West Coast Chabad Lubavitch last
Sunday inaugurated their new girls elementary school, Bais Chaya Mushka, named
after the rebbe’s wife, and renamed the street — located between Doheny and Wetherly
— “Schneerson Square.”

The March 28 dedication — which brought out notables like
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, actor Jon Voight, Mayor James
Hahn, City Councilman Jack Weiss, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and state
Education Secretary Richard Riordan, as well as greetings from President Bush
and Gov. Schwarzenegger — demonstrates the West Coast religious organization’s
tremendous fundraising powers and their presence in the city. While Chabad has
always had a presence in Pico with its girls schools, middle school, high
school and synagogues, it never dominated the street in the grandiose fashion
it does now.

The 770 replica (this is the seventh, including ones in
Melbourne, Australia; Kfar Chabad and Jerusalem, Israel; Buenos Aires,
Argentina and Westwood) is a fitting tribute to the rebbe, who sent emissaries
all over the world to spread Judaism. One of those young emissaries was Rabbi
Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, who, since
his arrival in the Chabad-less West in 1965 has peppered the city with 120
Chabads, and established himself as a figure to be reckoned with.

While the Pico edifice is replicated on old-time Brooklyn,
the school is tailored to the modern day. It features 18 bright and airy
classrooms equipped with Internet access and Pentium 4 Dell computers, an
indoor and outdoor gymnasium with rock-climbing equipment and basketball
courts, playgrounds with rubberized floors and the latest in play equipment, a
large library and a computer and science laboratory.

The new school bills itself as a community school and is
expected to house 330 students. Chabad says that 80 percent of these students
will be on a scholarship of some kind.

The new building has been in the planning stage since 2001.
When Chabad first proposed it to the City Council, they requested permission to
build a four-story, 57-foot building.

But some neighbors were apprehensive about the project. D.
Solaiman Tehrani wrote to the city concerned that “the proposed height renders
the project out of scale with the surrounding commercial developments and
contextually unfit,” and that the pick-ups and drops-offs and playground area
of the school itself would generate neighborhood noise and block driveways. At
a hearing in March 2001, neighbors voiced concerns about the shadow the
building would create, the noise level and the blocked driveways, double
parking and honking that pick-ups and drop-offs would generate.

While there were 13 letters and one form petition of 44
signatures submitted in opposition to the project, there were two petitions and
34 letters with a total of 809 signatures submitted to the city in support of
the project.

The Department of Building and Safety denied the variance to
build the four-story building, but it did allow Chabad variances to the
building code to build a smaller building as long as it adhered to certain
regulations: The building needed to be built in an O- or U-shaped structure with
an interior courtyard that would buffer the noise from the playground. The
school was also required to appoint a traffic coordinator to organize carpools
so that the school could achieve an average vehicle ridership of three persons
per vehicle, and to ensure that all pick-ups and drop-offs would happen on
site, with no vehicles entering the alley. The school was also not permitted to
hold functions like bar mitzvahs or weddings on its premises; to that end they
did not install a commercial kitchen.

“It was a challenge, not a struggle, to get all the
ordinances [approved],” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of public relations
for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

Once the building was underway, Chabad had a basis to
spearhead their other project: getting the city to officially recognize
Schneerson, a project that was stymied by previous City Councils.

Weiss and his staff spearheaded the legislation to rename
the area. They first checked to make sure that city had named streets after
religious leaders, so that Schneerson Square would not be an anomaly, and found
streets named after bishops, like St. Andrews Place. Using those streets as
precedents, the city dedicated the block to Schneerson in honor of his devotion
to community, education and philanthropy.

At last week’s dedication, Weiss told the crowd that at the
groundbreaking two years before he had said, “Welcome to 770 Pico Boulevard.”

“But then I checked the numbers and I found out that 770
Pico was around the Staples Center,” Weiss said, noting that renumbering the
street was out. “We are standing at the intersection of Wetherly and Pico — but
I say we are also standing at the intersection of victory and Chabad.”

For more information about Bais Chaya Mushka or other Chabad
projects, call (310) 208-7511.