Hancock Park Shul War Back in Court

The rabbi of a small, embattled congregation is charging that anti-Semites and self-hating Jews are using zoning laws to get Orthodox Jews out of Hancock Park as an epic eight-year legal battle heads back to court.

Nine neighbors filed a complaint last month asking a judge to bar the congregation from using two homes — one under construction on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street and the rabbi’s residence on June Street — for daily and Shabbat services.

The neighbors say they welcome diversity and are simply interested in maintaining Hancock Park’s architectural integrity and residential quality, which they say was the intention of the zoning law the congregation has been trying to skirt for the last eight years.

With vast, lush landscaping and mansions in Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean-revival styles built mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, Hancock Park is recognized as one of the most attractive neighborhoods in the city. Over the last few decades, it has also become a heavily Jewish neighborhood, along with nearby La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard.

Hancock Park is zoned for residential use only, and Etz Chaim relies on a controversial federal law that allows religious institutions to override local zoning codes. Chaim Rubin, Leader of Congregation Etz Chaim, has been quite aggressive in his assertion that the suit is motivated solely by neighbors’ aversion to having religious Jews in Hancock Park, which decades ago had restrictive covenants where Jews and blacks, among others, were barred from owning homes.

“They think they are going to stop me. I am not going anywhere. I am here to stay. It is my congregation and we are going to serve God and practice our religion as we see fit because this is guaranteed to us in the United States of America,” said Rubin, whose father founded the congregation in his June Street home 30 years ago. “I don’t live in Poland anymore, I don’t live in Germany anymore and nobody can come in and tell me I have no right to practice my religion.”

Somewhere amid the stark assertions of anti-Semitism and civic duty lies a more nuanced truth where divergent ethnic lifestyles and allegiance to a religion or to civic pride have pitted neighbor against neighbor in a tale with parallels across the country. Similar cases nationwide have pitted religious institutions against homeowners trying to return full zoning control to local communities, and the issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court in the next five years.

The Etz Chaim case hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court for Sept. 8.

This is not the first time that Etz Chaim, with about 40 worshippers on Shabbat and 10 to 15 men at a daily minyan, is involved in a legal battle.

The congregation, which purchased the home at 303 S. Highland in 1995, lost repeatedly before zoning boards, the City Council, local courts and the state Superior Court in its effort to acquire legal rights to pray in the home. After President Clinton signed into law in September 2000 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalize Persons Act (RLUIPA), giving religious institutions the right to override local zoning laws, the city attorney’s office entered into a settlement under which the congregation could use the Highland Avenue building in a limited capacity.

The neighbors’ July 10 complaint to U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp contends that the February 2002 settlement agreement amounted to the city issuing a conditional-use permit (CUP) — which would be necessary to house a religious institution in a residential zone — without the public hearings and notifications that usually go along with the CUP process, violating the plaintiff’s rights to due process.

On Aug. 6, the congregation filed a motion to have the charges dismissed, saying the plaintiffs have no standing to sue since residents do not have rights to make claims about the zoning of neighbor’s property, according to Susan Azad of Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles, lawyer for the congregation.

The plaintiffs also accuse the city of violating church-state separation by according special treatment to the congregation in not halting its allegedly illegal use of the rabbi’s June Street home while the Highland home is under construction.

The city has not yet responded to the complaint, but in a separate action the city claims that the extensive remodeling violates the settlement agreement, which called for the congregation to do minor upgrades to the property while maintaining its residential character.

In June 2002, much of the original 3,600-square-foot building was demolished, and an 8,150-square-foot building (1,600 feet of which are underground) is going up in its place. The renovated house, set to be finished sometime this winter, will include a “living room” with a large dome ceiling and a balcony for services, and a library and classrooms upstairs. Rubin said the building will be landscaped and have no signage indicating it is a shul. The renovations total about $1 million.

“Once we had to redesign the building and to make the changes required in the settlement agreement, we felt that it would be worthwhile to make it look very beautiful and make it accommodating for all of our needs,” said Rubin, emphasizing that the Department of Building and Safety issued permits for all the remodeling.

After the congregation demolished the building, the city asked the Department of Building and Safety to issue a stop-work order, contending the extensive renovations violated the settlement. Construction was halted for several months until the court granted the congregation’s motion to have that stop-work order lifted. Earlier this month, the city filed an appeal to that ruling.

“That structure suggests a rather brazen determination to flaunt what the rabbi believes to be either his rights under civil law or some divine calling,” said Leonard Hill, a television producer and Hancock Park resident who is president and a founder of the newly formed League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates, which is funding the lawsuit.

“The only reason we are doing this is we believe that this is a wonderful place to live and we want to turn it over to future generations with the same sense of historical integrity, peace, tranquillity and openness that currently makes it such a special place to live,” Hill said.

Underlying the plaintiff’s suit is the belief that RLUIPA undermines the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution.

“The real question is, does the federal government from Washington get to dictate which landowners get special treatment in land use projects, or do local communities get to determine how land use is done?” asked Marci Hamilton, co-counsel for the plaintiffs with Leslie M. Werlin of Van Etten Suzumoto & Becket in Santa Monica.

Hamilton, an RLUIPA expert and professor of church-state law at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, argued a case before the Supreme Court in 1997 that resulted in the court declaring unconstitutional the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law similar to RLUIPA.

Hill — a Jew who spent time on kibbutz and in yeshiva and was bar mitzvahed at Sinai Temple — has little tolerance for the claim that the opposition is controlled by anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. “The rabbi is unwilling to engage in substantive debates about equal protection, separation of church and state, historic preservation and maintenance of neighborhoods, responsibilities to neighbors — all that goes by the way and, instead, the red cape of racism is immediately raised by the rabbi in an effort to cloud the true merits of the debate,” Hill said.

But Azad wonders why neighbors — who in the suit cite two large bar mitzvahs at the June Street home — are not as outraged by other large parties in the area.

“If the city is going to cite Rabbi Rubin for inviting people into his house, they would have to go after all the people who have Girl Scout meetings and book club meetings and the other things people normally do when they invite people into their house,” she said.

Fair Weight

Honesty, morality and ethical behavior — these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee’s wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."

This impressive list of ethical mitzvot concludes with an injunction to treat the stranger in our midst with fairness, and that when we conduct our business, our "weights and measures shall be accurate."

Throughout this "Holiness Code" — so-called because the section begins with "Kedoshim Tiheyu" ("You shall be holy") — the Torah reminds us that it is every Jewish person’s obligation and responsibility to behave according to these ethical norms and standards because God has asked this of us.

Every few verses, one finds the conclusion "I am the Lord Your God" (seven times) or the abbreviated "I am the Lord" (seven times). A total of 14 different reminders that these mitzvot are not simply ethical norms of human behavior, but they are the basis of a religious code of conduct originating from God.

For the last mitzvah in this section, the obligation to maintain fair weights and measures in business (a technical term for "honesty in business"), the Torah also reminds us that the reason why we must observe this mitzvah is because it is God’s will. But instead of using the same formulations it did the previous 14 times, the Torah chooses a specific reasoning: "I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt."

The commentaries notice this peculiarity, wondering what specific connection exists between honesty in business and the Exodus from Egypt. Rashi, the most famous of Biblical commentators, comments that God took us out of Egypt on the condition that we would behave fairly and honestly in our business dealings.

The modern Israeli "Da’at Mikra" commentary expands on Rashi’s teaching by saying that the commandment to be fair in business comes to protect the most vulnerable members of society — the elderly, the proselyte and the foreigner. Because of their weak status in society, all of these individuals are vulnerable to being cheated in business. The Jewish people, who were slaves in Egypt and whose status in society as slaves was similar to that of elderly, proselytes and foreigners, should have the highest sensitivity towards these individuals, because we know what it was like to be mistreated by society. It is the specific experience of slavery in Egypt that strengthens our understanding of the importance of justice, righteous and ethical behavior and having mercy on others. Therefore, the Torah commands us to behave honestly in business and reminds us that the reason we as Jews must especially behave honestly in our business dealings is because we experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and God then took us out from slavery to freedom so that we might live ethically.

I wonder what modern archaeologists have to say about that?

Ehud Barak’s Kind of Town

When incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak needs to talk things over with Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the military chief of staff, he won’t have to go far: Mofaz lives 12 houses away from him in the town of Kochav Yair.

And when Barak or Mofaz need to talk to the military’s number two man, Gen. Uzi Dayan, that, too, will be easy because Dayan also lives in Kochav Yair, a town of 5,500 people in the central part of the country, right next to the West Bank.

From his one-story, red-tile-roofed house on HaVered Street, Barak should hardly need a telephone to do a day’s work. Danny Yatom, his new “political-military liaison” and the former Mossad chief, also lives a short stroll away. So does Doron Cohen, Barak’s brother-in-law and closest political confidant. If Barak needs to straighten out some Knesset business with the Likud, he’s got Knesset Members Michael Eitan and Gideon Ezra for neighbors.

The list of Kochav Yair VIPs goes on: Political operator and former Shin Bet higher-up Yossi Ginossar lives here. Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo (an incoming Center Party Knesset member) each bought houses in town, but their mayoral elections in 1993 kept them from moving in.

There has always been a debate over which city, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, is Israel’s true center of power. With Barak’s election, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can both move over; the center of power has shifted to Kochav Yair.

Israel’s prime minister-elect lives in a spotless, rigidly planned, green, gorgeous, upper-middle-class town. Kochav Yair should not be compared to Bill Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Ark., or Jimmy Carter’s in Plains, Ga. Barak’s election didn’t put Kochav Yair on the map; it was there already. People here are used to living with leading national figures. Ask them how they feel about living in the same town as the prime minister, and they answer, “There’s no difference.”

“There were guards on Barak’s street when he was military chief of staff, and when he was opposition leader. Now there are a few more. There are guards at Mofaz’s house. It’s no big deal,” says the owner of the town’s stationery store.

“People feel honored that the prime minister lives here, but it’s going to have a minimal effect on their lives,” says local council head Yonatan Rimon.

Walking through the commercial center last Friday, Rimon sees a woman who’s heading across the grass toward the parking lot; she’s carrying shopping bags. “Look, there’s Mrs. [Orit] Mofaz,” he says. The neighbors commonly see Gen. Mofaz walking to the country club in his shorts and thongs.

Until Barak became prohibitively busy in recent weeks, he could frequently be seen, accompanied by bodyguards, walking the streets for exercise late at night. “People might smile at the famous people and say hi, but that’s about it. Everybody respects people’s privacy around here, and they try to keep a low profile,” says Rimon.

What is it about Kochav Yair that attracts such a concentration of high mucky mucks? Does it have state-of-the-art underground bunkers in case of nuclear attack? Or is this maybe where Israel’s next generation of leaders is being cloned?

Actually, anybody can buy a house in Kochav Yair — if they have about $300,000 to $500,000, and if anybody is selling, which few people are. There are some 1,150 houses here, and there are no more to come. The town has grown as big as the residents want it to grow, says Rimon.

The roster of political and military celebrities is a little misleading; they didn’t move here after they’d made it big, as do movie stars who buy homes in Beverly Hills. Some were fairly well-known when they moved in; Barak was a general when he came here with the first 550 home-buyers in 1986, and Eitan, Kochav Yair’s “founding father,” was a Knesset member. But, for the most part, the stars of Kochav Yair — kochav, incidentally, means “star” in Hebrew — became national household names only after they’d become local householders.

“People came to this place because it had Zionist settlement value, but also because it was commuter distance from the center of the country, and it offered a high quality of life at an affordable price,” says Rimon.

At the entrance to HaVered, a couple of armed security guards stand under a blue canopy that’s shading them from the sun. A paparazzo sits on the curb across the street in hope of catching Barak or his wife, Nava, being driven away. The guards won’t let us even enter the street to look at the house. The prime minister-elect will be spending his weeks at his official residence in Jerusalem, but most of his weekends at home in Kochav Yair, says Rimon.

Rimon says we shouldn’t be too disappointed at not getting a look at Barak’s house. “It looks like just about every other one here,” he says. All the houses have red-tile roofs, and exteriors of white or beige stucco, except for a couple of subversives who’ve painted theirs in the currently popular desert yellow.

Where else would a career military man turned politician, a planner, a details man, a control freak, want to live in Israel? Obviously, Kochav Yair is Ehud Barak’s kind of town.

But while it is precise and immaculate, the town is by no means soulless. Kochav Yair is stuffed to bursting with nature — trees and bushes, and white and pink flowers blooming out of huge gardens, covering walls and fences, tufting, it seems, out of every unpaved spot. While the town’s precision planning seems to fit Barak’s personality, its social makeup suits his stated political goal: to bring all different kinds of Israelis together. There is no segregation in Kochav Yair — the religious live next to the secular, the military next to the civilian, immigrants next to veterans, Likudniks next to ex-kibbutzniks such as Barak.

Says Shosh Shika, the town archivist: “We’re a community of equals here, generals and privates alike. Nava waits in line just like me; nobody treats her specially.”

It’s a great life, says the stationery-store owner. A Garden of Eden, says Shika. About the only problem anybody can think of is the rush-hour traffic to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “It’s hard leaving for work in the morning, but it’s wonderful when you get home,” says Shika. No doubt there will be weekends when Kochav Yair’s brightest star will find himself thinking the same thing.