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School for Sephardic Jews Seeks Place in Sun : It Has Adapted to Social, Cultural Life but Not to Cityscape

March 17, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

It's the only place of its kind west of New Jersey.

Cynics might say that this is hardly a notable geographic distinction. But to those who have discovered it, the Sephardic Hebrew Academy in West Hollywood is a religious and cultural oasis on the shores of the Pacific.

It is also a place of contrasts.

One of the administrators is an elder in a Lutheran church, for instance. At least one of its supporters, Screen Actors Guild president Patty Duke, is a Catholic who until recently didn't know enough about Sephardic Jews to "put in a thimble."

And its ramshackle buildings and playground house a fair share of the Los Angeles melting pot. Students from India, Israel, Morocco, Iran, Argentina and the Soviet Union, 15 countries in all, fill the classrooms--as well as children from local families interested in preserving the customs of a "minority within a minority."

Many of these students and their families have fled religious persecution and political turmoil, as did the original Sephardic Jews, who were ordered out of Spain in the year Columbus discovered America. Many of those who left Spain dispersed to North Africa and the Middle East, acquiring over the centuries a patina of customs and culture from the new, more Oriental environment, especially when compared with the other major cultural and social branch of Judaism, Ashkenazim, which includes Jews who settled in Northern and Central Europe.

The school is dedicated to preserving the customs, arts, teachings and ways of Sephardic culture, as well as instructing students in such familiar subjects as science, math and language.

Yet while it has made apparently harmonious adjustments to the social, cultural and religious diversity of Southern California, the school is having a tougher time adjusting to the physical changes of its evolving neighborhood.

The preschool through eighth-grade academy is part of a diversifying cityscape that may make it a Los Angeles anomaly--a place with a sunshine deficit. A couple of blocks away stand the Beverly Center towers. And construction is expected to start soon on the new 11-story Ma Maison Hotel, which will loom just across the street on what is now a vacant lot. It is this last project that has upset some at the school who see the hotel and restaurant as a thrower of shadow and fountain of traffic that will impinge on the school's environment on a quiet street, Huntley Drive.

"It's a real concern for us," said Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, the school's executive director. "It puts a cloud over us, literally. And the second thing is the safety of the children. At the drop-off and pick-up times there's tremendous traffic congestion and if you add to that delivery trucks, taxis and people using this street for access to and from the hotel, it's something to be concerned about."

By a twist of boundary lines, the hotel is located in Los Angeles while the school is in West Hollywood. The city of West Hollywood lost in legal action against the hotel. School officials are still pondering their options.

One of the hotel's architects denies that the hotel is going to cast the pall its critics foresee. Olivier Vidal also noted that the building's design was modified to meet objections from the school. Specifically, an exit from the hotel's garage was eliminated to cut down on traffic on the school's street, Vidal said.

"If I could design buildings that don't cast a shadow, I would be delighted," Vidal said. He also said that the hotel will occupy a lot formerly covered with "microbusinesses" in run-down buildings and that he considers the hotel an upgrading of that particular piece of property.

There is apparent disagreement between Vidal and Kupfer over how much the school itself may be at fault in the area of shadows. Vidal maintained that a new two-story preschool building now under construction will, because of its location to the east of the playground, be more of a shadow generator than the hotel, which is to the south.

Kupfer disagreed but added that he does try to see the other side of the issue.

"I understand the feelings of the developers," he said. "A lot of our supporters are in this business. They've got to get their projects going and they have to be economically viable . . . but they've got to try to see, too, that they don't disrupt a school that's been at this location eight years."

Turned Away Students

Last year the school turned away about 60 students because it didn't have room, Kupfer said. Its student body of 196, including about 75 preschoolers, is about 40 more than the ideal number, he added.

However, the academy's $3.5-million expansion program, which got a hefty boost last month at a fund-raising dinner attended by Mayor Tom Bradley, will eventually expand the school's capacity to 400 or more students, the rabbi added.

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