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House-Turned-Synagogue Splits Community, Forcing a Struggle to . . . : Keep the Faith

October 01, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

For more than 18 years, several dozen Yemenite Jews in the Fairfax area went without a synagogue of their own.

They met in community rooms, a bank basement, their homes and, during religious holidays, in rented rooms in one of the many local synagogues that serve other Jewish congregations.

Last fall, the Yemenites--a small, Orthodox group whose members speak and pray in a distinct Hebrew dialect, have their roots in Yemen and are among the most traditional of Jews--purchased a three-bedroom home on Hayworth Avenue and converted it into the only Yemenite synagogue in Los Angeles.

They have been struggling to keep it open ever since.

Inspectors from the city Department of Building and Safety say the congregation converted the house illegally, and in January they ordered the group to obtain proper permits for the synagogue or turn it back to a single-family home.

The congregation has ignored the order while it seeks exemptions from the city's zoning code, which designates the property for residential use. The city's zoning administrator held a hearing on the requests this week and is expected to issue a ruling early next week.

The synagogue, a block off Fairfax Avenue, is surrounded by single-family homes and apartments. While interior walls have been removed to create a large meeting room, the outside still resembles a Spanish-style stucco home with a red tile roof.

"We are not building there a liquor store, we are not building there a disco, we are not building there a swap meet," said Shalom Ben-Levy, a Yemenite Jew who bought the house for the congregation, which is helping him pay the mortgage and other expenses. "It is not a hotel. It is not a massage parlor. We are trying to find a place that we call the house of God."

In an effort to ward off closure, Ben-Levy applied in May for a zoning variance and a conditional use permit, which together would allow the synagogue to remain open and would exempt it from off-street parking requirements. As Orthodox Jews, Yemenites do not drive automobiles on the Sabbath, and they have argued to city officials that they do not need parking since all of their members walk to the synagogue.

The congregation's fight to keep the synagogue has split the Hayworth Avenue neighborhood, a predominantly Jewish area. Although only a dozen or so Yemenites regularly attend the synagogue, it has become immensely popular with older, non-Yemenite Orthodox Jews who live in the area and find it difficult to walk the four or five blocks to other synagogues.

Yet to others in the neighborhood--Jews and non-Jews alike--the synagogue represents an unwelcome intrusion on a residential street that they say has severe parking and congestion problems.

They say members of the congregation who drive there during the week exacerbate the parking crunch, and they complain that prayers and chants from the synagogue can be heard up and down the street. The Yemenites say their prayers in unison.

This week, at the City Hall hearing on the zoning requests, several residents opposed to the synagogue clashed with its supporters. The ugly exchange, which included name calling and cries of anti-Semitism, left each side suspect of the other's motives.

"Fifty percent of my tenants are not Jews," S. Z. Miner, who owns an eight-unit apartment building near the synagogue, said at the hearing. "They resent the fact that a Jewish synagogue is coming into a residential area. . . . It seems to me that you are going to reward a person who did something illegal."

Eva and David Altman, who live next to Miner's building, disputed his remarks, saying that only three of Miner's tenants are not Jewish and that none of them has complained about the synagogue.

Later, in an interview at their home, the Altmans said opponents of the synagogue have exaggerated the degree of opposition in the neighborhood.

"They are prejudiced, anti-Semitic," said Eva Altman, who began attending the synagogue because a heart problem prevents her from walking the five blocks to her synagogue on Beverly Boulevard. "I was never prejudiced. I respect everybody's rights. But I want them to respect my rights, too."

Jean Miller, who lives across the street from the synagogue, has led the neighborhood's effort to close it.

She said Altman and other supporters of the synagogue are relying on an old tactic to scare away opposition: They either label the opponents anti-Semitic or accuse them of not being good Jews.

"I don't care whether they are Jewish or Catholic or whatever," said Miller, who said she is a Reform Jew. "The issue is the violation. This is a residential neighborhood and that property is not zoned for a temple." The area is zoned for multifamily residential development and any other uses require a variance.

Bob Henry, who bought a house behind the synagogue in July, agreed. Henry said he, his wife and 9-month-old baby have been awakened in the early morning hours by prayers.

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