A small group of Yemenite Jews that illegally converted a house into a synagogue in the Fairfax District has failed to win city approval for two zoning variances that would have allowed the congregation to permanently worship there.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, a Los Angeles zoning official denied the variance requests, saying a synagogue would "change the residential character of the area and may set a precedent for other such uses coming into the area."
The Tiferet Teman synagogue, with about a dozen active members, is the only synagogue in the city established by Yemenites, an Orthodox group whose members speak and pray in a distinctive Hebrew dialect and have their roots in Yemen.
Associate Zoning Administrator Jack C. Sedwick said in his ruling that the synagogue would be disruptive to nearby residences and would create noise, traffic and parking problems.
The congregation had requested permission to operate the synagogue on property zoned for residential structures and to be exempt from regulations that require 11 parking spaces for churches or synagogues that size.
Shalom Ben-Levy, a Yemenite Jew who bought the three-bedroom house last year, said the congregation will appeal Sedwick's decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Members will continue to meet at the Hayworth Avenue synagogue during the appeal, he said.
"We didn't prepare ourselves properly," Ben-Levy said of the variance requests. "We need to prepare a petition so that they will know how many people support this."
However, residents opposed to the synagogue said they, too, will be ready to present their case to the appeals board.
"It is a zoning violation. It is against the law," said Jean Miller, who lives across the street from the synagogue and has led opposition to it. "There are so many of them operating legally, why should this one be treated special?"
Diana Plotkin, vice president of the Beverly-Wilshire Homes Assn., said the 300-member organization opposes the variances because they fear that other non-residential uses might follow the synagogue into the neighborhood.
"This could set a very important precedent," Plotkin said. "It could allow other congregations to move into residential areas. If we begin to allow spot zoning all over the city, we could end up with a car-wrecking business sitting next to a single-family home."
The dispute over the synagogue has split the neighborhood, with many older, Orthodox Jews siding with the Yemenites because they have found the synagogue a convenient alternative to their own synagogues.
Orthodox Jews do not drive automobiles on the Sabbath, and some of them have begun attending the Tiferet Teman synagogue because they find it difficult to walk four or five blocks to their regular places of worship.
But others in the neighborhood, including Miller, complain that worshipers are often noisy and that they contribute to parking problems when they drive to the synagogue during the week.
The opponents, both Jews and non-Jews, say the synagogue should relocate to a commercial area where adequate parking would be available.
In his decision, Sedwick also cited parking problems in the neighborhood.
"Granting of a variance to waive 11 parking spaces would be materially detrimental to the public welfare and injuring to property and improvements in the area as such waiver would exacerbate existing parking and circulation problems in the neighborhood," he wrote.
Ben-Levy said congregation members are optimistic that they will be able to convince the five-member appeals board that the synagogue does more good than harm.
If they are unsuccessful, he said, the group will meet informally, as it did for 18 years before purchasing the Hayworth Avenue house.
"It is not against the law to meet at someone's house," Ben-Levy said.