A small Jewish congregation that illegally converted a house into a synagogue in a residential Fairfax neighborhood lost an emotion-charged round Tuesday in its fight to remain open.
The Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals rejected a request by the Tiferet Teman congregation for a zoning variance and a conditional use permit that together would have allowed the congregation to worship legally at the Hayworth Avenue house.
At a City Hall hearing, zoning board member Joseph D. Mandel, who is Jewish, accused a leader of the congregation of making blasphemous statements to board members in an effort to win their support. Shalom Ben-Levy, who acknowledges that the building was converted illegally, had asked the board to look beyond legal concerns and consider the higher cause of the synagogue.
"I am speaking to you gentlemen on the rights of God to be in the neighborhood," said Ben-Levy, who bought the house for the congregation. Later, he added: "I am talking about something beyond the legal--the moral, how we treat each other and how we treat God."
Mandel responded that he was embarrassed and ashamed by Ben-Levy's use of "God and morality in this context," and accused Ben-Levy of making a "statement of arrogance." He charged that Ben-Levy has ignored the concerns of others in the community and has "openly violated" the law.
"It is very troublesome to me, as a citizen, as a member of this board and as a Jew," Mandel told Ben-Levy.
The illegal synagogue has created controversy since it opened more than a year ago. At that time, angry neighbors complained to the city's Building and Safety Department, which eventually cited Ben-Levy for illegally converting the building. Ben-Levy then applied for the conditional use permit and variance, and the synagogue has remained open while the requests worked their way through the municipal bureaucracy.
At a hearing before a zoning administrator in September, several residents opposed to the synagogue clashed with its supporters, leading to name-calling and cries of anti-Semitism. The zoning official later refused to grant the permit and variance, which led to the congregation's appeal to the zoning board.
Ben-Levy said after Tuesday's hearing he is "90% certain" that he will appeal the board's action to the City Council, which is the final arbiter on such matters. "I have to follow this through to the end," he said.
The synagogue serves about two dozen Yemenite Jews--a small, Orthodox group whose members speak and pray in a distinct Hebrew dialect and have their roots in Yemen. About half a dozen elderly Jews who are not Yemenites also attend the synagogue because it is close to their homes.
Several homeowners near the congregation have opposed the conversion, saying that the synagogue brings noise, traffic and parking problems. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area, has joined the neighbors in opposing the synagogue.