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Wary Neighbors, Synagogue Seek Common Ground in Woodland Hills

May 26, 1988|IRA RIFKIN | Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

For nearly three decades, Olga Hammer has lived on Lubao Avenue in Woodland Hills and has watched the wild Canada geese feed in the open field that abuts the rear of her home.

"All of us who live on the street are very protective of the geese," she said. "We take great joy in the geese and the sunsets, and it just won't be the same if there's a two- or three-story building there."

If Hammer had her druthers, the 17.5-acre field would remain as it has been, an agricultural plot used by Pierce College for everything from teaching students how to plow land to raising feed for cattle.

But the Los Angeles Community College District has leased the land, a trapezoid-shaped parcel south of Victory Boulevard just east of the West Valley Occupational Center, to Shir Chadash--The New Reform Congregation. Shir Chadash plans to build a sanctuary and three buildings--all approximately two stories tall--for part-time religious studies classes, and a small number of single-family homes.

If the Shir Chadash plans stopped there, neighbors like Olga Hammer might not be concerned. But the plans also include subleasing nine acres to a developer who will build a 303-apartment retirement complex, a plan that has some local homeowners dismayed.

RA Zoning

The land is currently zoned RA, limiting its use to agricultural or large-lot single-family homes only. That means Shir Chadash needs a conditional use permit to build its temple and a zoning change to low-density construction.

Shir Chadash, a 5-year-old synagogue with 475 member families and as yet no permanent home of its own, operates out of rented offices in Encino and holds its regular services at Woodland Hills Community Church.

It has quickly become one of the Valley's leading Reform Jewish congregations largely because of its rabbi, Steven Jacobs. Jacobs is a passionate advocate of liberal social causes and his interfaith efforts are well-known in Los Angeles religious circles.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, Shir Chadash attracts more than 1,500 worshipers to its services held in the main ballroom of the Warner Center Marriott Hotel.

"Jacobs is a very dynamic person who does not slumber," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "He's on the cutting edge of many things, particularly social action issues.

"Jacobs is a rabbi par excellence," added Rabbi Uri Herscher, executive vice president of Hebrew Union College, the reform movement seminary in Los Angeles. "His congregation is growing more and more into the role of leadership with each day."

But Jacobs is also well known for stirring up controversy, including the one that prompted the schism at Tarzana's Temple Judea (where he was then the rabbi) that eventually led to the birth of Shir Chadash in 1983.

At a time when Temple Judea was the spiritual home of former Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler and the early Bus Stop movement, Jacobs advocated busing to achieve racial integration in public schools and created an uproar by saying Jews were in danger of becoming a "racist community."

He invited Cesar Chavez to speak at Friday night Sabbath services, traveled to Vietnam to help the boat people and protested Rockwell International's use of nuclear materials at its Canoga Park and Santa Susana Mountains facilities.

The result was a house divided, and eventually some of those who sided with Jacobs broke away to form Shir Chadash, known in its early days as simply The New Reform Congregation. When Jacobs' contract was up at Temple Judea, he took over at New Reform.

From the beginning, the congregation dreamed of having its own temple building, Jacobs said. But in the increasingly crowded West Valley, finding a suitable site proved difficult until economic woes at the community college district presented Shir Chadash with an opportunity.

To raise badly needed cash, the district offered to lease the 17.5-acre plot for 75 years. The size of the parcel was far greater than what Shir Chadash needed for itself, but the district was unwilling to divide the land.

Shir Chadash offered $3.025 million, the top bid, and secured the land about two years ago. Jacobs and other congregational leaders set out to develop the property.

According to Pierce College President David Wolf, the lease agreement gave Shir Chadash "a great deal of freedom" over developing the land and, so far, said Wolf, the college and the community college district are comfortable with everything Shir Chadash has proposed.

After reserving about five acres for its planned 300-450 person sanctuary, parking lots and religious school buildings, Jacobs began considering various proposals for the remainder of the land.

"The idea was to bring other institutions in to help us build this project," he said. "No congregation our size could afford this on its own.

"The original concept was a community village, a synagogue as well as some kind of institution on the land with us that would be of service to the community."

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