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House of Prayer Splits Neighbors

Orthodox Jews use of a residentially zoned house in upscale Hancock Park as a synagogue, and their plan to build another nearby, prompt area residents to file suit.

October 26, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Every Friday toward dusk, one of Los Angeles' most coveted neighborhoods undergoes a metamorphosis. Scores of Orthodox Jewish men in dark suits and wide-brimmed black hats emerge from their homes, setting off on foot into the slow-fading light.

Their peaceful march through Hancock Park belies tensions that pit neighbor against neighbor.

Following Jewish laws that forbid driving on the Sabbath, young fathers, with sons in tow, head west toward the synagogues on La Brea Boulevard nearly a mile away. But about 30 men move against the flow, filing past lush lawns toward a cavernous house on South June Street -- a house that for 30 years has doubled as a rabbi's home and his congregation's synagogue.

Climbing the steps toward an imposing iron door, the men -- many of them elderly -- slip into the cool, dimly lighted interior. They drape themselves in prayer shawls and, with eyes closed, begin rocking forward and back in the short, staccato motions of davening, or praying. The house fills with the hushed rhythms of Hebrew. Lost in prayer, the men forget for a moment that homeowners throughout Hancock Park want to ban their weekly gatherings.

At its simplest, this is a story about zoning laws and building permits. But Congregation Etz Chaim's three decades in Hancock Park are, in fact, a much more convoluted tale about a neighborhood aching from the pains of change.

A long-running legal battle continues over Etz Chaim's right to gather in prayer and to build an expansive new house of worship. Beneath the legal briefs and appeals are cultural tectonic plates that have been grinding against each other as two passionate groups struggle over who defines a community.

"This is a very, very special place," said Larry Faigin, a 30-year Hancock Park resident. "All I've ever asked is that my neighbors maintain their homes as I maintain mine. This congregation did not move into this neighborhood to invest in it; they moved in to use it in a way that is not intended."

Congregants fume at such words.

"A small group thinks they have a kingdom here," said Chaim Baruch Rubin, the congregation's rabbi. "I hate to tell them, but feudal lords went out a long time ago. I don't accept that I have to bow down to them. The audacity of saying that you can't pray in your own home!"

The homeowners say Etz Chaim's building, and another now under construction, aren't homes at all, but synagogues that threaten the pristine, residential identity of their neighborhood. The Orthodox Jews of Etz Chaim insist that they have equal claim to the neighborhood and a legal right to pray where they wish.

Once an oil field, Hancock Park was divided into sweeping residential plots after World War I. Lavish houses -- English Tudors, Spanish Colonials and Greek Revivals -- soon filled the expanse.

As in other parts of Los Angeles, a covenant written into the deeds of Hancock Park houses forbade their sale to Jews or members of other minority groups. The neighborhood remained relatively stable until droves of wealthy urbanites began heading for the tranquillity of the suburbs.

"During the white flight of the 1970s, the old Protestant elite of Hancock Park moved out," said sociologist Bruce Phillips, an expert on Jewish demographics in Los Angeles. "Property values were down and Orthodox Jews were willing to purchase."

Some of the first Orthodox to arrive in Hancock Park were Rubin's parents, who bought the house on South June Street in 1964.

Also a rabbi, Rubin's father once led a Boyle Heights congregation. By the late 1970s, the younger Rubin recalls, members of Hancock Park's growing Orthodox population were seeking out his father.

Informal prayers at the house evolved into the formal gatherings of a congregation. The first floor of the house was expanded to accommodate the 30 or 40 men who prayed there. As Orthodox families continued moving into the neighborhood in the 1980s, they were joined by a different set of Angelenos: those rediscovering that most of Hancock Park's 1,170 homes were architectural gems.

"Hancock Park is an oasis that was left virtually untouched. It is replete with the original architecture of the 1920s and 1930s," said Barry Peele, a real estate broker who specializes in the area. "An old house is like a piece of art; you can't re-create it," he said, adding that few neighborhoods in the city can match the stately architecture of Hancock Park.

As Orthodox Jews and architecture connoisseurs moved in, two distinct universes crystallized in the neighborhood. Eventually, the cultures clashed.

"The Orthodox are the definition of insularity," said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy. "They do not root themselves in their community, and are perceived as a group unto themselves. This ghetto mind-set doesn't work in a place like L.A."

It worked, in fact, relatively well for Etz Chaim, as long as it kept a low profile. The congregation never obtained a permit for its gatherings, but city officials looked the other way.

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