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Community at odds over synagogue

Sherman Oaks temple's expansion is too much, some say. Others accuse critics of anti-Semitism.

June 18, 2012|Catherine Saillant
  • A synagogue on Chandler Boulevard in Sherman Oaks is being expanded to accommodate up to 400 worshipers who attend services there.
A synagogue on Chandler Boulevard in Sherman Oaks is being expanded to accommodate… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

For two decades, Dee Tuntkavep has enjoyed a view of pine-shrouded Chandler Boulevard from the upstairs reading room of her Sherman Oaks home.

Now all she sees are concrete walls two stories high -- the still-in-progress expansion of an Orthodox Jewish house of worship. In fact, plans for the upgraded Chabad of North Hollywood are for a structure nearly nine times the size of the prayer house it replaces.

On its website, the Chabad gives thanks: "Divine Providence has finally shined down on this long-awaited project."

Litigation, however, has brought the project to a virtual halt.

Tuntkavep and dozens of other residents say the new building's size -- 12,000 square feet squeezed onto a 9,568-square-foot parcel zoned for residential -- is just too big for the surrounding blocks of single-family homes, some starting at more than $1 million.

"It's like a mountain,'' Tuntkavep said. "How did this happen?"

That question has been the focus of a four-year battle pitting neighbor against neighbor, even Jew against Jew, in this quiet pocket in the San Fernando Valley.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 22, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Synagogue expansion: An article in the June 18 LATExtra section about a community dispute over the size of a synagogue in Sherman Oaks said that resident Ron Ziff had lived in the Chandler neighborhood for three decades. He has lived in Sherman Oaks for nearly 50 years, but never in the Chandler neighborhood. The article also said that Ziff had given time and money to Chabad of North Hollywood. It is another branch of Chabad that he has supported.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 15, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Synagogue expansion: An article in the June 18 LATExtra section about a dispute over expansion of Chabad of North Hollywood referred to a similar dispute in Hancock Park and said that the city of Los Angeles, after years of litigation, issued a conditional use permit to Congregation Etz Chaim. In fact, the city has turned down two applications for a conditional use permit, and the case is still in the courts.

Chabad of North Hollywood, which has operated a small synagogue in this location since 1981, says the larger structure is needed for a growing congregation: Up to 400 attend services during Passover and other holidays.

Benjamin Reznik, the Chabad's attorney, expects things to get back on track after an appellate court ruling last August.

"Really all the court said was that the City Council needed to make some better findings in support of its decision to allow this building,'' he said. "And the city can easily make those findings."

Residents, though, have vowed to keep fighting.

And although Reznik said Rabbi Aharon Abend, the Chabad's spiritual leader as well as the parcel's developer, is under no court order to stop building, neighbors say work at the site has slowed.

Situated in the upscale Chandler Estates, the Chabad first sought permission five years ago to build a 16,100-square-foot, 45-foot-high synagogue. It also asked for a parking variance for just five spaces instead of the 83 that would have been required, citing the fact that worshipers walk to services on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

A city planning administrator said yes to a 10,300-square-foot facility but restricted its hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Both sides appealed. City planning commissioners again said the structure was too large. Within days, then-City Councilman Jack Weiss invoked a seldom-used section of the city's charter to take control of the project. He succeeded in winning the council's approval for the current structure.

Reached by phone, Weiss declined to comment.

But opponents sued, saying the council improperly bypassed the usual vetting process and ignored voter-approved charter reforms intended to bring planning decisions closer to affected communities. Last August, an appellate court agreed and ruled that the council "abused its discretion."

The project now is expected to go before a land-use subcommittee before returning to the full council later this month.

Council members then will be faced with an awkward decision: Do they order that the building, now about half-completed, be torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale? Or do they simply insert "findings" to justify their earlier approval?

Abend refused repeated attempts to reach him by phone and became combative in deflecting questions outside the synagogue on a recent Saturday. But Reznik, a prominent land-use attorney, made clear that the rabbi wants it settled.

"The congregants walk, there is no driving and there is no impact on the community," Reznik said.

Resident Jeff Gantman disagrees.

"This really sets a precedent," said Gantman, who is quick to point out that he is Jewish and the grandson of Max Gantman, a benefactor of the Shaarei Tefila temple in the Fairfax district. "The character of the neighborhood is really affected.

"If the city doesn't follow the law on this, no neighborhood would be immune from this type of abuse."

Councilman Paul Koretz, who inherited the dispute from Weiss, called it a "mess" that should have been handled differently. At this point, the best Koretz can do is allow neighbors to air their grievances -- something that didn't happen the first time around, said Shawn Bayliss, a deputy for the councilman.

The dispute is only the latest to flare between Orthodox Jewish communities and neighbors who view such large synagogues in residential areas as a violation of zoning laws.

A case in point is the recent 10-year battle over construction of an 8,000-square-foot synagogue at Highland Avenue and 3rd Street in Hancock Park.

Neighbors there were opposed on grounds similar to the Sherman Oaks case. When the city refused to issue permits to the Hancock Park congregation, a federal lawsuit was filed invoking the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is designed to prevent religious discrimination in local zoning.

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