City refuses Chabad's request to remain in Hollywood Hills 6, 2003
By John Holland

Hollywood -- As the clock inched toward 2 a.m. and debate dragged on over what to do with an Orthodox Jewish sect that worships in two small homes, city commissioners seemed weary of what they called the most divisive issue in Hollywood history.

After two years of hearings, promises and testimony, the facts remained clear, even if a solution proved no easier Thursday morning than it ever did. The Chabad Lubavitch wanted to worship in the middle of a residential neighborhood, neighbors wanted to push them out and everybody said the law -- or their version of it -- was on their side.

Then a young congregant pushed the argument away from law and toward religion in a way no one had done, appealing to the commission's Jewish members to ignore legal advice and vote with their hearts.

"I think the Jewish people on this board have to stand up ... you're a Jew, you have to fight for who you are,'' said Zalman Korf, younger brother of the congregation's rabbi.

The plea failed, and garnered scorn from some in the audience and on the commission. About 3:30 a.m., commissioners rejected the Chabad's bid to keep holding services in two small Hollywood Hills homes, giving neighbors the victory and setting the stage for a court appeal that will pit religious freedom against the city's right to decide its own zoning laws.

"I'm sorry I'm going to have to vote against you, but I do,'' Commissioner Beam Furr said, casting what amounted to the deciding vote against the group's application for a special permit to turn two small homes in Hollywood Hills into a permanent house of worship.

The final vote was 5-2, with Mayor Mara Giulianti and Commissioners Furr, Peter Bober, Sal Oliveri and Cathy Anderson voting against the Chabad, although Anderson was consistently on the Chabad's side and switched only after the results were assured to help unify the commission.

The Chabad's leaders promised a quick appeal, and city officials said they would give the group time to find a new home and wouldn't rush to enforce the ruling. Rabbi Joseph Korf, Zalman's brother, said commissioners caved to political pressure and didn't follow the law.

"I feel very let down by the vote, but I can't say that I'm surprised,'' Korf said. "It's very troubling, because we have a lot of elderly members who just want to be able to walk to temple and worship. Now they aren't going to be able to do that.''

The Chabad practice a traditional form of Judaism that includes prohibitions against driving on the Sabbath, meaning most members must live within walking distance of their temple. They bought the properties at 2215 and 2221 N. 46th Ave., in 2000 with the intention of creating a central house of worship, but hid their intentions from the city early on, according to testimony. The Chabad moved to the neighborhood from a nearby strip mall on Sheridan Street.

No issue has ever divided the commission or the city as deeply, commissioners said. The Chabad labeled many of their critics, particularly Oliveri, as intolerant or even anti-Semitic. Oliveri, long an advocate for keeping neighborhoods exclusively for single-family homes, argued the issue was about zoning and planning, not religion.

"It's almost common sense and reasonable that the Chabad will never fit in Hollywood Hills,'' Oliveri said.

Some commissioners, particularly Furr and the mayor, tried to find a middle ground.

Furr, clearly torn between his admiration for the Chabad and his belief that it didn't come close to meeting city planning codes, said he couldn't justify letting members worship in a synagogue surrounded by neighbors who complained about the noise, traffic and garbage the congregation generated.

Giulianti also was sympathetic toward the congregation, but bristled at suggestions by some that the vote reflected a tone of anti-Semitism in the city.

"I've been elected seven times and I'm Jewish and they know I'm Jewish,'' Giulianti said to applause.

From the beginning, city officials have argued that the Chabad, with at least 60 active members, was too large for the small parcel with two homes.

The Chabad also has been circumspect about the total membership, with one senior administrator testifying Thursday morning that there were fewer than 200 total members from around the country. He later admitted he didn't include women and children in his total, putting the actual figure at well over 400 members.

Nearby residents said they've counted well over 100 residents packed onto the tiny property during important Holy days. City officials agreed that has been a problem.

"It's like trying to put 12 pounds in a 10 pound bag; it's just too big for a single-family home,'' Planning Director Jaye Epstein said. "All along we've felt this is a planning issue ... nothing more.''

The nine-hour hearing, which started at 6:30 p.m Wednesday, was actually among the shortest on the subject and had little of the vitriol of previous meetings. About 125 people attended the hearing -- about half of the other gatherings -- and the tone was passionate but more respectful than before.

Throughout the hearing, lawyers and residents focused on state and federal laws designed to strike a balance between religious freedom and a city's right to ensure, orderly, consistent zoning laws.

Under federal law, the city can keep a house of worship out of a neighborhood if they don't create a "substantial burden,'' on the congregation. The city argues that asking the Chabad to move would create only a small burden. Giulianti emphasized that the Chabad moved to the homes on 46th Avenue voluntarily, proof that moving is not a hardship, she said.

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