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October 11, 2007

The Yavneh incident was stupid but not quite anti-Semitic

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/the_yavneh_incident_was_stupid_but_not_quite_antisemitic_20071012

Last month, Kol Nidrei services on the evening of the Day of Atonement held at a local Hancock Park yeshiva were interrupted by the government officials pressing a zoning violation.

It was an act of stupidity and insensitivity, not anti-Semitism.

On the contrary, it signified how much at home Orthodox Jews and even ultra-Orthodox Jews feel in Los Angeles and how public a community they have built.

Hancock Park has attracted a significant number of Orthodox Jews committed to living in two worlds, American and Jewish, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who want to be left alone to live their own religious life. Its homes are spacious, large enough to accommodate a large family, which is considered a blessing in Orthodoxy.

Orthodox Jews, whether Modern or ultra-Orthodox, are no longer overwhelmingly poor. Many have done well in America, some have made it big and can afford the price of local housing. They can also afford to create, build and support the institutions they require.

Orthodox synagogues must be within walking distance; the neighborhood must be symbolically -- yet almost invisibly -- enclosed to make public space private space, so as to enable mothers with young children to walk their baby strollers to synagogue and to the park and to permit all others to carry on the Sabbath, something permitted only in private space.

Kosher butcher shops, bakeries and restaurants are required, and most importantly, schools in which the young can be educated according to religious tradition. Close to downtown, close to Century City, even to Hollywood and Burbank, Hancock Park is an ideal place to live.

And Orthodox Jews in 21st century America feel comfortable enough to discard the rule of emancipated Jews in Europe that even held true in 20th century America. When I was raised as an Orthodox Jew in the 1960s, we were taught that a yarmulke was an indoor garment. We wore then fashionable hats and learned to be not too conspicuous, too Jewish. Jews are now free to be visibly Jewish not only in the privacy of their homes but in public. Even many assimilated Jews proudly wear a Jewish star.

As they move into a neighborhood, Orthodox Jews come not only as individuals but as a community.

Neighbors find themselves in an uncomfortable position; they can't complain that new arrivals are ruining housing prices, because housing values actually increase once an Orthodox community is established, as other Orthodox Jews want to move in. Orthodox Jews maintain their homes precisely as their neighbors do. Violent crimes decrease, and neighborhoods are safer. Orthodox Jews walk the streets morning and night.

They can carp that there are so many of them; that they look differently, act differently, but that doesn't sound quite right in the live-and-let-live atmosphere of the City of Angels. Some dress differently: yarmulkes are visible, so too are fringes worn on four-cornered garments, and they may have payot (earlocks) and beards. Some will even walk in the street and not on the sidewalk to avoid triggering electronic sensors on Sabbath and festivals.

Quaintness is valued elsewhere. It is lovely to visit the Amish country, but one wouldn't really want to live there nor have them live here.

Neighbors can't necessarily beat them in court -- at least not without quite a fight. Many a talented lawyer is an Orthodox Jew. Politicians are sensitive to any constituency that can vote as a block, most especially in local elections, where local issues predominate.

Sometimes that leads to misplaced accommodation. Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge appropriately objected to filming on the High Holidays, but he was too smart by a half. He got his dates wrong and banned neighborhood filming on the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days that were not sacred.

They also can't out organize them, for the community Orthodox Jews have built is most organized, and Orthodox Jews feel that they are fighting for their community,

There are only two ways to fight the entry of ultra-Orthodox Jews into one's neighborhood. Prohibit the introduction of an eruv, the symbolic enclosure of a neighborhood that permits religious Jews to carry on Sabbath. But it is too late in Los Angeles. The other way is to rigidly enforce zoning regulations that have historically been used to protect the character of a neighborhood.

In Hancock Park, private residences in certain areas may not be converted into synagogues. The synagogue life of the religious Jew is active. Services are held morning and evening; study and lectures may go late into the night. While in theory, pious as they are, everyone is dutifully inside; in practice, some will grow tired of the long services or of the discipline of study and prefer to congregate outside, where they can shmooze.

Twice a year, on Purim and Simchat Torah, the service itself is boisterous, as are weddings and bar mitzvah parties. This can be intrusive to neighbors.

So accommodation is required. In an open society, people have the right to be what they are, to purchase homes they can pay for where they want them and to shape the type of community they want to live in.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews must be sensitive to their neighbors. Judaism teaches that accommodation must be found "mipnei darkei shalom," for the sake of community harmony. And tradition requires that once all the appeals are heard, the law be obeyed.

"The law of the land is the law," admonish the sages. Confidence in the strength of one's community and the divinely sanctioned integrity of one's position can often border on arrogance. And neighbors, even Jewish neighbors -- or more accurately especially Jewish neighbors -- must overcome a fear of the other.

In the Crown Heights area of New York, after the riots and the violence of the early 1990s, Chasidic Jews and Caribbean-born blacks got to talking and working it out. They reached accommodation. They live in proximity with each other, even if not quite together.

The situation in Hancock Park is much easier. There are no economic gaps, but there are daunting cultural and religious differences, even among Jews. Government officials can assist by not acting foolishly. They would have known enough not to attempt to break up a Christmas Eve Mass in a makeshift church. Jews could have made them aware of their special needs for Yom Kippur, just as in other city neighborhoods, police are aware of special security and parking needs on the Holy Days.

Living together requires that we work together at it. The alternative is clearly visible in Iraq day-by-day.



Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.

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