Amid the kosher restaraunts, Judaica stores and storefront synagogues on a particular stretch of Pico Boulevard, a littleÂ piece of Brooklyn has just been built.
OK, the new three-story, 47,000-square-foot brown-brick building is hardly little, but it is straight out of 770 Eastern Parkway, the Crown Heights address that houses the central Chabad center and the headquarters of their former spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, otherwise known as "the Rebbe."
After nearly 10 years, $10 million and lengthy negotiations with the city council and Pico neighbors, West Coast Chabad Lubavitch last Sunday inaugurated their new girls elementary school, Bais Chaya Mushka, named after the rebbe's wife, and renamed the street -- located between Doheny and Wetherly -- "Schneerson Square."
The March 28 dedication -- which brought out notables like Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, actor Jon Voight, Mayor James Hahn, City Councilman Jack Weiss, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and state Education Secretary Richard Riordan, as well as greetings from President Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger -- demonstrates the West Coast religious organization's tremendous fundraising powers and their presence in the city. While Chabad has always had a presence in Pico with its girls schools, middle school, high school and synagogues, it never dominated the street in the grandiose fashion it does now.
The 770 replica (this is the seventh, including ones in Melbourne, Australia; Kfar Chabad and Jerusalem, Israel; Buenos Aires, Argentina and Westwood) is a fitting tribute to the rebbe, who sent emissaries all over the world to spread Judaism. One of those young emissaries was Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, who, since his arrival in the Chabad-less West in 1965 has peppered the city with 120 Chabads, and established himself as a figure to be reckoned with.
While the Pico edifice is replicated on old-time Brooklyn, the school is tailored to the modern day. It features 18 bright and airy classrooms equipped with Internet access and Pentium 4 Dell computers, an indoor and outdoor gymnasium with rock-climbing equipment and basketball courts, playgrounds with rubberized floors and the latest in play equipment, a large library and a computer and science laboratory.
The new school bills itself as a community school and is expected to house 330 students. Chabad says that 80 percent of these students will be on a scholarship of some kind.
The new building has been in the planning stage since 2001. When Chabad first proposed it to the City Council, they requested permission to build a four-story, 57-foot building.
But some neighbors were apprehensive about the project. D. Solaiman Tehrani wrote to the city concerned that "the proposed height renders the project out of scale with the surrounding commercial developments and contextually unfit," and that the pick-ups and drops-offs and playground area of the school itself would generate neighborhood noise and block driveways. At a hearing in March 2001, neighbors voiced concerns about the shadow the building would create, the noise level and the blocked driveways, double parking and honking that pick-ups and drop-offs would generate.
While there were 13 letters and one form petition of 44 signatures submitted in opposition to the project, there were two petitions and 34 letters with a total of 809 signatures submitted to the city in support of the project.
The Department of Building and Safety denied the variance to build the four-story building, but it did allow Chabad variances to the building code to build a smaller building as long as it adhered to certain regulations: The building needed to be built in an O- or U-shaped structure with an interior courtyard that would buffer the noise from the playground. The school was also required to appoint a traffic coordinator to organize carpools so that the school could achieve an average vehicle ridership of three persons per vehicle, and to ensure that all pick-ups and drop-offs would happen on site, with no vehicles entering the alley. The school was also not permitted to hold functions like bar mitzvahs or weddings on its premises; to that end they did not install a commercial kitchen.
"It was a challenge, not a struggle, to get all the ordinances [approved]," said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of public relations for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.
Once the building was underway, Chabad had a basis to spearhead their other project: getting the city to officially recognize Schneerson, a project that was stymied by previous City Councils.
Weiss and his staff spearheaded the legislation to rename the area. They first checked to make sure that city had named streets after religious leaders, so that Schneerson Square would not be an anomaly, and found streets named after bishops, like St. Andrews Place. Using those streets as precedents, the city dedicated the block to Schneerson in honor of his devotion to community, education and philanthropy.
At last week's dedication, Weiss told the crowd that at the groundbreaking two years before he had said, "Welcome to 770 Pico Boulevard."
"But then I checked the numbers and I found out that 770 Pico was around the Staples Center," Weiss said, noting that renumbering the street was out. "We are standing at the intersection of Wetherly and Pico -- but I say we are also standing at the intersection of victory and Chabad."
For more information about Bais Chaya Mushka or other Chabad projects, call (310) 208-7511. Â