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For an 10/4/2007 update to this story, click here.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 Orthodox worshippers at Yeshivas Yavneh last Friday, when shortly after 8 p.m. two inspectors from the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety walked into the lobby. One inspector told a startled congregant that the service had run past the 8 p.m. closing time and that therefore the premises had to be vacated immediately.
After the congregant told the inspectors that they would have to remove the worshippers by force, one by one, the city officials left after 15 minutes and the service continued at the 5353 W. 3rd St. facility.
As word of the strange incident spread through the closely knit Orthodox community in Hancock Park, tempers and outrage rose.
The yeshivaworld.com Web site declared that the incident was "reminiscent of the cowardly sneak attack on Israel during the Yom Kippur War," and quoted one woman worshipper, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor, "I was frightened. I started crying. I don't want to go to jail. I want to pray."
By Sunday evening, top aides to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Tom LaBonge, joined by Councilman Jack Weiss, met with Orthodox community rabbis and officials of the offending department in City Hall for some hasty damage control.
On Monday evening, the mayor and two councilmen released a statement condemning the "outrageous intrusion" on erev Yom Kippur, "which caused great pain and anguish."
The three political leaders promised a full investigation and initiated a cultural sensitivity training program for Department of Building and Safety employees.
"We are committed to making sure that an incident like this never repeats itself," the statement concluded.
The roots of the potentially explosive incident lie in a bitter eight-year-old feud in the Hancock Park neighborhood, an upscale enclave of stately homes.
Once populated by WASPs, Hancock Park later became home to many Jewish secular, Reform and Conservative Jews. About a decade ago, a considerable number of strictly Orthodox families started to move in and now make up about 20 percent of the homeowners.
In 1999, the Orthodox community purchased a Tudor estate in a residential area and established the Yavneh Hebrew Academy for some 400 students, from preschool through eighth grade.
As part of the religious curriculum, Yavneh provided for prayer services during the week, and for Shabbat and holiday services for students and their families on the premises through Kehillah Yeshivas Yavneh.
Many longtime residents, including Jewish families, resented the intrusion and feared that the prayer services would expand into a full-fledged congregation. After considerable acrimony, Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association agreed on a municipal conditional use permit.
One stipulation in the permit limited Friday activities, including religious services, to between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.
However, some of the school's neighbors were not mollified, and according to city officials, one neighbor, a persistent opponent whom officials would not identify, called the municipal complaint line a week before Yom Kippur.
The caller notified the city that on the eve of Yom Kippur the stipulated 8 p.m. closing time for services would likely be violated.
The complaint was handled at the lower levels of the building and safety department as a routine matter, according to spokesman David Keim, with the result that the two inspectors showed up during the Kol Nidrei service.
Was the incident an unfortunate bureaucratic foul-up or a malicious anti-Semitic act?
Korobkin labeled the incident "a religious sting operation" but declined to speculate on the motives.
Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kolodny, who is not connected with Yavneh, had no doubts.
"Can you imagine something like this happening at a church on Christmas Eve or a mosque at Ramadan?" he asked. "This incident goes way beyond a zoning dispute, this is anti-Semitism, this is hitting below the belt."
Weiss is also a skeptic.
"I am not saying this is necessarily anti-Semitism, but a city department made the intentional decision that the holiest day in the Jewish calendar would be the best time to catch worshippers in a minute violation," he said.
Jolene Snet, a Jewish neighbor of the school and long active in the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, was not aware of the Friday incident and labeled it unfortunate.
However, she said, "I believe as a citizen that Yavneh should comply fully with the terms of the conditional use permit."
For previous coverage on the Yavneh/Hancock Park zoning issues, click here.
Amy Klein explored the differences between the Orthodox neighborhoods of Hancock Park ("black hat") and Pico-Robertson ("Modern Orthodox") here.