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Cross Roads

Amid bustling cafés, artsy antique shops and tattoo parlors, religious life thrives in Hancock Park.

by Julie G Fax

July 5, 2001 | 8:00 pm

It's noon on Thursday, and already

Rabbi Gershon and Carol Bess' house smells like Shabbos.

The rose plush carpets and floral couch in the living room are cozy and inviting. Wedding pictures of some of the Bess' nine children are perched on the edges of the wall-to-wall bookshelves, obscuring some of the gold lettering on the hundreds of navy, maroon and brown sefarim [Jewish texts].

It's hard to believe that just three blocks away is Melrose Avenue, historic home to punk rockers, New Wavers, body-piercing salons and tattoo parlors.

"Melrose defines that L.A. means 'I can do anything. I don't have any social restrictions, civil restrictions -- if I'm not breaking the law, I can do whatever I want,'" Bess says. "Obviously, that is very contra to what an Orthodox life is, which is based on a belief that there is a Hashem who provides us with a discipline that will give us a wholesome and satisfying life."

Rabbi Bess is one of most respected poskim, [halachic-decision-makers] in the city. And while he doesn't take off his black hat when we sit down, his demeanor is warm and open as he talks about his adopted neighborhood.

Bess lives just off Beverly Boulevard, about halfway between Fairfax and La Brea avenues in one of the most active and vital Orthodox neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

The Beverly-La Brea/Hancock Park area has been a Jewish neighborhood for more than half a century, but its Jewish community and the general character of its streets have changed considerably in the 26 years since the Besses moved here from Lakewood, N.J.

Once a nondescript stretch of offices, small storefronts, drugstores and restaurants, Beverly Boulevard and La Brea now constitute two of the chicest drags in the city. The tree-lined streets are home to trendy outdoor cafés, artsy antique shops, and stores selling retro-furniture, vintage clothing or high-end apparel.

At the same time, the traditional Jewish community of the '50s and '60s that evolved into a Modern Orthodox center now has a decidedly more conservative flavor. While the Modern Orthodox community still thrives -- and is even staging something of a resurgence -- the greatest mark has been made by the religiously right-wing end of the Orthodox spectrum, the community that some refer to as Charedi [one who trembles before God].

"When we came here, the pre-first [grade] class at Toras Emes -- with mixed boys and girls -- had maybe seven or eight kids. There were 126 kids in the whole school," Bess recalls. Today, the Orthodox elementary and middle school have more than 1,000 children in buildings that are quickly becoming too small.

On Oakwood and La Brea avenues, where one can catch a minyan almost any time of the day or night, there are dozens of bakeries, restaurants and kosher shops, and countless shtibels [small Chasidic synagogues] and large shuls, such as Bais Yehuda.

"If you go to the corner of Beverly and La Brea, and go out to about a seven-block radius, there are 25 buildings of Orthodox Jewish institutions. We're very invested in the neighborhood," says Dr. Irving Lebovics, a lay leader of Agudath Israel in Los Angeles, an Orthodox umbrella organization.

Shabbat afternoon usually finds the streets thick with families out visiting or going for walks, and residents posit that Torah study opportunities are more concentrated in this neighborhood than anywhere else in town -- from the many shiurim [classes] given at the Los Angeles Kollel, at the Jewish Learning Exchange, at local shuls or by Shira Smiles, a teacher who attracts women by the hundreds to her Bible-study programs.

"When we moved here, the rabbis told my husband that the center of learning was on this side of town, so for my husband to be involved in the learning community, we should live here -- and we have found it to be so," says one young mother who recently moved here from New York.

For the most part, the shuls and kosher bagel shops exist in a parallel, if not interactive, harmony with yuppie magnets like Lulu's Café, Red or The Living Room.

Increased foot traffic has been good for all businesses in the area, and one rabbi pointed out he feels safer walking home late on a Friday night when there are people lined up to get into the cafés. Still, the cultures along La Brea sometimes don't blend, but clash. Community members, for instance, have worked to block restaurants that are near schools from getting liquor licenses.

Living in a nerve center of trendy Los Angeles culture also poses challenges to a community that lives with a strict moral code.

The community builds its close relationship to God and to the Jewish people through strict adherence to halacha, Jewish law. Families do what they can to shelter their children from the pervasive cultural onslaught of materialism and sexual permissiveness. In most homes, there is no television, and use of the Internet is severely limited.

Studying Torah is of the highest priority, and non-Torah-oriented activities are considered bitul zman [a waste of time]. The neighborhood is proud of its long roster of charity projects, providing everything from food to health services to wedding funds.

In the traditionally observant community, sexuality, governed by Torah law, is kept sacred through privacy, with any sexual references or innuendoes having no place outside the bedroom of a married couple.

"We're interested in promoting traditional, conservative, sound and durable values, and I'm not comfortable with the fact that we are being bombarded from the outside," says Rabbi Baruch Yehudah Gradon, an adult educator who works for the Los Angeles Kollel, which pays a living-wage fellowship to men who study Talmud full-time. "We have to try to galvanize our forces to see if we can make some sort of impression so we can protect our children from this overexposure."

One such issue community leaders have worked on -- sometimes successfully -- with city officials and billboard companies is removing offensive advertisements from the neighborhood.

Lebovics says, "There was a condom ad on a billboard on top of the Kollel last year. This is a public-service announcement, and we understand that, but in our community its difficult to explain to children what this is all about."

If the billboards threaten some community members in a spiritual sense, an even greater physical threat has a wider swath of the community concerned.

The southern edge of the community on Third Street, close to Fairfax, is in the middle of a major development area, with the Farmer's Market's Grove adding dozens of new retail shops. Just across Third Street, the La Brea Park neighborhood of condos and apartments is adding 3,000 units. This expansion, added to congestion already created by the Beverly Center and Beverly Connection, means that traffic and parking in the area should go from bad to horrendous.

"Now, when I have to travel to Pico-Robertson, there are certain hours I avoid at all costs," says Rabbi Yehoshua Berkowitz, leader of Shaarei Tefila, the area's largest Modern Orthodox synagogue. "With this additional traffic, someone has to be making sure this is not going to choke us."

Lebovics, who is active in such civic affairs, agrees, and says community members are maneuvering to get the representation on the neighborhood councils that the new City Charter calls for.

Lebovics hopes this will give the community more clout with zoning issues that have plagued institutions trying to get construction or expansion permits.

Strict building and zoning codes limit how buildings can be used and how big they can get. One major problem is parking. When a shul tries to expand, it is required to have accompanying parking spaces, despite the fact that in an observant synagogue's peak days -- Shabbat and holidays -- everyone walks.

"There ought be some room for religious observance, and some ability to allow us to accommodate our growing community," says Jack Mayesh, a longtime resident and leader of Torah Ohr, a large Sephardic congregation.

On top of the zoning issues, the neighborhood's appeal -- with its Jewish institutions, its fashionable character and its proximity to the Westside, downtown and freeways -- has meant that housing prices in the area continue to rise, from the multimillion-dollar mansions in Hancock Park to the upscale villas and duplexes west of Highland, to more modest apartments and duplexes closer to Fairfax.

The tight real estate market is making it difficult for young families to get started, or for impoverished families to make it at all.

Despite the obstacles, growth seems inevitable.

Although most of that growth has been in the Charedi community, Berkowitz of Shaarei Tefila says the centrist segment is hardly languishing. He says the ideology of Torah u'madah [living a Torah lifestyle while appreciating secular knowledge], along with religious Zionism, is alive and well.

"Rumors of the death of the Modern Orthodox community in Hancock Park have been slightly exaggerated," says Berkowitz, paraphrasing Mark Twain. "In terms of Shaarei Tefila, despite rumors to the contrary, we have maintained our membership and grown in membership over the last five years."

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who this year became a key figure at Yeshivat and Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, acknowledges there is work to be done to dispel misconceptions.

"The first place people look is Beverlywood, then they look in the Valley; and, usually, Beverly-Fairfax/Hancock Park is not as much of a consideration for Modern Orthodox home buyers," Korobkin says.

Kehillat Yavneh is doing what it can to change that. The school will soon be offering 0 percent loans of up to $35,000 for down payment on a house, payable upon sale of the house.

Yavneh, which has been in the area since the late 1940s, has in the last five years undergone a very conscious transformation, beginning with the purchase of the Whittier Law School building on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue, in the heart of Hancock Park.

Before moving in, Yavneh refurbished the building and constructed hi-tech, state-of-the-art classrooms and recreational facilities. It also geared up its secular and Judaic academics, and made a big PR push for the school.

"Once we were able to purchase the Whittier Law School, there was a realization that this campus can do so much more than be a school," Korobkin says. "We wanted to make a more family-life campus than merely an elementary school, because the best way to educate a child really is to involve the entire family, which means we have to be offering to families both adult education and religious services," he says.

Korobkin now leads a Shabbat minyan for Yavneh families, and a growing adult-education program for men and women.

David Rubin, Yavneh's president, feels that Yavneh has been successful in attracting families from Beverlywood and the Valley, as well as the immediate area, because its approach and philosophy set it apart from other Modern Orthodox communities.

"I think the Modern Orthodox community in Hancock Park today has shifted to the right, much more so than the Beverlywood community," says Rubin, who has lived in the area for 16 years. "It's shifted in terms of religious observance and practice, and in terms of intellectual needs and stimulation."

Rubin says the area is unusual in that it is multigenerational, a rarity in Los Angeles, which is full of Jewish transplants. And, he says, nowhere else in the city do various segments of the Orthodox community get along so well and live in such close quarters.

For example, Torah Ohr, the neighborhood's largest Sephardic congregation, hosts a monthly gathering that attracts 300 to 400 women from across the spectrum, to say Psalms and pray together. The congregation, composed of Moroccan, Turkish, Iraqi, Persian, Syrian and Israeli Jews, often hosts communitywide lectures with Ashkenazi scholars.

"The interaction with the overall community has been immense," says Mayesh, who lauds the atmosphere of mutual respect.

Recently, several Chasidic communities opened up the Chasidische Kollel that is laying the foundation for the growing presence of the Brestlaver, Gerer and other Chasidic clans, in addition to the already strong Lubavitch presence. The Chasidim recently opened a cheder [an Old-Country-style elementary school], where Talmud and Torah are taught rigorously to boys.

To Gradon, all this is a sign that the community has established an important balance. "The community is not that large that people get lost, and not that small that you can't find your own little niche," he says.

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