One late afternoon in October 1978, Hertzel Illulian, a Chabad student from Brooklyn, was silently praying mincha outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran. He took three steps back after reciting the Amidah, the service's central prayer, and found himself surrounded by a wall of men, secret police dressed in street clothes.
They threatened to cart him off to jail, eventually dismissing him and taking a local Iranian Jew instead.
This was a period of massive unrest in Iran, as pro-Ayatollah Khomeini supporters engaged in often violent street demonstrations against the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had imposed martial law and whose tanks and troops patrolled the streets. But Illulian, then 19, didn't feel scared.
"I was courageous," he said. "I had the purpose to save Jewish children."
He was an official Chabad student shaliach, or emissary, working on behalf of the Brooklyn-based National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, and armed with the coveted blessing of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn. This was the beginning of his now-legendary mission to help transport about 3,000 young Jewish Persians, most ranging in age from 12 to 19, using I-20 student visas, from an increasingly dangerous Iran to safety in the United States.
Today, Illulian, a rabbi active in the Los Angeles Persian community, finds himself embroiled in a different kind of revolt. It's taking place in the normally laid-back city of Santa Monica. And while the two factions aren't lobbing Molotov cocktails or overturning and burning cars, emotions are running at a fever pitch, and angry accusations are being vehemently fired off in both directions.
On one side are the residents and supporters of the Teriton, a 28-unit, three-story garden apartment building designed by architect Sanford Kent in 1949, which sits on almost an acre at 130-142 San Vicente Blvd. It is around the corner from Ocean Avenue, across the street from Palisades Park and the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Built in the midcentury Modern Vernacular style, with a flat roof and smooth stucco exterior, it actually consists of two low-rise buildings surrounding an L-shaped landscaped courtyard. It was sold for an estimated $10.5 million last April.
On the other side is Or Khaim Hashalom, a nonprofit religious organization, whose name means Living Light of Peace, and which was incorporated last January. It allegedly purchased the building.
The members want to evict the existing tenants, tear down the building and replace it with 40 units, plus a synagogue and possibly a day care facility for refugees from the Middle East, according to real estate and land-use attorney Rosario Perry, the group's spokesperson and lawyer. Illulian identifies as the organization's spiritual leader.
In this current confrontation, as opposed to the life-threatening danger he experienced in Tehran over 30 years ago, Illulian appears less confident. "I didn't know it was going to be such a thing," he said.
On its face, this "thing" -- first brought to light in a series of stories on The Rip Post, a blog and Web site written by veteran Los Angeles journalist Rip Rense -- is a typical battle between developers and tenants, between advocates of free enterprise vs. supporters of slow or no growth.
But ever since a "notice for pending demolition permit" sign was posted without prior warning on the Teriton's lawn on Nov. 10, 2005, both sides have mobilized forces and escalated the battle, invoking what many say are self-serving interpretations of city and state laws. The demolition sign was posted in November at the time of a sale that ultimately fell through.
Particularly perplexing is the role of Illulian. He is a rabbi so observant that he doesn't eat or drink anything outside a kosher sukkah during the entire eight-day harvest festival. He is a rabbi so revered that Iranians he rescued in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Los Angeles attorney Philip Nassimi Alexander, utter accolades like, "He's a great man, a truly great man."
Yet as the rabbi of Or Khaim Hashalom, his new nonprofit organization, he is so vague and seemingly dismissive of what should be an exciting and worthwhile venture, that many people suspect its true mission may be less than magnanimous.
Here's what's happening (See timeline below for specific dates):
The tenants and their supporters are claiming that the Teriton is eligible to be designated a Santa Monica city landmark. If this occurs, residents such as 85-year-old Kit Snedaker, a former food and travel editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, who is retired and living on a fixed income and selling items on eBay to make ends meet, could remain in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her cocker spaniel, Joe. So could Louis Scaduto, an architect who spent five years on a waiting list before he moved into the Teriton in 1997. Nathalie Zeidman, 91 and suffering from cancer, could also stay, as well as about 50 others, young and old, retired and working, some paying current market rates, others living in lower-cost rent-controlled apartments.
Building Battle Timeline
Nov. 10, 2005
"Notice for pending demolition permit" is posted on the Teriton's lawn. K. Golshani and Asan Development are listed as the applicants. Because a building older than 40 years old is slated for demolition, it is automatically placed on the next city of Santa Monica Landmarks Commission meeting agenda.
Nov. 14, 2005
The Landmarks Commission, in its monthly meeting, reviews the Teriton's eligibility. Chair Roger Genser requests the item be returned with more information. The demolition permit is subsequently withdrawn.
Jan. 30, 2006
Or Khaim Hashalom files with the California Secretary of State's office as a religious nonprofit corporation.
Tenants receive notice that Or Khaim Hashalom has purchased the Teriton and that rent checks should be made payable to Pacific Paradise Realty, the new management company. Kathy Golshani is listed as the contact.
Landmarks Commission places Teriton on its July 10 meeting agenda.
July 7, 2006
Rosario Perry, attorney representing Or Khaim Hashalom, sends a letter to the Santa Monica city attorney declaring that under state law, Government Code Sections 37361 and 25373, the Teriton cannot be designated a landmark because it is owned by a religious nonprofit.
July 10, 2006
Representatives of both sides speak at the Landmarks Commission meeting. Barry Rosenbaum, senior land-use attorney for Santa Monica, points out that Or Khaim Hashalom has not yet held a mandated public forum but that the City Attorney's Office will examine the statutes. Meanwhile, Landmarks Commissioners approve a motion to obtain more information on the Teriton property.
Aug. 11, 2006
Or Khaim Hashalom holds a public forum at the Gateway Hotel in Santa Monica to explain why the Teriton is exempt from landmark designation and to allow the public to respond.
Sept. 11, 2006
The Landmarks Commission unanimously votes to nominate the Teriton for landmark designation, pending further study. Perry announces that if the Teriton is approved as a landmark, he will file a lawsuit on behalf of his client.
Nov. 13, 2006
Landmarks Commission, on the basis of a more detailed historical assessment, as well as a recommendation from the Santa Monica Planning Division staff, will make a decision regarding the Teriton.
Landmark or Historic District Designation Criteria:
California Code Section 37361(c):
An impartial preliminary historical assessment, prepared by an outside consultant selected by the city and presented at a Sept. 11 Landmarks Commission meeting, states: "Nonetheless, because of its lack of individual historical and architectural merit, the property does not appear eligible for local landmark designation and, therefore, no further investigation into its historical and/or architectural significance is warranted nor recommended at this time."
Despite that, the Landmarks Commission nominated the Teriton for landmark status, pending a more detailed report, as well as a recommendation from the city Planning Department. Commission chair Roger Genser defended the decision, noting that the commission also relied on a 1983 report by noted architectural historian Paul Gleye, which points to the Teriton's significance as part of the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment Historical District.
Concurrently, Or Khaim Hashalom, through lawyer Perry, is claiming that the Teriton is exempt from landmark designation under California law, because it is owned by a nonprofit religious entity. The statute (Government Code Section 37361(c)), which allows religious organizations to alter or destroy historic buildings, was passed in 1994 in response to a decision by the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco to close nine parish churches that had been damaged in an earthquake. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2001. The law has been used only once previously in Santa Monica, on behalf of the First Church of Christ Scientist, a pre-existing religious establishment, at Fifth and Arizona streets.
In a mandatory public hearing Aug. 11, Or Khaim Hashalom laid out its case. Perry, flanked by what he introduced as the organization's executive committee -- Illulian, another bearded rabbi in full Chasidic garb and five other kippah-wearing men -- claimed economic hardship and an inability to pursue the nonprofit's religious mission if the Teriton isn't demolished and a larger building constructed.
Perry told the residents in attendance, "You are giving up your homes so people can come here, but we feel that you are more able to re-adjust to new housing than refugees from the Middle East."
He entertained inquiries and comments from the audience. However, in response to specific questions about Or Khaim Hashalom, including its history, purpose and standing as an actual synagogue, Perry answered, "We are not here to answer questions about our organization."
That's the frustration. No one connected with Or Khaim Hashalom is forthcoming, and no factual and consistent information about the organization is available.
Various legal documents list three different addresses for Or Khaim Hashalom: Perry's office, Illulian's office and a lighting company on Jefferson Boulevard. On one deed of trust, Perry is listed as both the president and the secretary. On another, Rouhollah Esmailzadeh, the owner of the lighting company, signed as president. Illulian himself, after some hesitation, said he thought Or Khaim Hashalom's president was "A.J.," referring to Esmailzadeh's son. He added, "I don't know the technicalities. You have to ask Rosario [Perry]."
Many, like Teriton resident Scaduto, believe that Or Khaim Hashalom is "a blatant case of fraud."
Rabbi Illulian's response to this accusation was: "I think it's unfair, just because people want to stay in this building and pay the price they paid 20 years ago. We're doing everything within the system ... legally, with God's help."
Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of Santa Monica Synagogue, who attended the hearing, was affronted by what he saw as a display of black-hatted rabbis paraded out to make a clear business venture look like a pious endeavor.
"Do they think everyone is an idiot?" he asked.
What about the claim of bringing in refugees? Illulian, who was raised in Milan, Italy, by parents born in Tehran, has a bona fide track record in this area. It was his idea to bring almost 3,000 young people out of Iran, working tirelessly from 1978 to about 1982 to accomplish it.
Sholem Hecht, rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation and Center in Queens, N.Y., who accompanied Illulian on his first trip to Tehran and assisted in the rescue, said, "There's no question he played a very special role in the history of Iranian Jews in America."
But in 1982, Illulian moved to Los Angeles, married and changed his focus. He became rabbi of Chabad Persian Synagogue in Westwood. Later, about six or seven years ago, he recollects, he founded and moved to JEM, Jewish Educational Movement, which is located in the former YMCA building Beverly Hills and which hosts a synagogue, as well as sports, educational and arts programs and camp experiences for youngsters. He is currently JEM's rabbi.
Illulian is no longer affiliated with Chabad. According to Rabbi Chaim Cunin of Chabad of California, "He was dismissed some 10 years ago for personal reasons, which were not made public." Cunin refused to elaborate. Illulian said he believes he was not dismissed.
Illulian has eight children ages, 14 to 24, and lives in Beverly Hills.
While he has worked in his family's former furniture business in the past, he says he is a full-time rabbi. Still, he maintains an office in a medical building on Wilshire Boulevard near Crescent Heights Boulevard. Records from the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office show he purchased a commercial office building on Wilshire Boulevard in December 2005 for $4.4 million.
When questioned about his new plan to bring in refugees, Illulian is vague. But according to Rezvan Armian, a social worker at Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles who oversees Iranian immigration, individual people cannot resettle immigrants; it must be done through HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the U.S. Department of State.
"Hertzel Illulian resettle? There is no way," she said.
Illulian, however, claims he is helping small numbers of Jews escape from Iran and has been quietly doing this work since 1982. "I can't say exactly what I'm doing, because I can't endanger the lives of Jews in Iran," he said. So how are these ventures being financed? Who is paying for the claimed refugee rescue work? Who is funding the purchase of the Teriton? How does Or Khaim Hashalom expect to cover demolition and construction costs?
According to Illulian, the backers are supporters of Or Khaim Hashalom who wish to remain anonymous. Because it's a religious nonprofit, the organization does not have to make its financial records public.
The building's seller, Erwin Mieger, president of Teriton Investors LLC, said the buyer of the Teriton was a single individual. He also confirmed that the person who was trying to buy the building in November, when the notice of pending demolition sign was erected and before Or Khaim Hashalom was incorporated, was the same person who purchased it in April.
Dennis Golob, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Mieger's company in the transaction, identified that buyer as Rouhallah Esmailzadeh, listed on one document as Or Khaim Hashalom's president. Golob said he was unaware of the involvement of any religious organization. When told about Or Khaim Hashalom, he replied, "That's really, really interesting."
Or Khaim Hashalom, however, is the name listed as the owner in documents at the Assessor's Office and the Recorder's Office.
A number of roads also lead to a building on Westwood Boulevard. That's the address of Novin Kathy Golshani, a real estate broker and owner of Pacific Paradise Realty, who represented the buyer in the transaction. She also requested the demolition permit, according to Santa Monica records.
Two people listed as local partners on Golshani's Web site are also involved. An attorney at the same address, Douglas Weitzman, also represented the buyer. The name of a contractor, Asan Development, owned by Sasan Samimi, was also listed on the demolition permit request.
"So many buildings are torn down all the time, and there is no noise about it. I don't know why this is such a big deal," said Golshani, whose Web site promises, on its list of 10 commandments of real estate, "We shall walk away from any illegal and unethical transaction."
Ultimately, the Teriton's eligibility for landmark status will be decided by the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission at its Nov. 13 meeting. A determination on whether Or Khaim Hashalom fits the definition of a religious entity and meets the requirements necessary for landmark exemption will be decided separately by the City Attorney's Office.
According to Barry Rosenbaum, city senior land-use attorney, "There are serious unresolved questions of whether the property owner is entitled to the protections of the statute."
As for Illulian, he strongly prefers to focus on his early work in the late 1970s and early 1980s and on the thousands of Persian Jews whom he helped resettle both directly and indirectly and who are now living in Los Angeles. He sees himself as the man behind the extraordinary growth of "Tehrangeles."
Illulian refers to the tumult surrounding the Teriton as "a little thing." He said, "That's not the important part of my life. I'd rather forget about it."
Teriton resident Kit Snedaker, 85, with Cocker Spaniel Joe in her two-bedroom apartment in the Teriton. She has lived there since 1979.