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Jewish Journal

Neighbors Renew Etz Chaim Fight

by Julie G Fax

May 20, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Despite continuing legal challenges, members of Etz Chaim this month prayed for the first few Shabbats in their new home, a house converted for use as a shul on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street in Hancock Park.

For the last eight years the house has been at the center of lawsuits between the congregation, a group of neighbors and the City of Los Angeles, as well as activity in the Los Angeles City Council.

In contrast to the in-your-face determination of the past few years, congregants and their leader, Rabbi Chaim Rubin, moved into the newly renovated 8,000-square-foot house with little fanfare.

"We just want to be left in peace to daven," Rubin said, refusing to comment further.

This is a change for Rubin, who in the past has been outspoken about what he believes is outright anti-Semitism on the part of neighbors who want to keep the growing Orthodox community in the area at bay.

The 50-member congregation raised the ire of some in the neighborhood in 1995 when it sought to move services, which had been held for 30 years in Rubin's home, to a house on the corner of the busy Hancock Park intersection.

Neighbors claimed they simply wanted to follow the existing zoning laws intended to retain the residential quality of the upscale neighborhood.

"I think the neighbors are intent on getting justice, and they are a very good group of people, and it is my hope that they will be able to prevail in what has been a very unfair situation," said Marci Hamilton, co-counsel for the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations (LRNA), which formed in large part to challenge Etz Chaim.

In the latest development, LRNA last week amended and refiled a previously dismissed complaint against both the congregation and the city. While the heart of the complaint, which originated in July 2003, remains the same -- that the permit allowing the congregation to use the building is illegal -- some of the legal theories and arguments behind that conclusion have changed.

Susan Azad, counsel for the congregation, is confident the judge will again dismiss the complaint.

Hamilton hopes to eventually appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court and then to bring this case all the way up to United States Supreme Court, since it relies on a relatively new law that she believes is unconstitutional.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000, allows religious institutions to override local zoning laws, and there are several cases across the country challenging its constitutionality.

"The heart of the lawsuit rests on the same reasoning -- and that is that it is unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair to create two class of landowners -- the landowners that must obey the law and the religious landowners who can get around the law," asserted Hamilton, who has argued similar cases before the Supreme Court.

RLUIPA came into the picture just in time to save the congregation, which had lost appeal after appeal of a suit it brought against the city in 1996, alleging that the city was violating the religious freedom of the congregation by preventing it from praying in the house.

With RLUIPA bolstering Etz Chaim's case, in February 2002 then-city attorney James K. Hahn entered into a settlement agreement with the shul, allowing limited use of the 3,600-square-foot building at 303 S. Highland, with some renovations.

Soon after, the congregation razed the building and built an angular 8,100-square-foot house with a living room that serves a sanctuary and mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement. Some neighbors feel the house doesn't fit in with area's Tudor and Mediterranean Revival mansions and that security cameras and increased foot traffic invades their privacy.

During the renovations the city asked the judge for a stop-work order, contending the renovations violated the settlement agreement. That request was denied and the city appealed that decision in August 2003; it is now awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, Fourth District Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, in whose district the house resides, brought a motion in January of this year asking the L.A. City Council to follow through on an earlier commitment to challenge the constitutionality of RLUIPA when cases arose. In one case the city filed against the Missionaries of Charities Brothers, a Catholic nonprofit that is using a house in the Pico-Union area as a homeless shelter, the judge found RLUIPA unconstitutional. That decision is expected to be appealed as well.

LaBonge asked the City Council to request a report on the Etz Chaim case from the city attorney, including suggestions about how to pursue challenging RLUIPA through the Etz Chaim case.

He also asked that the city retain outside council to adjudicate the case.

The request for outside council was defeated, with the help of Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss, whose jurisdiction begins just across the street from the synagogue.

The activity in City Council delayed the congregation from moving into the building until just a few weeks ago, but in mid-January the congregation held a parade through the streets of Hancock Park with musical accompaniment on a flatbed truck to bring a new Torah scroll to the shul. The Torah was dedicated on the occasion of the bar mitzvah of Rubin's son, who has Down syndrome.

During the procession, angry neighbors came to take pictures and videos, as they had at the bar mitzvah the day before, in what members feel was an attempt to antagonize them.

"It was the most incredible feeling, to go into a private residence to give respect to the incredible achievement of this child and to be intimidated," said Michael Rosenberg, a member of the congregation and president of the Hancock Park Residents Association.

"Are we back in Europe in the 1930s? I guess hatred is just hatred."

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