Three little words.
That's what makes the difference between a religious school and a synagogue, as recently defined by the Los Angeles Central Area Planning Commission.
The five-member Planning Commission, responsible for zoning decisions in Hollywood, Hancock Park and other neighborhoods, made its decision Aug. 28 in a hearing regarding Yavneh Hebrew Academy.
In April, Yavneh had submitted an application for a number of changes to the K-8 school's zoning conditions, including adding a ninth grade for girls and allowing prayer services Saturday mornings. In June, after consulting with nearby residents, traffic consultants and architects, Associate Zoning Administrator Dan Green approved all but one of Yavneh's proposed changes. The request "to authorize Saturday prayer for students, parents, relatives and other guests" was denied.
"I have no objection to immediate families...[but] 'and other guests' means open to the general public," Green told the Planning Commission. "The school requested changes not necessary for the educational instruction, making it more like a synagogue."
Allowing the public to worship at the school, he said, would require a separate application, though with a religious institution like Yavneh, "it's probably a fair assertion that there's some gray area here," he said.
Religious institutions often run into problems when they seek to offer prayer services to the public. In Yavneh's own Hancock Park neighborhood, the tiny Congregation Etz Chaim, a shteibel, has fought for years for the right to offer services in a single-family home purchased for that purpose.
But the solution for Yavneh has been easier. Since the June denial of the request for Saturday services, Yavneh eliminated the three words, "and other guests," from its application for the appeal. Proponents of the school's request argued that, as a religious Jewish school, prayer is a regular part of the curriculum, and prayer on Saturday is an extension of the curriculum, rather than the legally different "additional use."
"It is ironic that we begin our day each weekday with prayer, but on Saturday, the Sabbath ... we are not allowed to hold prayer," Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster at Yavneh said.
Neighbors' concerns focused largely on additional noise and traffic that might be caused by services. These issues were adequately addressed by the school, since no one attending a service at Yavneh would drive on Shabbat.
Hancock Park resident Ed Kazir, speaking in opposition to the request, told the Planning Commission that with "seemingly innocuous words, Yavneh has sought to convert the school into a school and synagogue."
But James Wolf, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners' Association, later emphasized, "This is a land use issue, not a neighbors issue." The Homeowners' Association supported the school's request for religious services on Saturdays, once the "other guests" phrase was removed from the request.
Following the hearing of neighbor's concerns, Planning Commission vice president George Luk made a motion that Yavneh's revised application be accepted. The motion passed.
B.J. Kirwan, a lawyer from the firm of Latham & Watkins, representing the Yavneh, succinctly explained the situation: "Yavneh's original request was to include invited guests. The neighborhood thought that sounded like opening a synagogue. So Yavneh scaled back its request to only Saturday morning services for family. As a school, it is important to meet the neighborhood at least halfway."