Jewish Journal

Poway resident’s soccer and shul dream hits roadblock

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Jul. 5, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The gate

The gate

As a child in Israel, soccer was Menachem Shoval's religion and Torah was his playbook. Devoutly committed to both, he eventually wanted to own enough land to build his own soccer field and, if possible, a synagogue in the Orthodox fashion of his native Yemen.

He moved to the United States after university, settling in San Diego County, and when he relocated to the northeastern city of Poway in 1999 and found 125 acres in the rural foothills, he felt as he imagined the Israelites did when they finally entered Canaan.

So Shoval, who often goes by Manny, pooled his money, took out loans and stretched his family to the financial and emotional brink, buying the vast property for only $700,000. Living in a home 5 miles away, he waited several years for the land to appreciate so he could sell some acreage to finance the project. He hadn't filed a proposal with City Hall when his informal plans stalled and then flat-out hit a wall, or, more accurately, a mechanical wrought-iron gate.

The gate was erected on the north and south ends of Mina de Oro Road, a little-used passage on the edge of town, in what remains largely undeveloped land between Poway Road and Highway 67. The only alternative path to Shoval's property was a dirt easement that wound through rocks, chaparral and eucalyptus trees.

The gate had been erected by neighbors who said they wanted to keep outsiders out, and the city approved their request in March 2005. Afraid the council's action could permanently derail his development dream, Shoval fervently opposed the decision. Mina de Oro was a public road, he argued, and Poway was allowing a few seemingly influential residents to privatize it. He was initially given the gate code, which allowed him to still visit his vacant property every evening for mincha, but then the code was changed and Shoval was shut out.

Lawsuits and countersuits followed. Rancor and allegations of anti-Semitism, too. Two years later, the gate has been removed and Shoval is fighting to recover $300,000 in attorney fees. His dream is no closer to realization.

"I 100 percent believe that when I die, if I do not do this soccer and synagogue, especially the synagogue, that I will go up and meet with God, and he will say, 'Well, I gave you all of this. What did you do with it?'" said Shoval, 65, a retired accountant. "I do not hear the voice of God saying, 'Do this, do that.' It is something inside of me that is restless that says I have do this."

Mina de Oro was originally an Old West route, and in many ways, it represents the historical spirit of Poway. A place in the 1700s where San Diego Mission padres herded cattle, the community formed around farming. Population remained low until water was piped in during the late 1950s, paving the way for the first home subdivision. After incorporating in 1980, Poway adopted the slogan "the city in the country."

Twenty-two freeway miles from downtown San Diego and light-years from urbanity, Poway historically didn't draw many Jews. But in recent decades it and neighboring Rancho Bernando -- both affluent suburbs -- developed excellent school districts, attracting several hundred, maybe 1,000, active Jewish families. Three Poway synagogues represent each of the major denominations, hoping to nurture a Jewish environment and provide cultural and recreational programs comparable to those offered by the nearest Jewish community center, 20 miles away in La Jolla.

Anti-Semitism has generally been a non-issue in Poway, except, many locals will tell you, for that incident nine years ago. That was when a white supremacist tagged Temple Adat Shalom with statements like "Get Out!" and "Back to Israel." The community rallied behind Adat Shalom, and a number of churches got together and created a quilt that said "Not In Our Town," which still hangs in the synagogue.

"No matter where Jews are, on some level if they are not living in Israel, they feel different for being Jewish," said Rabbi Tamar Malino of the Reform congregation Adat Shalom. "I grew up in North Carolina with a relatively small Jewish community; you are definitely a minority and you definitely feel it. And Poway, in general, definitely has an active Christian community and an active Mormon community. So our kids in high school experience, sometimes, people trying to proselytize them. But I wouldn't say they feel totally different. They are Americans. They function as Americans."

But Shoval claims he has been treated with prejudice because he is Jewish, because he has the dark skin of Mizrahim and because his dream would be a nightmare for his Christian neighbors, neighbors that he claims have threatened him, sicced dogs on him and slurred him.

Dennis Keena, who led the effort to erect the gate and has been involved in lawsuits and countersuits against Shoval, has been the target of most of the accusations. He did not respond to repeated requests from The Journal for comment. Last month, though, Keena told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Shoval and his supporters were "troublemakers" and "cockroaches."

Tina Malka, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's office in San Diego, said no complaints had been reported and that the "cockroach" comment was open to interpretation.

"I don't know his intention. Calling someone a cockroach is derogatory, but I wouldn't say it is necessarily anti-Semitic," Malka said. "It's just not nice."

Regardless of the motivation or malice, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled in February that Shoval had been wronged. The city never should have allowed his neighbors to erect the security gate. The city was ordered to rescind its approval; the homeowners would have to tear the brick and wrought-iron structure down.

In June, the gate was removed, but the brick pillars remain. "What they are hoping for is that Manny will drop dead from exhaustion and just go away," said Karen Knecht, secretary of the South Poway Residents Association, which opposed the installation of the gate. "And then they can put their gate back on the hinges and have their little fiefdom."Even with access to his land, it's unclear whether Shoval will be able to build his sacred soccer-and-synagogue center. His property, in what Poway's senior planner Jason Martin called "the least-developed hinterlands of the city," is zoned rural residential. The smallest individual lots are 4 acres; roads are lightly maintained and denizens expect a quiet, isolated existence.

"Religious sanctuaries require a conditional-use permit," Martin said. "It doesn't mean [approval would be] automatic. It's maybe. Might be. Might be suitable for the location, depending on the particulars and the subject site."

Certain that this project is God's calling for his life, Shoval said he has no plans to relent: "If needed, I will lead a hunger strike in city hall. I will do that if they will stop me. I know this is my destiny. I know."

Shoval family
Menachem Shoval, second from right, and wife Peggy and their three children
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