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Two neighborhoods reveal Orthodox community’s fault lines

Pico-Robertson vs. Hancock Park

by Amy Klein

November 9, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Shtreimels in Hancock Park ... (Photos by Dan Kacvinski)

Shtreimels in Hancock Park ... (Photos by Dan Kacvinski)

When Tali Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, she landed in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the Westside. It was near her office, and besides, it was where many of Los Angeles' Orthodox singles live.

But after five years there, Rosenthal, decided to move to Hancock Park, commonly known as "The Other Side of Town."

"I was more comfortable in the more serious religious atmosphere," she said of Hancock Park, where she's now lived for three years. "I feel like it's a more dedicated day-to-day Torah life, in the general atmosphere. It's just a general hashkafa, outlook."

Ayala Naor, on the other hand, lived in the Hancock Park area for about 25 years. But when she and her husband relocated the family jewelry business from downtown to Pico-Robertson 10 years ago, they, too, decided to move to what they call "The Other Side of Town" -- Pico-Roberston. "We felt like the people [in Pico-Robertson] were more along our hashkafa. The other side of town [Hancock Park] seemed to get more and more Charedi, more black hat, and we felt like we wanted to be amongst our own people, with the more Modern Orthodox Zionist outlook," she said. "I feel more comfortable here."

The Other Side of Town. It's a term that implies that there are only two options, and for most Orthodox Jews that's the case. Despite numerous additional religious communities in other neighborhoods -- near the beach or in the Valley -- for most Orthodox there really are only two sides of town: the one you live in and the one you don't.

Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson are only about four miles apart -- a 15-minute drive, an hour walk on Shabbat -- and yet, increasingly, they are coming to seem worlds apart.

Pico-Robertson is not an official neighborhood; it got its name from the two main boulevards that crisscrosses it. It is a low-key commercial district replete with kosher restaurants, bakeries, synagogues and schools. Bordered by residential neighborhoods like Beverly Hills to the north and Beverlywood to the south, Pico Boulevard has blossomed over the last two decades, becoming the center for Modern Orthodoxy.

Hancock Park, on the other hand, is an officially designated historic neighborhood replete with Spanish-style mansions and leafy, shaded streets. But when religious Jews talk about Hancock Park, they're actually referring to a somewhat broader geographic area -- one that stretches to the west beyond La Brea Avenue and north to Beverly Drive. But no matter what one calls it -- "Fairfax, Beverly, La Brea, mid-Wilshire" -- this "eastern" side of the town sports full-time kollels (post high-school yeshivas) and dozens of shteibels (small, intense shuls), where men in black hats and women in wigs roam with more children than the norm of the modern American family. This is the more "yeshiva-ish" side of town.

Over the last two to three decades, each neighborhood has become increasingly homogeneous -- some would say isolated -- according to its own outlook or philosophy. Each one's distinct character encompasses all walks of life, from how people dress to what and where they will eat to where they daven (pray), work, study, educate their children and how they choose to live their lives.

"The Charedi, or the fervently Orthodox, argue that the best way to preserve Judaism is to reject as many aspects of modernity as possible and to cut oneself off as much as possible from those that are not one's persuasion," said professor Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University and author of "American Judaism: A History" (Yale University Press, 2005). By contrast, he says, "the Modern Orthodox have argued that the religion is largely compatible with modernity and one does not need to cut oneself off from contemporary culture in order to be a thoroughly Orthodox Jew."

Pico people watch television, go to the movies, use the Internet, attend secular colleges, and interact with other denominations of Judaism.

The Hancock Park community shies away from much of that, and in the cases of th
ings like the Internet, will limit usage to protect its Torah culture.

This separation between the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox communities is reflective of a kind of self-imposed segregation taking place in communities all over the United States, as two factions of Orthodox Jewry discover they cannot exactly co-exist, and are often in conflict with one another on major issues.

But what is the price of this separation?

Many leaders in the two communities will say publicly that the two are separate but equal -- different but not in a bad way.

"The fact of the matter is, it's become more distinct in its philosophical approaches," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, which, on Pico Boulevard, is one of the main Modern Orthodox shuls. "It's a fact of life. It's not to be judged."

Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, also in the Pico-Robertson area, agrees. "There's no friction, not from where I sit."

Beth Jacob is the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the West, and one of the oldest here in Los Angeles.

But the people who live in the neighborhoods tell a different story. Not one of friction, but of intolerance or discomfort.

Michelle Harlow moved to Hancock Park with her family in 1964. She describes herself as Modern Orthodox, and says that over the years, she watched "more and more black hatters" moving in from the East Coast.

"You go down Beverly and La Brea, and you don't know what country you're in -- there's every kind of streimel and peyos," she said referring to Chasidic dress and garb. "It's hard for me to go out on Saturday in normal clothes. I feel that I'm being disrespectful to who knows whom. I feel out of place."

Even though her children and some of her friends have gone to Pico-Robertson, Harlow's not going to move. Her mother is there, and she wouldn't be able to get as nice a house in Pico, a neighborhood with a high real estate cost but smaller houses.But Diana Gruenbaum, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1982, is considering a move to Pico-Robertson.

"When I moved here people wouldn't say ' Good Shabbos' to me, because I wasn't completely covered. I was offended by it," she said. "It's less comfortable to be myself." She also wants to move because her son, Jason, and his new wife live in Pico-Robertson, after trying out Hancock Park for eight months unsuccessfully.

Naor, who also moved from Hancock Park and was instrumental with her husband in running the other major Modern Orthodox synagogue there, Sharei Tefila, says that some accused her of abandoning them because they were the "last stand."

"You don't want to feel like you have to go to shul because you have to," she said. Now, as a member of Muskin's shul in Pico, she and her husband are happy to be "among their own kind." "It's a distinct difference -- Zionist modern orthodoxy is a dying breed on that side of the town," she said.

But she tells a story of a house on her new block in Pico-Robertson being remodeled for an ultra-Orthodox family with two complete separate kitchens.

"All of a sudden they decided this side of the town is not for them, they needed to go to the other side, because they're more frum," she said, using the Yiddish word for religious.

The types of people moving from Pico-Robertson to Hancock Park also include people who grew up in Pico-Robertson but got more religious and secular people who got religious at ba'al teshuvah (return to the faith) institutions like Aish HaTorah and wanted to continue their religious growth.

"I see many people in Pico getting into yiddishkeit; it's a veritable incubator for teshuvah," one observer, who preferred not to be named, said about secular people getting into Judaism. "I don't see the growth made on the Westside. I see many people getting into it and staying at a certain plateau and not going further."

It seems to be a matter of perspective. What Harlow and other Modern Orthodox see as pressure to conform or failure to live up to the standards, others feel as a positive influence. What Naor likes about the openness and modernity others might feel is not religious enough.

Manny Saltiel had lived in Pico-Robertson for 11 years. But six years ago, he and his wife decided to move to the other side of the town after realizing they had many friends and that people there were simpatico.

Saltiel, 49, says before he moved to Hancock Park he was told about stereotypes.

"People warned us that it's too overbearingly religious, and unless you live up to high standards you won't be accepted," he said. "But we found it totally untrue. People are warm and friendly." "There is a problem with stereotypes," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who lives in the La Brea area but works at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Pico-Robertson and is familiar with both worlds. "People don't often bother looking at people on an individual basis and make assumptions, which leads to friction," he said. "There is a reduced sharing between the two communities, because the two stereotypes are seen as gospel truth, and it's like L.A.'s separation barrier."

What happens is that both sides lose out, Adlerstein said. "Anytime that you look at another group of people as a whole, you become judgmental and smug -- the exaggeration allows people to dismiss whole groups. By dismissing whole groups you can't recognize the qualities of individuals."

A number of religious communities around the country show a divide like the one in Los Angeles. In places where the community is small, the Orthodox band together, although differences threaten to pull them apart. Especially when they live in one location, as they do on Yates Street in East Memphis, Tenn.

There, a block with two Orthodox shuls is the center of the two-mile radius where most of Memphis's 2,500 religious Jews live. The flagship Modern Orthodox shul, Baron Hirsch (which was founded at a different location 150 years ago), boasts of a membership of more than 1,000 families and has attendance of 300-500 people each week.

Memphis is a community that is proud of its Southern hospitality and unity, where all stripes belong to the JCC and participate in Jewish federation events.

But when a yeshiva-ish community -- black hat families from a local kollel -- came to Memphis some 30 years ago, it caused tension.

"There was friction that they weren't mingling with the regular community," said Josh Kahane, a Memphis native who belongs to Baron Hirsch.

After a number of tries at their own minyan prayer groups, three years ago the newcomers founded The Young Israel of Memphis across the street from Baron Hirsch. Contrary to its Modern Orthodox-sounding affiliation with the Young Israel movement, it is actually an ultra-Orthodox synagogue with some 40 to 50 people and its own rabbi. With a new rabbi at Baron Hirsch, tensions have eased.

"There's more sense that even though the hashkafa's different, we can work together," Kahane said. Besides, as the two communities live side by side, there's a lot of intermingling: "You go to each other for lunch, because if you didn't go there then who would you go to? It's such a small community."

Not all small communities can get along well, though, especially if they aren't all living in the same half-mile radius.

In Denver, the divide is obvious. Jews were first sent to Denver's west side by the Hebrew Immigration Society in 1877.

"That became the foundation of the Orthodox community in Denver," said Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. He totals the religious community at 375 family units, or 1,500 people, with the ultra-Orthodox primarily on the west side and the Modern Orthodox on the east side. Between them -- 8 to 10 miles -- you will find a brave mohel who will walk over on Shabbat, he says, referring to a man who performs circumcision.

Goldberg categorized the relationship between the two sides as "occasionally, abrasive," but he added, it's "much less so than it used to be."

One reason that there's less friction, he said, is that the two communities have begun to separate, to find their own way: "The east side relied on the west side for a long time, and the two didn't fit."

With the founding of a new Modern Orthodox high school, one of the sore points -- how the main high school was to be run -- is no longer an issue.

While this phenomenon is not happening everywhere, what is going on in Denver and Los Angeles and other cities around the country should be no surprise, according to Brandeis professor Sarna. For Sarna, it's more surprising that they don't clash more often.

"Even though they fire potshots at each other, they don't excommunicate one another," he pointed out. "They both use the word Orthodox -- no matter what, they have to band together against non-Orthodox and the secular."

While many have predicted a split between the two movements, Sarna said the real story is that it hasn't happened.

"The big story is that Orthodoxy has a big tent," he said. "I think the Orthodox have understood that in order to succeed in America you have to be a big tent."

And even as they entrench into their own worlds, there is evidence of crossover in Los Angeles. "We find children that grew up on either side of the town are moving to the other side of the town," said Muskin, whose YICC is in the heart of Pico-Robertson. "Children have migrated in both directions," he said.

"This community is going to attract a certain crowd and that community will attract another crowd," he said. "It's just a fact of life. It's not to be judged."

Muskin doesn't feel there's any friction between the two sides of the town -- just a philosophical and geographic separation. But, he said, "we work together on communal issues" -- like Bikur Cholim and Tomchei Shabbos, social service organizations that attend the sick and help the needy. "There's more that unites than separates us," Muskin said.

It's not the relationship of friends and families that will bridge the gap between the two sides, said Simon Wiesenthal Center's Adlerstein, but the "interactions between teachers and mentors," which have for years been taking place, of which he is an example.

In any case, the neighborhoods are still evolving. While the Modern Orthodox faction is dwindling in Hancock Park, there is also an increasing presence of black hats in Pico-Robertson. Some are Chabadniks (Lubavitcher Chasidim) and Ba'alei teshuvah who largely circulate among their own communities and not the mainstream Charedi and Chassidic community. But mainstream ultra-Orthodox are coming to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, as well.

Consider Adas Torah, a new shul founded almost three years ago in Pico-Robertson, which hosts 40 to 50 men each week.

"It's a shul for serious people," said one of its founders, Mike Horowitz. "On Shabbos you're going to get proper divrei Torah," he said, referring to the sermon the rabbi gives which apparently has a different flavor according to hashkafa (philiosophy).

Horowitz grew up in Pico, attended Modern Orthodox schools, then studied in Israel at The Mir, a black hat yeshiva. When he returned to Los Angeles, he considered moving to the other side of the town, because his children attend Toras Emes there and he likes the learning there, but ultimately he decided to stay.

"There's a lot of good things, a person can do what they want to -- start a shul, start a kollel," he said, referring to the new full-time kollel he hopes will begin this summer.

Mercaz Hatorah Community Kollel will be led by Rabbi Baruch Gradon, and will house 10 full-time men, who will teach in the community and help connect like-minded study partners, or chevrutas, together.

"The point of a kollel and the point of a shul is to give people more choices," Horowitz said. While it's unclear how the neighborhood will embrace the Kollel, rabbis in Pico-Robertson see the new shul and kollel in a positive way.

"I think it provides a nice opportunity for people to move to this side of the town," said Weil of Beth Jacob. "I think it will expand the neighborhood from being densely Modern Orthodox to having a larger variety of Jews, and a larger variety of options. It's nice to have variety. It's nice to have options."

Interaction between the two groups -- although much of the traffic seems to be the ultra-Orthodox to Pico-Robertson rather than vice versa -- will breed tolerance.

"Each group has its flaws and it needs the others to compensate for the flaws that it has," Adlerstein said. "When you get to know people well, you find remarkable stories of excellence and accomplishment. Cutting yourself off from other Jews is always a bad thing. There's always something you can learn from another Jew."
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