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Kollel Rashbi Ari faces eviction

by Jonah Lowenfeld

October 2, 2012 | 2:23 pm

Kollel Rashbi Ari

Kollel Rashbi Ari

The sukkah, the booth in which Jews celebrate Sukkot, is made to be temporary, to survive, perhaps, a brisk windstorm, but is unlikely to stand much longer than for the weeklong harvest festival. In this regard, the wooden sukkah in the parking lot behind the Kollel Rashbi Ari, a synagogue in a narrow storefront on Pico Boulevard at the heart of Los Angeles’ “kosher corridor,” is no exception. When the holiday ends, the carpet that covers the asphalt floor will be rolled up, the cloth that lines the sukkah’s four walls will come down, and the tables and chairs that fill the space will be removed. 

But unlike the Persian-owned kosher butcher shop next door — whose customers will once again be able to park in the two parking spots currently occupied by the sukkah — the Kollel Rashbi Ari will almost certainly not go back to its day-to-day existence after Sukkot. 

Or, at least, not for very long. 

Last March, MCM Property Management, which manages the commercial property that is home to the kollel (Hebrew for house of study) first informed the leadership that it had 30 days to quit the property. The company stopped accepting rent payments, and the kollel’s current leader, Mikhael Maimon, said he stopped raising funds to make the $1,800 monthly expense. 

Instead, Maimon has lately been soliciting moral support from members of his community and beyond, in an effort to buy the kollel more time. 

In August, when the management company obtained a court-ordered eviction that could have been initiated by the Sheriff’s Department as early as Sept. 11, Maimon rallied supporters in opposition to the kollel’s being thrown out before the High Holy Days. After receiving a number of e-mails and phone calls, MCM’s office manager, Barbara Jager, told Maimon the kollel could remain through Yom Kippur. 

Maimon then objected to not being allowed to stay for Sukkot. So, there he was, sitting in the sukkah on Sept. 30, the holiday’s first night. In an interview, Maimon said he expected the kollel would be allowed to stay in place for the remainder of the holiday, and that he hoped it would be allowed to remain in its building until a deal on a new location could be made.  

“We want to move,” Maimon said, sitting at the head of the table while others cleared away the Styrofoam plates and leftovers from dessert. “But this is a synagogue. It’s not a group of squatters downtown.” 

Maimon said he had found a new space a few blocks west on Pico, though a deal hadn’t yet been finalized. 

The property manager of the current location, Martin Gurfinkel, said the owner wants the kollel out. 

“They were late on the rent all the time, just constantly late,” Gurfinkel said in an interview in early September, before Rosh Hashanah. “The old woman who owns the building really depends on the income.”

Kollel Rashbi Ari, named for two kabbalistic giants, is quite unlike other synagogues — and very different from most commercial-property tenants. A former art gallery and framing shop, the kollel was born in 1999, when Chaim Mekel, an Israeli painter who became religious late in life, decided to devote himself to a life of learning and converted his shop into a house of study. 

Mekel moved back to Israel in 2006, and today the kollel is supported in a haphazard way, with individuals stopping by to put a dollar in a donation box and local merchants and shoppers occasionally dropping off a few bottles of wine, bags full of challah and the occasional box of unsellable vegetables. 

Among the kollel’s regular patrons are users of the kollel’s private mikveh, a ritual bath. Constructed in 2003 without permits, its cold waters can draw between a couple dozen men on typical days, to as many as 60 before holidays like Yom Kippur and Passover, and the fees they pay are the most reliable source of income for the kollel. 

Because they come at unusual hours, often before the sun rises, Maimon has been living in the kollel, in a loft space someone built in the years before he took over as leader, in April 2011. 

But for Keith Levin, a former leader of the kollel, the people who benefit most from the kollel are the “lost souls,” individuals who might not be eating anywhere if they weren’t eating at the kollel. 

On the first night of Sukkot, about 25 people — all of them single, all but five of them men — came to the kollel for dinner. While there are dozens of synagogues in the immediate vicinity, many said they didn’t feel at ease in those settings. 

“For a single person, it’s a desert, once you get to a certain age,” said Sheila Ginsberg. 

Ginsberg said she has been coming to the kollel for more than a year. Asked where she will be if the kollel loses its home, she practically spat in disgust as she answered. 

“Home,” Ginsberg said. “Home, alone. Every Friday night.”

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