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Mayor: Building inspectors need better training, increased sensitivity -- and no more Yom Kippur showdowns

Hancock Park Kol Nidrei services were interrupted last year by the Department of Building and Safety

by Tom Tugend

September 24, 2008 | 4:00 am

One year after an emotional incident in which city building inspectors sought to halt Kol Nidrei services for Orthodox worshippers at a Hancock Park service, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has followed up with a report with recommendations designed to increase sensitivity and prevent future problems.

The confrontation at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy in the Hancock Park area outraged the Orthodox community and its political supporters.

Triggering the incident was a series of anonymous phone calls from a neighbor of Yavneh, alerting the city Department of Building and Safety (DBS) to a probable violation, on Yom Kippur, of restriction governing the hours that Yavneh could use the facilities.

At 8 p.m., while Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 worshippers, two inspectors walked into the lobby and told startled congregants that they had to vacate the premises immediately.

When told that worshippers would leave only if carried out by force, the inspectors left and the services continued.

The roots of the incident lay in a contentious nine-year feud between some residents of the upscale Hancock Park neighborhood and an influx of strict Orthodox families.

Villaraigosa, together with city councilmen, felt the heat from both sides and the mayor asked the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom "to independently review, pro bono, the events that occurred on Sept. 21, 2007...and to make recommendations."

In a letter yesterday (Sept. 23) to DBS general manager Andrew A. Adelman, obtained exclusively by The Journal, Villaraigosa cited 12 findings and recommendations by the law firm and asked for a response by Nov. 7.

In general, the report found that DBS had not singled out the Orthodox community as such, but called for an improved inspection process within DBS, and better communications with the city planning department and with institutions, such as Yavneh, operating with certain restrictions under a conditional use permit.

Specifically, the report recommended continued "awareness seminars" for inspectors at the Museum of Tolerance, supplemented by a "cultural diversity" program, in addition to the following points.

Training to avoid conflicts while conducting building inspections.

Review of the policy under which DBS accepts anonymous complaints.

Avoid interrupting cultural or religious events.

Institutions operating under conditional use permits to appoint community liaisons, who would be notified of complaints before city officials take action.

Korobkin, the Yavneh spiritual leader, said he was very pleased with the mayor's recommendations and that the fault for last year's incident lay mainly in the way DBS was structured, as well as a certain lack of sensitivity.

There is no chance that last year's incident will be repeated, he said. For one, Kol Nidrei falls on a weekday this year, which allows for extended operating hours.

Korobkin also asserted that relations between Yavneh and its neighbors had improved over the last 12 months and that complaints came mainly from a hard core of seven to eight residents.

But future relations between Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, which includes a fair number of Jewish families, will bear watching.

No spokesperson for the homeowners was immediately available, but in the past they have persistently accused Yavneh of violating the terms of its conditional use permit and have initiated a number of court actions.

Although Yavneh is not located within his district, City Councilman Jack Weiss has been a vocal champion of the religious school.

He said that in the dispute, "justice is on the side of Yavneh - it's not even close."



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