Undercurrents

Lubavitchers try to open a shul in Hollywood, and the place goes meshuga

As one in a series of public-service columns penned to fulfill Undercurrents' probation requirements, we herein present installment four of "Politics in the Real World." Today's topic: How to turn a drab zoning issue into a sexy assault on freedom of religion.

Step one: Buy property in a neighborhood of modest, single-family homes. It helps if you are a little different from other people in the neighborhood. This trait may be successfully exploited, should the need arise, by implying that your neighbors are closed-minded bumpkins afraid of something they don't understand.

Example: In October 1999 Yosef Elul purchased adjoining homes at 2215 and 2221 N. 46th Ave. in Hollywood. Elul is the president of Chabad Lubavitch, a Jewish temple that has operated in the nearby Post Haste shopping center on Sheridan Street for ten years. Chabad Lubavitch is a Hasidic sect of Orthodox Judaism. Men wear full beards, hats, and dark clothes; women cover their heads with scarves or other material. Lubavitchers, the largest group of Hasidic Jews in the United States, are known for being vocal and media-savvy.

Step two: Lie low for awhile. Be vague about your plans to build a place of worship.

Example: Chabad's Rabbi Joseph Korf says that the homes were purchased at least six months before his synagogue decided what to do with them. "The original plan was to have the assistant rabbi have a place to live [in one of the houses] and have classes [in the other]," Korf told Undercurrents. No crowd of Lubavitchers here, he implied. It's interesting to note, however, that Elul pulled a permit to gut the interior of one of the homes just two months after its purchase. Blueprints filed with the city show he wanted to eliminate most of the interior walls and make a single large room.

Step three: Be mysterious.

Example: The area east of North 45th Avenue and south of Thomas Street is one of small, 1960s-era houses. Most homes have two bedrooms, a few have three. All are popular with young families because the place is quiet and affordable. Knock on a few doors and you're as likely to be greeted in Spanish as English. Neighbors know one another. "It's a great neighborhood," says Barry Self, a resident of North 45th Avenue, "the kind where we don't want to put up fences between our yards. We want to be able to toss the Frisbee around."

Chabad temple members have been somewhat less than friendly, according to Richard Johnson, who lives across the alley from one of Elul's houses. "They have not been good neighbors, not in any sense of the word," Johnson says. "They have never approached any of us, and they have never made any attempt to fix up their property."

This last point is supported by a thick sheaf of code violations filed by city inspectors on Elul's properties -- 52 citations since he bought them, including repeated tickets for high grass, junk, lack of pool maintenance and fencing, and commercial vehicles parked in the yard.

Step four:Get a good lawyer.

Example:The Hollywood Community Planning Department advised against granting Chabad/Elul an exception that would allow the group to open a temple in its houses, citing four reasons: incompatibility with the neighborhood, no provision for safe movement of cars or people, inadequate setbacks, and insufficient land area.

But Chabad had an ace in the hole at the May 10 meeting of the city's Board of Appeals and Adjustments: Alan Koslow. Why Koslow, the go-to attorney in Hollywood for anyone wanting to feed at the public trough, suddenly took an interest in this small temple is a mystery to Undercurrents; he didn't call back to explain.

What he did do was deftly spin the issue from zoning to religious persecution. The record of that meeting, which is a bit rough in spelling and syntax, reveals his sleight of hand: "Koslow stated... that the hall mark of the City of Hollywood has always welcome a variety of religious and house of worship throughout the city." Further, Koslow huffs, ten other houses of worship are located in the area. (Undercurrents notes that all of them were designed as churches, temples, or the like, not homes.)

When assistant city attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas pointed out that Hollywood has a legal right to restrict the location of such institutions and cited case law to support his assertion, Koslow insisted on reading federal statutes on religious land use into the record "for appeal purposes."

Sufficiently snowed, the board voted to grant Chabad an exception with the caveat that it revisit the issue a year after the temple becomes active. (In politics, as in sinning, it's often easier to win forgiveness than permission.)

Step five: Frame your story as an easily digestible saga of intolerance and sell it to a reporter.

Example: Soon after the appeals board meeting, Hollywood commissioner Sal Oliveri had the temerity to point out that the temple doesn't belong in two single-family houses on small urban lots and challenged the board's decision to grant Chabad the exception. "I think they made a great mistake," he says. Because Oliveri objected, the Hollywood City Commission scheduled a hearing on the case for September 12.

Chabad has been busy spinning the story. On July 31 Sun-Sentinel reporter John Holland wrote a page-one story that twisted itself in knots to call forth the anti-Semitic bogeyman. Holland couldn't quite work the term Jew haters into the lead, so he did the next best thing by giving Hollywood commissioner Keith Wasserstrom the microphone high in the story: "The specter of anti-Semitism is what bothers me the most," quoth Wasserstrom.

Then Holland added a dash of the indignant-yet-quotable Korf, who clearly knows how to push the media's buttons: "[Oliveri] is scared and, I think, acting out of ignorance," said the rabbi.

A few paragraphs down, Holland delves into the revelation that Oliveri's challenge to Chabad will cost the taxpayers money. (Sending code-enforcement officers to the property time and again didn't?) Then he closes with this bit of context: "Oliveri barely kept his seat in the last election, and he could have even greater difficulty in the future if his traditional constituency is replaced, some city leaders said."

Holland neglects to mention the code violations against Chabad/Elul or the fact that the temple meets none of the planning department's criteria. He reports that Lubavitchers don't drive to services on the Sabbath -- sundown Friday to an hour after sundown Saturday -- a fact Korf offers in support of his claim that the new temple won't need much space for parking. But the Sun-Sentinel scribe neglected to mention that Lubavitchers often attend services twice daily and, except on the Sabbath, are free to drive.

Presto! You've recast the usually stultifying issue of zoning as a big-league brouhaha -- sure to pack commission chambers Tuesday -- that has a quiet neighborhood defending itself against charges of prejudice and a sensible city commissioner pegged as irrelevant, scared, and possibly bigoted.

And that's how the game is played. Class dismissed.

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