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Inside the Chabad House Controversy: The Opposition

Patch meets with Jewish neighbors of the Chabad House to discuss charges of anti-Semitism and other aspects of this ongoing controversy.

“This isn’t anti-Semitism, this is anti-stupidity!”

So says Jeff Gantman, one of a group of some 200 neighbors in the immediate neighborhood around the controversial Chabad House synagogue, who are actively opposed to its completion.

Chabad House is in the midst of building a 12,000-square-foot synagogue on their property at 13079 Chandler Blvd., which is in the heart of a residential Sherman Oaks neighborhood, and which has been the source of much ongoing controversy, .

Gantman sat down with Patch on Tuesday, along with Tess Jones and her husband, Mitch Ramin, to discuss this volatile issue and to clarify the facts surrounding their opposition. 

It’s an issue which has been colored by allegations that the real agenda here is not genuine opposition to this specific project, but actually an expression of anti-Semitism.

It isn’t true, according to Mitch Ramin.

“I’m Jewish,” he said, sitting on a couch in his sunny living-room, two properties west on Chandler from the project, "and so is Jeff, and so are most of the people – not all, but most – of the people in this neighborhood."

“It is simply absurd to call mostly Jewish people anti-Semites because they’re against an oversized project.”

The real issue is not religion, he explained, it’s size.

“We are not against a development or an enlargement of this project,” he said, “it all comes down to size and intensity of use."

“We understand it’s a religious institution and they have the right to practice,” he continued. “We respect that right. We respect their right to expand, and to have a larger building than the 1,300-square foot building that they had. But this project is simply too big.”

Allegations that opposition to this project are led by only a handful of neighbors are false, they contend.

“There are 200 of us in this neighborhood,” Gantman said, “who have been opposed to this project for seven years. That is not a small bunch of people.”

“This [problem] is not the creation of the neighbors,” Gantman continued, “it’s the creation of Chabad, and it’s their responsibility. They knew the rules, they knew the lot’s limitations. [Their attorney] Benjamin Reznik told ABC-TV yesterday that this is a legal project. It is not a legal project, because the Court of Appeals found that it was illegally granted."

“As neighbors and opponents of this project, we can spend all of our time contradicting his rhetoric, or dealing with the facts. And the facts are that you don’t put 12,000 square feet with no parking on that limited lot.”

“This isn’t a visual problem,” said Tess Jones. "Although it does not fit in at all with the character of this neighborhood. The real problem is about intensity of use. This area cannot support the intensity of use we’re talking about from a 12,000 square-foot building.”

That intensity of use mostly has to do, she explained, with the parking problem, providing for only five parking spaces. The explanation offered by Chabad for this paucity of parking is that the congregation will not drive on the Sabbath, or Shabos as it is known, because it violates Jewish law to do so.

That justification doesn’t hold water, Ramin explained.

“The truth is that, as we know from living here for the past 10-½ years, that the no-driving-on-Shabos rule is kind of an inside joke. A lot of them drive in, park their cars in the area Friday before sundown, leave them, walk home Friday night, and then Saturday after service they drive home. So car alarms go off throughout the night, with nobody around to turn them off. And their cars are left all night.”  

The three neighbors also reject Chabad's insistence that this project has nothing to do with their goal of expansion. 

“This is about growth, although they deny it,” said Ramin. “And there is nothing wrong with that; we’re not opposed to Chabad, we’re Jewish. But there is no denying that Chabad intends to grow."

“The challenge that policy-makers have,” he continued, “is how to balance the needs of the entire community, not just one special interest. There are people who have lived here for 50 years, who remember the little market that used to be on that lot. They remember that Chabad came in 1981, and was only allowed to develop that lot based on conditions that were never followed. They are restricted from changing the nature of the neighborhood."

“But these conditions are not enforceable,” he added. “You can’t tell someone like Chabad, which is all about growth, not to grow.”

The blame for this development going forward, they all agreed, belongs to former Councilman Jack Weiss, whose invocation of section 245 of the City Charter enabled this project to move forward after it was halted.

“He did it 11 days before leaving office,” Gantman said.

Weiss’s successor, Paul Koretz, has been unresponsive to their concerns about the project, Ramin said.

“[Koretz] said he can’t do anything, it’s up to the City Attorney. But Koretz is the mayor here; he has all the control. The city attorney says that it’s up to the decision-makers, meaning Koretz. But Koretz will not touch this.”

()

Although none of the neighbors intends to back down, all three seemed resigned to the fact that their opposition is powerless to stop this. 

"This is a fait accompli," said Gantman. "It's already done."

So why fight it?  

“Because this is about the principle,” he said. “If this can happen here, it can happen in any neighborhood."

“What this story is really about,” he said, “is the lack of accountability of a government that isn’t working anymore for the people. This is about the rules not being followed. The reality is all that we asked for was just to do this right. Have this project go through the proper vetting and you won’t come out with a 12,000 square foot building.”

* * * * *

See Part II of this story, .

WCNBA June 22, 2012 at 12:05 AM
Which allegations are false? Tell us.
Pops June 22, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Let’s be honest – the Chabad synagogue has nothing to do with size or parking spaces. It is comical to hear people speak about the “process” and parking spaces. The only problem with parking is the students from Valley College who park on the street. (Where are all the complaints and outrage?) I have never seen any issue with Chabad and parking. To keep it intellectually honest, everyone parks in their driveways. There is always ample street parking. Why should I be upset if someone parks in front of my house anyway? You have this Chabad institution visiting the elderly in assisted care facilities weekly, providing food to the needy and take cancer stricken children on a last wish to Disneyland, etc. If Chabad can do more of this good with a new building I say to make the building as large as possible. If there is a car in front of my house, person jaywalking or a child crying in a stroller passing my house Saturday morning, I say this is pleasant music knowing the good being done. I think we should all ask ourselves what we do for our community.
Pops June 22, 2012 at 06:02 PM
Regarding the size of the proposed synagogue, what does 12,000 square feet mean? Would people still object if the size was 10,000 or 8,000? So if the synagogue would downsize a few rooms it would be acceptable? My understanding the synagogue will have a basement and a main floor. If people in the community want to go to services at this synagogue, so be it. The neighborhood outgrew their converted liquor store so let them build there as they see fit. Many of us live in homes 3,000 and 4,000 square feet. To put things in perspective it is ok to have a 4,000 square house with only a few people living there but a 12,000 building that serves hundreds is not. Regarding this “home owners association,” how come I have never heard of it? How do you join? When are the meetings? Perhaps someone could post how to become a member. I know this organization is not a true home owners association but only in name, however members of the community should still be able to belong to this organization if it purports to speak for the community and the name indicates so.
Robert June 22, 2012 at 06:57 PM
I agree with Pops. I live a block away have never seen parking issues but am baffled how I never was invited to this "West Chandler home owner association". The question that I have is how small of a synagogue would you be happy with? 12,000 feet with a large portion of it underground seems very reasonable.
PM June 27, 2012 at 02:58 PM
It doesn't matter what your religion or ethnicity is - you couldn't build a 12,000 sq ft house on the lot due to building regulations - they shouldn't be able to build it either. No one would be having this problem is they built according to code but they by passed the codes which everyone else has to live by. If there was a campaign to get Koretz out of office - you would possibly find some movement on this. Sometimes the best way into changing a problem is going through the back door.

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