Conflict not about good works
This letter was addressed to the mayor and city council:
The controversy regarding Beth El’s proposed synagogue, school, and community center is about Codornices Creek and those city policies and ordinances that protect creeks and neighborhoods from incursions by large, active institutions. Rather than address these issues, project supporters have chosen to portray criticism as an attack upon the goodness of Beth El and upon Jews generally. This is an attempt to silence critics and to intimidate decision-makers with the threat that they may be called anti-Semites. Many, like myself, who fault this particular design, are Jewish. Some are also members of Beth El.
This project is controversial because it reveals contradictions between our values and the practice we would make of them. We do not value intimidation. We do value religious freedom, fairness, dissent, and the environment. The Jewish tradition of "Tikkun Olam" teaches us to heal and restore the world. This ancient tenet does not accept the bare minimum when we can do better. It is consistent with the spirit of modern environmental stewardship. Only against the image of a daylighted creek can the project’s true impact be appraised. The EIR evaded this responsibility. Now, however, The Urban Creeks Council has received a grant to plan the restoration of Codornices Creek. This grant provides a unique opportunity to correct the project’s ecological imbalance.
Beth El has waged a media campaign that promotes the institution’s religious status to gain exemption from serious scrutiny. This deflects attention from the project’s true problems. Proponents have demonized project critics and attempted to silence dissent within and without the temple community. This is evidenced in Beth El’s newsletter which states: “The groups opposing the project are zealous and well organized” and, “Getting this permit is a relatively modest thing, compared to other battles Jews have fought throughout history with much higher stakes.”
Further, Rabbi Raj has sought to link project criticism to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. He reminded the ZAB of Kristallnacht, and has said: “This is not the first time some people would blame the Jews for everything—America is different, but anti-Semitism is everywhere.” I, too, lost family in the Holocaust. Linking project criticism to it trivializes the suffering of those who perished and those who survived.
Religious institutions are supposed to engage in charitable activities. In Judaism, Mitzvot (good deeds) are done for their own sake. Any expectation of reward, present or future, compromises the integrity of the act. Society recognizes this, among other ways, by the favorable treatment given to such organizations in the tax code. Yet, project supporters repeatedly commodify good deeds and suggest that Beth El has "earned" a use permit, regardless of the consequences to the natural and social environments. Concern for project impacts should inform discussion and decision-making, not the goodness of Beth El or of its works.
In 1992 the ZAB protected Codornices Creek. It limited The Chinese Alliance Community Church’s development of the Landmark Byrne site to the site’s southern portion. ZAB also required 26 on-site parking spaces for a project that was less than one-fourth the size of Beth El. In March 2001, the ZAB reversed itself, violating city ordinances and policies including those for creeks, Live Oaks, and parking. Why did Beth El rate such unusual treatment? Did its deeds count more than those of the East Bay Chinese Alliance Community Church?
Organizations and governments make mistakes. Credibility is lost when these are defended instead of corrected. The review of this project has already harmed the city as a whole. Another decision rooted in the expression of raw political power will only make this worse. The council needs to support a process of consensus problem solving and redesign that addresses the genuine dilemmas created by this project.
Save trees and reuse buildings
After reading the description of the huge documents called the “ugly things” prepared for the Beth El project, I started to wonder how many trees have been cut down to print them all. It is quite ironic that large amounts of natural resources are being used in the name of protecting the environment.
The other question is why does Beth El insist on building where there exists so much communityopposition? This is supposed to be a community center, but the community opposition is strong, so I suggest Beth El look for someplace less controversial. Has Beth El looked into buying an existing building? There are many churches in Berkeley that appear to be under-used.