July 23, 2019 at 7:03 pm PDT | by Karen Ocamb
Rabbi Denise Eger is pro-neighborhood, not anti-pot

Concerns over a new high-end West Hollywood eatery has prompted an increasingly uncivil controversy. On July 16, the West Hollywood Business Commission unanimously granted Lowell Herb Co. a license for a full-service, outdoor cannabis consumption and smoking restaurant, the first of its kind in the nation.

Lowell Herb Co. co-founders Sean Black and David Elias says the eatery will comply with all stipulations required by the city, including a proper air ventilation system so the pot smoke does not bother neighbors.

But Lowell Café will be situated about 300 feet from the Jewish synagogue Congregation Kol Ami on North La Brea Avenue and Rabbi Denise Eger, a progressive leader in the LA LGBT and Jewish Reform communities since 1988, has concerns.

“I don’t know why my congregation members and participants have to walk through clouds of marijuana to get to synagogue,” Eger emailed the commission prior to their vote. “It will limit the use of our outdoor space, as well, because of the contact high from the smoke that will waft in the area. We have no objections to people buying marijuana for their private use in their domains. We know that many people, including our congregants, use and enjoy cannabis. Some for health and some for recreation.”

Eger’s opposition to what is being applauded as a potentially lucrative addition to the Creative City  became framed as a controversy pitting a conservative religious temple leader against a positive advancement in making cannabis as “normal” as alcohol.

But that’s not why she objected, Eger tells the Los Angeles Blade. She was upset that neither the City of West Hollywood nor the business did any community outreach to hear neighborhood concerns in advance of the commission meeting. Kol Ami has worked closely with the city on a number of east side projects, she says, including the redevelopment of the La Brea Corridor. In fact, the temple was built across from one of the early medical marijuana spaces, which was raided by the DEA.

“The temple has no objection to cannabis,” Eger says. “We were opposed based on neighborhood issues. Our congregation is a safe community space. We serve our members and a much larger circle of West Hollywood—HIV groups, the LGBT community, and a large 12-Step community who members could get a triggering contact high. We also have programs for families with children.” Plus impaired drivers could cause more accidents at the corner of Lexington and La Brea.

Now Eger is being ridiculed. “I’ve received nasty and harassing emails, Facebook messages, words that I would never, ever use, claiming that I’m anti-marijuana, that we’re in the dark ages,” Eger says. “It’s ridiculous, it’s insulting and it’s hurtful.

“Raising questions about neighborhood issues is not a cause for demonizing people. It is not helpful to creating a community that is vibrant and kind to one another and respectful of one another. That’s what we should be working towards,” Eger says.

Safety, mutual respect and neighborhood cooperation are no small issues.

“We’re a synagogue,” says Eger. “We understand very well about fear; we live with it every day here at Kol Ami. The rise of anti-Semitism in this country is unprecedented in these last two and a half years since Trump became president. I live with that reality. Every time I lead a worship service I worry for the safety of my congregants, that someone will walk in off the street and pull a gun and start shooting. We’ve had to take incredible measures.

“Words matter. I don’t really know why we have to view people with suspicion and scorn when people raise questions or have a different view,” Eger says. “That is what this has been about for me. We deserve frank conversation, dialogue, and answer. I think that becomes the most important part of how we treat one another.”

Eger talked with one of the owners after the hearing. “And I’m waiting to hear from them,” she says. “They say they’re committed to education, but we’ll see whether they really are or not. Time will tell.”

Eger says she still hasn’t heard from the city about their regulation and monitoring plans, other than to call the Department of Public Works if there’s an odor issue. “This is all new territory, so it deserves being thought through and talked through with one another in a respectful and decent manner,” she says.

In response to phone and email requests to discuss Eger’s concerns, the city sent a list of requirements with which the owners must comply, attributed to John Leonard, City of West Hollywood’s Community and Legislative Affairs Manager. Nowhere on the list is there a requirement to meet with neighbors about their concerns.

The owners of Lowell Café also issued a statement to the media, while still taking no action.

“We understand the concerns from Congregation Kol Ami and want to put them and anyone else at ease,” the restaurant’s general manager Kevin Brady said in a statement, explaining their specialty air filtration system. “We understand the end of cannabis prohibition and the new kinds of businesses that are created from it ending can be scary. We intend to show that an establishment which allows for cannabis consumption can be as great a neighbor as any other business. We welcome the concerns and support of the neighborhood as we know all of this is uncharted.”

– Staff reports contributed to this story.

Photo of Rabbi Denise Eger courtesy Kol Ami.

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