So when a city of Las Vegas code enforcement officer showed upduring a prayer meeting Omer was leading in his home Saturday morning and asked him to sign a citation for violating zoning laws, he refused.
While a dozen of Omer's congregants watched, the rabbi told thecity official and three Las Vegas police officers that he could sign theticket--issued for conducting religious worship in a home and creating apublic nuisance--when Sabbath expired later that evening or on Mondaymorning. Omer even offered to have one of his non-Jewish congregants sign the citation as an alternative.
When authorities told him that was impossible, Omer again refusedto sign.
He was handcuffed, arrested and--though he explained his religion did not permit him to ride in a vehicle on Saturdays--transportedto the city jail via police car.
"I was in shock. It was horrifying. I couldn't believe somethinglike this could happen in this city," said Omer, a soft-spoken Israeli whose English name is Michael Essence. He said the way he was treated put images of Nazis and the Holocaust in his mind: "My students tell me if this happened to Jesse Jackson, there would be riots."
After a sympathetic desk sergeant called a judge to Las Vegasjail to sign the citation for him, Omer was released and offered a ridehome. Again, because of his religion, he declined the offer and waited at a congregant's downtown office for several hours before being driven home after sunset.
Having to explain why an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who teachesKabbalah--the study of Jewish mysticism--was carted off to jail forpracticing his beliefs has proved an embarrassment for the city.
Mayor Oscar Goodman spent his break between morning and afternoonCity Council sessions Wednesday at a news conference Omer called at the Kabbalah Centre.
"We pride ourselves on treating all our citizens with humandignity," Goodman said while standing in front of about 50 folding chairs, where students study each week. "I apologize for what I believe was caused by ignorance and a mistake in judgment."
What at first might sound like a simple case of religiousinsensitivity is actually just the latest episode in a series of standoffsbetween the city's code enforcement office and the Kabbalah Centre, afour-bedroom home that doubles as Omer's place of worship. It is located at 2161 S. Lisa Lane, near Sahara Avenue and Durango Drive, an area zoned only for residential use.
Attorneys for the Kabbalah Centre and the city of Las Vegas areengaged in a battle where First Amendment-guaranteed religious freedom is pitted against city zoning laws that prohibit residences from being used as places of worship.
In April, the city's Planning Commission denied Omer's requestfor a zoning variance, but the Kabbalah Centre continued holding Saturday services and smaller study classes daily.
"I pay my taxes. I paid for my house, and I pay my bills. They'rethe ones who don't have a special-use permit to worship," said Anthony Bock, the only neighbor that shares a cul-de-sac with the Kabbalah Centre. Bock says congregants' cars constantly are parked on his driveway and property.
Pappa said that since Bock and others complained, code enforcement officers have made nine trips to the Kabbalah Centre in the pastthree months to cite Omer for his illegal use of the residence.
But the counsel for Omer insists that the city's code is thesource of the problem.
"The city ordinance needs to be conformed to the First Amendment," said Paul Larsen, the local attorney for the Kabbalah Centre, one of 39 centers across the world operated by the Los Angeles-basedorganization of the same name.
He says several city officials have conceded that the rabbi'sarrest is the only time a Las Vegan has been taken to jail over a zoningviolation. "Whether it's a Bible study group, a family night for a Mormonfamily or a Kabbalah group, religious freedom is guaranteed."
According to an internal code enforcement report requested by theReview-Journal, city officers cited a "church employee" on May 2 foroperating a house of worship in a residential zone. The report also states that on June 2, a man identified as "Mosha" shut the door in city code officers' faces as they tried to issue a ticket. It says the man then refused to re-open the door, even after Las Vegas police were called to the house and asked him to open it.
Rabbi Shaul Youdkevitch, a Kabbalah Centre representative basedin Los Angeles, said services will continue at the house until the group can find another location.
"We'll come to some resolution with the city on this, whetherit's through negotiations or through litigation," said Larsen, the Las Vegas Kabbalah Centre attorney.