Struggle Roiling Posh Synagogue In Hamptons Is Coming to a Head

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 02, 2005, issue of December 02, 2005.
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A bitter power struggle at one of the country’s toniest synagogues is coming to a head, as supporters of the rabbi are hoping to vote out the current board of trustees and elect a new slate of officers at a meeting this weekend.

Backers of Rabbi David Gelfand — the embattled leader of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons — have scheduled a synagogue-wide vote for Sunday morning, December 4, in an effort to oust the synagogue leaders who have opposed renewing the clergyman’s contract. Early last month, Gelfand’s supporters filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court in Suffolk County, N.Y., after the board refused to recognize two earlier votes by congregants to keep the rabbi.

The board reportedly is set to challenge the results of the upcoming vote, as well.

The latest maneuvers come after months of infighting in the East Hampton congregation, which is known for having such famous members as Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and real estate and publishing magnate Mortimer Zuckerman. Gelfand, 54, has been credited with increasing the Reform congregation’s membership by 25% during his seven-year tenure. Supporters described him as a charismatic and forceful leader.

The rabbi’s detractors on the board have accused him, among other things, of plagiarizing sermons, verbally threatening other members of the staff, having an “overbearing manner” and using “curt, sometimes demeaning language.” They outlined their allegations in a letter in late September to the Central Conference of American Rabbis — the Reform movement’s rabbinical union. In a previously undisclosed reply from the CCAR obtained by the Forward, the rabbinical union’s interim leader responded by condemning the board.

It is not the first time in recent months that the board, led by real estate developer Donald Zucker, has found itself the target of criticism over its handling of the matter.

“What I sense in this is a McCarthyite technique to give people the impression that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, when in fact the smoke is an illusion,” said author and columnist Eric Alterman. The writer owns a summer home in the Hamptons and has attended synagogue events with his daughter since 2001. He added, “It strikes me as an attempt to smear Rabbi Gelfand’s reputation by vague association and unproven accusation.”

The letter to the CCAR particularly upset the rabbi’s supporters. They saw it as an attempt to disgrace Gelfand publicly, because the letter included some charges that appeared to have been cleared up already, and because it was sent to the entire congregation and then leaked to New York magazine.

The board, in its September 23 letter, asked the Reform rabbinical union to investigate Gelfand.

In an October 10 reply, the CCAR’s interim executive vice president, Rabbi Arnold Sher, agreed to look into the matter. But he also strongly condemned the synagogue’s board.

“The ethics process has been utilized not to seek justice but rather as a weapon in this unfortunate rupture,” Sher wrote. “More hurtful is the deliberate leakage of the complaint to the press for no reason than to bring shame to your rabbi.”

Sher also wrote that at this point it appears no disciplinary action against Gelfand is warranted, saying, “I spoke to the chair of Ethics and Appeals Committee, Rabbi Rosalind Gold.… She assured me that the complaint will be taken seriously but also indicated that nothing presented to her at first reading would warrant the dismissal of the rabbi or come close to that drastic action.”

The current fracas began in fall of 2004, when some board members began to question what they saw as unusually high staff turnover. Gelfand’s supporters say that by June, the board had decided in secret not to renew his contract.

Last month, more than 600 of the congregation’s 1,000 to 1,100 adult members voted to extend Gelfand’s contract, which expires in June 2006. The vote was unanimous; the board urged supporters to boycott the election, claiming it was invalid.

After the board refused to recognize the result, Gelfand’s supporters filed their lawsuit.

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