Cash-strapped Synagogue Weighs Sale to Messianic Congregation

By Rick Harrison

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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The leaders of a faltering Conservative synagogue in Minnesota have been considering a proposal to sell their sanctuary to a messianic congregation that promotes Jewish worship of Jesus.

The synagogue, Sharei Chesed Congregation, an aging religious community with 110 families, is weighing a $2 million offer from the Seed of Abraham Messianic Congregation.

If finalized, the deal would raise the profile of the messianic congregation in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis that is home to five synagogues, the highest concentration in the state.

Both congregations’ leaders denied rumors that the proposed sale would include any of the synagogue’s eight Torah scrolls.

According to the synagogue’s president, Sol Awend, the board of Sharei Chesed initially voted to recommend the sale, but reversed itself in a vote Monday. Synagogue leaders said that the final decision would be determined by a vote of the membership to be held in the next few weeks.

Despite protests from some of Sharei Chesed’s members and several nearby synagogues, several board members believe that the offer is too high for a cash-strapped congregation like theirs to walk away from. The proposed sale would bring the synagogue $500,000 up front and the remaining $1.5 million over the next five years.

In recent years, members of the synagogue said, financial problems have forced Sharei Chesed to drop out of the Conservative movement’s national congregational union and have left the congregation scrambling to cover other operating expenses. According to one member, the congregation collected only $23,000 in dues last year — barely enough to cover utilities and occupancy expenses. Currently its rabbi does not draw a salary, the member said.

Critics counter that even such dire financial straits do not justify the sale of a synagogue to a messianic group. They warn that the sale would aid misleading efforts to convince Jews that it is acceptable to believe in the divinity of Jesus, posing a particular threat to immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“They’re not just selling to a church,” said Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, religious leader of Congregation Bais Yisroel, a nearby Orthodox synagogue. “They’re selling to an organization that targets Jews, and they will target the helpless.”

Speaking of Russian Jewish immigrants, Lieff said: “After years of persecution, they’ve emerged with their souls intact, and now there will be those that will be led astray.”

Lieff said that he and members of his congregation who have relatives who helped build Sharei Chesed hope that a different buyer is found. “They are torn and pained that a synagogue they put their lives and resources into could become a place drawing souls away from the Jewish people,” Lieff said.

Roman Rubinstein, Holocaust survivor and Sharei Chesed board member, said that he is fighting to convince his fellow members not to sell. With a chuckle, he said: “I’m against it because Jesus was a nice guy, but he’s not my God.”

On its Web site, Seed of Abraham defines itself as “a Messianic Congregation where Jews and Gentiles can worship the G-D of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah.”

At this point, Rubinstein said, the membership was split evenly over what to do.

But the congregation’s rabbi, Avraham Ettedgui, told the Forward that the membership was unlikely to approve the sale now that the idea has been rejected by the board. Ettedgui stressed that the decision had nothing to do with the religious beliefs of the proposed purchaser, but reflected a renewed desired on the part of synagogue leaders to maintain their current facility. “The financial situation has changed,” Ettedgui said. “Right now we are not selling.”

Steve Silverfarb, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota & the Dakotas and a member of Sharei Chesed, told the Forward that he opposed the proposal, saying that selling the building should be a last resort.

“We haven’t exhausted every possibility,” he said. “To get to the last resort, we have to try everything.”

The religious leader of Seed of Abraham, Ed Rothman, told the Forward he was surprised to hear of any questions regarding the sale, saying the deal already had been reached, though not finalized. He said that the board and the members of Sharei Chesed already had agreed to sell the building to his organization three weeks ago and that the parties were only waiting for an appraisal to be completed before closing the deal.

“The sale is in process,” Rothman said. “It can’t be reversed.”

Leaders of the synagogue disputed Rothman’s assertion, noting that the sale had not been finalized or approved by the membership.

Rothman complained that pressure from individuals opposing his faith might scuttle the agreement. “It’s surprising to me that Jewish people who have suffered persecution for so many years would turn around and persecute others for their beliefs. Anybody who calls themselves an American or a Jew would be more like a Nazi to interfere. It’s not the spirit of this country or the Jewish people.”

The messianic leader denied that his group employs pressure tactics or trickery to attract followers. “I just hope we can all get to the place where we stop fighting over our theological differences and start working for the good of Judaism and of mankind,” he said.

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