Young Israel’s Eviction Plans Draw Criticism

By Nacha Cattan

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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A national organization charged with aiding Orthodox synagogues plans to sell its building and evict two congregations in the process.

In a statement, leaders of one of the congregations accused the National Council of Young Israel of driving the synagogue “out of existence” by deciding to sell its main office building to a real estate developer for $5.4 million. The sale of the six-story building in lower Manhattan would displace the 135-family Young Israel of Fifth Avenue and the smaller Sephardic Minyan.

The main congregation, with the backing of the Sephardic Minyan, filed a court brief Monday claiming that “the destruction of a community synagogue is directly antithetical to the National Council’s stated purpose.” A hearing is scheduled for May 9 in the New York State Supreme Court for New York County. By law, as a non-profit religious corporation, the national council must be granted permission from the court before completing the sale.

The worshippers have also persuaded the Beth Din of America, the main Modern Orthodox rabbinic court, to order the national council to appear before it.

“The [national council] is abandoning its own corporate mission, violating due process, ignoring Jewish Law and the sanctity of sacred Jewish beliefs,” said the leaders of Fifth Avenue synagogue, in a press release issued May 6.

A lawyer for the national council, Ken Fisher, responded to the charges by accusing synagogue leaders of wanting to continue benefiting from below-market rent at the expense of the international Young Israel movement.

“This is a terrific opportunity for the national council to realize some of the economic value of Manhattan real estate and at the same time to relieve themselves of the economic burden of a deteriorating building,” Fisher said.

According to its Web site, the national council serves as the coordinating agency for nearly 150 Orthodox congregations, with a combined membership of approximately 25,000 families in North America. It provides members with “educational, religious, social and spiritual communal programming.”

Fisher said that the Young Israel synagogue had shrugged off several offers to assist in the search for and funding of a new location. Instead, according to Fisher, the Young Israel synagogue’s first step in this dispute was to file a complaint with the State Attorney General’s office, which was dismissed. The synagogue responded in its brief that the national council went to the Supreme Court to approve the sale even after the organization was told it would be summoned by the rabbinic court.

According to Fisher, the national council’s own rabbinical board has “exclusive jurisdiction to determine questions of Jewish law” for the organization. Last summer, he added, the board concluded that the sale was kosher.

Fisher said that he did not know whether the national council would respond to the summons issued by the rabbinic court affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America.

The Young Israel of Fifth Avenue is arguing that according to rabbinic law, or Halacha, the national council cannot sell the sanctuary until it secures a larger, or at least equal, space for the two congregations close to the current site. Synagogue leaders are circulating what they say is a list of 17 Orthodox rabbis from around the world who support the congregation. But at least one on the roster, Rabbi Moshe David Tendler of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, N.Y., told the Forward he did not issue a ruling in favor of the congregation, but stated generally that a house of worship cannot be sold without an immediate replacement.

The Fifth Avenue congregation and the Sephardic Minyan serve Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park and other hip and pricey downtown neighborhoods.

The fledgling Sephardic Minyan claims to be the only one of its kind in Manhattan located below 65th street. It serves a budding community of young couples and students who have moved out of the often-insular Sephardic communities in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J.

The leaders of both congregations said that they were excluded from the hearings held by the national council’s rabbinical board and that their positions were misrepresented. The board is chaired by Rabbi Peretz Steinberg of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, N.Y., and includes a top Yeshiva University rabbinical dean, or rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig. Willig also serves on the Beth Din of America.

In a March 4 letter to the Young Israel congregation, the Sephardic Minyan railed against the national council and its rabbinical board. The letter stated that the exclusion of Rabbi Israel Wohlgelernter of the Fifth Avenue congregation in the halachic debate over the sale was a “personal attack on our community and a blatant” desecration of God’s name.

One of the letter’s signatories, Jonathan Nachmani, is a 17-year-old high school student at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the Upper East Side. Nachmani helped found the Sephardic Minyan two years ago as an alternative for Syrian Jews who have only recently ventured into Manhattan to “take a break” from their established communities, he said.

The president of the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue, Victor Bellino, said that the synagogue has historically operated as a partner, rather than as a tenant, of the national council. He pointed to the history of the building at 3 West 16th Street. The building, purchased in 1945 from the Amalgamated Garment Workers Union of America, was bought to house both the national council’s offices and a sanctuary, Bellino said.

In its early years, the synagogue’s spiritual leaders also served as the heads of the national council. Today, according to Bellino, the congregation pays between $22,000 and $25,000 a year for the 5,000 square foot space, which he calculates as one-third of the building’s maintenance fees. Bellino acknowledged that for an ordinary tenant that fee would fall far below market value. But his congregation, which contributes to capital improvements and helps fundraise for the national council, is no ordinary tenant, according to Bellino.

But Fisher questioned the accuracy of Bellino’s historical account and said that although there is no official lease, the Young Israel congregation is a rent-paying tenant. He disputed the claim that the congregation covers one-third of the maintenance costs. Fisher also claimed that the congregations were not locked out of the halachic debate.

In fact, Fisher said, Wohlgelernter was traveling when the national council’s rabbinical board met. And, he added, since then Wohlgelernter has not asked the board to reconsider its decision.

Wohlgelernter, however, strongly opposed the sale in a statement posted on his synagogue’s Web site: “It is painful to learn that the father now wishes to disown and disinherit his son and the mother abandon her child.”

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