The 18 men praying together early on a recent Friday morning, wrapped in tefillin and tallitot, didn’t exactly look like squatters. Their Orthodox synagogue, in the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, also seemed fairly permanent. A hulking, wooden ark sat against one wall. Bookshelves filled with religious texts covered another. A blue velvet clothwith the embroidered name of the congregation, Machzikei Torah, lay on top of a dais dominating the room.
But an eviction notice, now partly ripped off the door, reveals that the congregation was ordered by its landlord to evacuate the premises by September 1. Although a New York City housing court has given the congregation a reprieve until after the High Holy Days, with no lease the synagogue’s members aren’t optimistic that they will be allowed to stay.
After 33 years of daily prayers in the auditorium of Yeshiva Rambam, a private religious high school, Machzikei Torah is being pushed out by the yeshiva to make room for a new, more reliably paying tenant: the Hebrew Language Academy.
Despite having opened only weeks ago, the Hebrew Language Academy is already being closely watched as one of the country’s first representatives of the much-buzzed-about push to establish publicly funded Hebrew charter schools. But the academy’s residence in a building occupied by a yeshiva, paired with its Hebrew-language focus, has posed some hurdles, given the requirement that it adhere to the separation between religion and state.
Following a desperate search for a location, the academy decided to lease the first floor of the Yeshiva Rambam building, which includes the auditorium that has served as Machzikei Torah’s home. The yeshiva itself has moved upstairs to the second floor to accommodate the charter school.
Although representatives of the academy declined to comment, the yeshiva’s executive director, Michael Spiegel, said that the charter school could not share the auditorium with a religious group.
Some members of the congregation see their synagogue as a casualty of what they say is an attempt to rid the building of any Jewish trace so that it can eventually be taken over completely by the Hebrew Language Academy — a process that started, they said, with the removal of the mezuzahs from the first floor of the building.
“In Germany you had to do this and in Russia you had to do this. Not in America!” said Joel Zweibel, who was one of the founding members of Machzikei Torah and said he has been involved with the congregation and the yeshiva for 50 years. “This is a building that was built for the word of God, and now the word of God is erased from there, by law. You’re not allowed to say God’s name in there.”
Spiegel denied the charge that the charter school was going to take over the building. Rather, he said, renting space to the academy was an important step in saving the cash-strapped, 110-student yeshiva. He also insisted that there is no competition between a tenant willing to provide the yeshiva with hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent and another that cannot even afford to pay for the electricity it uses.
“They are renting space,” Spiegel said of the congregation. “We don’t want them here anymore. End of story.”
Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy is the nation’s second Hebrew-themed charter school. The first, Florida’s Ben Gamla Charter School, was launched in 2007. The Brooklyn school, which opened its doors August 24, is being partly bankrolled by leading Jewish philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt, who has committed half a million dollars a year, as well as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which has pledged a quarter-million dollars annually. The school by law must enroll students irrespective of their ethnic and religious background.
The charter school’s search for a home was not an easy one. Its initial choice, a junior high school in Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood, was rejected after protests by hundreds of local parents who opposed the presence of the school. Yeshiva Rambam was something of a last resort, settled on only weeks before the school was to open.
The initiators of the Hebrew Language Academy — including Sara Berman, Steinhardt’s daughter — have said that they overcame worries about placing the school in a yeshiva when they were provided with other examples of charter schools that rent space from religious institutions. They have pointed to Brooklyn’s Hellenic Classical Charter School, which is housed in a Greek Orthodox church.
When Yeshiva Rambam first moved in the late 1970s into the squat, brown building on the corner of Kings Highway and New York Avenue that it now occupies, it brought along Machzikei Torah, the congregation started at its previous location. The congregation took up residence in the auditorium of the newly constructed building and, as Zweibel put it, became “part and parcel” of the yeshiva. He said that the congregation paid no rent but that it contributed money to the yeshiva through bingo and other fundraisers. Zweibel, an active congregant, was once a vice president of the yeshiva.
Congregants say that their synagogue’s close relationship with the yeshiva began to fray long before the charter school arrived on the scene. In 1998, the yeshiva went from being an elementary school to a high school, and it began charging the congregation rent to use its auditorium.
According to some congregants, the change coincided with the increasing dominance on the yeshiva’s board of Alex Rovt, a Ukrainian-born businessman who was ranked by Forbes magazine last year as No. 301 on its list of the world’s richest people, with a net worth of $1.6 billion. He made his fortune as the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturer.
Rovt has been giving between $300,000 and $500,000 annually to the yeshiva for the past 18 years, Spiegel said. In 1998 the building itself was renamed the Zvi David Roth Academy, after Rovt’s grandfather.
Rovt did not respond to requests seeking comment on this story.
Two years ago, Rovt asked Spiegel, a childhood friend who grew up with him in the small Ukrainian town of Mukachevo and had recently retired from a 30-year career in the jewelry business, to take over as the yeshiva’s executive director. With Spiegel’s arrival, the yeshiva’s relationship with Machzikei Torah became more antagonistic, congregants said.
Spiegel was interested in improving the yeshiva’s financial circumstances. He said that the congregation was taking up space while hardly ever paying the rent fully or on time. “They were getting away with murder,” he said.
When the Hebrew Language Academy approached Spiegel about renting space, he said he saw an opportunity to provide needed income for the yeshiva, especially in a worsening financial environment. Spiegel said that Rovt has been so supportive of the Hebrew Language Academy that he was considering adding a third and fourth floor to the building to make room as the school, which now has only 150 kindergartners and first graders, grows by another grade each year.
The members of Machzikei Torah, which now has a daily morning minyan and a revolving group of 65 regular participants, say the congregation serves an important function in the community. Spiegel, however, said that seven new synagogues have opened up in the past few years within close proximity of the yeshiva.
Rabbi Moshe Toiv, spiritual leader of Machzikei Torah for more than a decade, said that he had been looking for a new home for his congregation, but so far has found no one to take them in. “We are desperately prayerful,” he said.
“I don’t want to even think about it,” said David Hyman, a member of the congregation’s board. “Moving out of here is not an option. We are totally against it.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman