The MacDougal Street Synagogue in New York City doesn’t have a sanctuary or a rabbi. It doesn’t run prayer services or perform weddings. And it doesn’t have a congregation.
It does, however, operate budget hostels in six buildings in Manhattan. Or it did, until the New York City Department of Buildings closed four of them, calling the hostels “illegal” and citing fire safety and zoning violations. The synagogue claims that the hostels are part of a program designed to teach tolerance to visitors to New York City. But legal documents filed by the city’s attorneys call those claims a “sham.”
“Putting aside the fact that the MacDougal Street synagogue does not seem to be an actual synagogue at any known location, it is in any case not customary for a synagogue to have accessory hotel rooms being rented to tourists via the Internet,” city lawyers wrote in a May 19 court filing.
Though the tolerance programs do exist, the organization’s claim that it is a synagogue that rents out rooms, rather than a network of hostels that calls itself a synagogue, has been called into question. Raising additional questions is the fact that the family that created and operates the synagogue, the Galperns, also controls the buildings in which the hostels are located.
But a lawsuit filed by the synagogue argues that its status as a religious institution and its tolerance programs exempt it from the zoning laws that have put it at odds with the DOB. The hostels, according to one of the synagogue’s filings, “are not ‘illegal hotels,’ but rather residences for visitors to New York from throughout the world who, while in residence and hosted by the Synagogue, study the teaching of ‘Tolerance in the 21st Century.’”
On Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side, placards bearing the name of the MacDougal Street Synagogue hang behind the glass outer doors of 1370, 1372 and 1374 York Avenue. An empty storefront on the ground floor of one of the buildings promises that the MacDougal Street Synagogue and a community center are “coming soon.”
But the buildings’ inner doors are plastered with notices from the Department of Buildings ordering the hostels inside vacated.
DOB records show that inspectors found an “illegal transient hotel” in each of the three buildings during a May 5 visit. Citing inadequate fire protection, overcrowding and a lack of sufficient exits, the department shut down the hostels. An image of the hostel’s interior posted online by the city shows a crowded room with at least three beds, including one bunk bed.
The citations came amid a citywide crackdown on residential buildings the city considers to have been illegally converted into hotels.
“The reason they’re problematic is they’re firetraps,” said Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of the city’s illegal hotels. “These are residential properties and are zoned as such, and there’s a reason they are zoned as such. There’s a real safety issue.”
A hostel operated by the synagogue, at 97 Allen Street on the Lower East Side, is also currently closed. Locations at 14 St. Marks Place, in the East Village, and 139 Fulton Street, in the Financial District, are taking guests. Beds at the 139 Fulton Street location go for $45 per night, according to the online hostel website hostelbookers.com, which a representative of the synagogue referred to as an official booking site for the synagogue’s hostels. A listing for the 14 St. Marks Place location on that website was removed in June.
One morning in early June, Dutch tourists Maria Krikea, 25, and Paula Krikea, 19, were leaving the 139 Fulton Street hostel carrying large backpacks. The freckled sisters said that they hadn’t been aware before arriving that the hostel was a program of a synagogue, or that it existed to teach tolerance.
Once there, however, they said they had been invited to attend a small conversation about tolerance with one other guest and a moderator.
The sisters were ambivalent as to the value of the program. “It’s good that they work on it, so people are thinking about what is tolerance,” Maria said. “But I think people who are traveling are [already] very open.”
In an e-mail, Andrew Squire, an attorney representing the synagogue, called the rooming units the hostels rent to tourists a “necessary accessory” to the synagogue’s mission of “teaching tolerance to visitors to New York City from throughout the World.”
Squire wrote that guests are briefed on the synagogue’s mission upon arriving at the hostels, and that “a myriad of tolerance related information” and “short, easy to read, self-study tolerance courses” are left in all guest rooms, and that guests are invited to what the synagogue calls “tea group” meetings — the meetings described by the Krikea sisters.
The notion that the tolerance programs are central to the hostel activities is integral to the synagogue’s legal argument that it should be exempt from certain zoning laws. In its March 2010 complaint against the city, the synagogue argues that it falls under an exemption in the New York City administrative code allowing charitable and religious institutions to convert homes into rooming units, or rented rooms, “for working girls or women, or for working boys or men, or… for students attending a school or college.”
In its complaint the synagogue argues, “The ‘rooming units’ are occupied only by working men and women and school and college students who visit New York from throughout the World to increase their interest in and knowledge of the teachings of tolerance.”
The Huffington Post first reported on the synagogue’s lawsuit in May.
When asked about guests who did not know beforehand that the hostel was part of a tolerance program, Squire wrote that was because of “the formatting of the booking websites.”
While the 139 Fulton Street location’s listing on hostelbookers.com describes the hostel as a “teaching tolerance program” in its first sentence, it is apparent that the booking websites serving the synagogue’s hostels aren’t always so clear. A listing on hostelsclub.com for the same location, accessed in mid-May, describes the hostel as “a fund raising effort by MacDougal Street Synagogue — Beit Midrash to build a new synagogue in its never ending quest to promote tolerance,” but does not mention the location’s tolerance programming. And an archived version of the hostelbookers.com website from April 2009 is similar to the hostelsclub.com listing.
Public records reveal that the family that founded the synagogue also controls the buildings housing the hostels.
Squire referred to the synagogue as the “brainchild” of the Galpern family — Robert Galpern and Tamara Zelcer, and Robert’s brother Louis Galpern and his wife, Eva Galpern. Rebekah Galpern, Robert and Tamara’s daughter, is also involved in the synagogue operation. Squire said that one Galpern is currently on the synagogue’s board, though did not specify which one.
Meanwhile, either Louis Galpern or Tamara Zelcer signed a single 2004 mortgage document on behalf of each of six separate companies that own the buildings that house the synagogue’s hostels, demonstrating that the Galpern family controls all the buildings. Squire confirmed that the family controlled the companies that control the synagogue buildings.
The Galperns own property around New York City and appear to be involved in the Jewish community. Louis and Eva Galpern were honored at the 2009 annual dinner of Congregation B’nai Avraham, a Brooklyn Heights Chabad-affiliated synagogue.
A message left for that synagogue’s rabbi went unanswered.
Squire would say little about the Galpern family. In response to a question about where the Galperns attend synagogue, Squire wrote, “The Galperns attend reputable and long established synagogues in both Manhattan and Staten Island.”
Squire said the hostels are “maintained by Galpern staff, but operated by the synagogue.” He did not respond to a question about what proportion of the income from the hostels goes to cover expenses incurred by the Galpern staff.
Squire would not clearly state whether the synagogue pays taxes on the hostels it operates. New York State and city laws allow religious organizations running hostels to apply for exemptions to sales and hotel room occupancy taxes as long as the rooms are in the same building in which the organization’s exempt activities take place and the renting of rooms is related to the exempt activities. Asked specifically whether the synagogue considered itself exempt, Squire did not answer. Instead, he wrote, “All taxes due and owing in connection with the ownership or operation of the subject buildings have been paid.”
Rebekah Galpern, a recent graduate of Barnard College, did not respond to questions about her family and about the synagogue which she had asked be submitted via e-mail. In an unsolicited lengthy e-mail about the importance of tolerance, she wrote that experiences of anti-Semitism on a trip to Europe led to her interest in tolerance programming. “It turns out that it’s very easy to bring a variety of different people together under one roof if that roof is in Manhattan!” she wrote. “It takes almost no effort on our part to get people here; once they’re here, that’s when the real work begins.”
Squire turned down a request to observe that “real work,” saying that a journalist for the Forward could attend a “tea group” meeting only as a participant and not as a reporter, and that the journalist could not interview anyone in the building — terms that were not acceptable to the Forward.
Squire provided the Forward with two brief, edited audio clips of “tea group” meetings. In the clips, a synagogue employee — identified by Squire as Ali Sayed — asked participants to talk about intolerance they had experienced in their own lives.
“Basically we don’t try to push nobody and we don’t talk about religion or anything but we talk about ourselves and what has happened to us,” Sayed said. In one clip, a man who identified himself as a son of a Georgian diplomat spoke about introducing his parents to his Ivorian girlfriend. In another, a woman talked about facing sex discrimination at a school where she was training to be a metalworker.
Meanwhile, the purported synagogue’s former rabbi has distanced himself from the project.
Rabbi Shmaya Katz of Chabad of Wall Street swore to a lengthy October 2010 affidavit laying out the synagogue’s argument in its case against New York City.
In his affidavit, Katz testified that he was the synagogue’s spiritual leader and president, and that it was his idea that the synagogue should focus on teaching tolerance to visitors to New York.
But in an e-mail exchange and an interview at the sparse downtown office of Chabad of Wall Street, Katz painted a different picture. Though the door of his Chabad office bears two placards — one reading, “Chabad of Wall Street,” another reading, “MacDougal Street Synagogue” — Katz said his involvement in the synagogue was minimal.
The rabbi, who spoke on the record on the condition he not be quoted directly, said he was to be the rabbi of the synagogues that MacDougal Street Synagogue would build, but that those synagogues never materialized. He maintained that he didn’t know what the MacDougal Street Synagogue was actually doing, though he said that he had been assured it was legal. And he said that he agreed to put his name on the lawsuit because he was told that he was the only officer of the synagogue available at the time.
Katz said that he was asked to become involved in the synagogue by the landlord of 139 Fulton Street, the building where Chabad of Wall Street has its office. That building is owned by the Galperns.
In an e-mail to the Forward, Katz said that he was no longer associated with the synagogue.
“I was deeply disturbed to discover that the project was indeed in operation, but in a completely different direction than what I had signed on for, and I immediately resigned. It was a mistake to lend my support to this project and I do regret it,” Katz wrote. He would not elaborate on what he discovered, nor would he specify when he resigned.
Squire maintained that Katz and the synagogue parted ways due to a disagreement over notions of tolerance that Squire attributed to Katz’s affiliation with Chabad.
He further said that plans for actual synagogue and study hall facilities were moving forward. In early June, the synagogue received a permit from the DOB to convert the first floor of 1372 York Avenue into a synagogue and cultural center. The synagogue also supplied plans for prayer rooms and study halls at 97 Allen Street and 14 St. Marks Place, both of which are pending approval.
Squire also said that the synagogue will install sprinkler systems in all of its buildings that currently lack one. He supplied plans for installation of one such system.
But a May 19 filing by lawyers for New York City raised questions about the sincerity of the synagogue’s mission. “Plantiffs’ vague assertions that they teach tolerance to those who rent out beds in the converted rooms are a sham, as there is no indication whatsoever of any educational activity being part and parcel of renting those rooms,” the lawyers wrote.
Elsewhere in the document, the lawyers refer to the plaintiffs’ “rant about teaching tolerance to the tourists who come to New York to see the sights.”
And the lawyers expressed concern about safety in the synagogue’s buildings, writing in the same filing, “Their misuse of these premises creates significant construction and fire safety issues for the transient guests who are unwittingly staying in an illegal accommodation….”
This story "Lawyers Doubt That IIllegal’ New York Hostel Is Really a Synagogue" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.