WEB EXCLUSIVE: Fracas In The East Village
08/06/08
Staff Writer
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At 7:20 p.m. on Monday, only nine people had shown up for the 7:15 Mincha service at Anshei Meseritz synagogue, a crumbling relic from the turn of the last century that sits directly across the street from the Village View public housing project in Lower Manhattan. Past the sheaths of peeling gray paint and decaying stained glass Stars of David, the shul’s inside houses dysfunctional toilets are said to be more frequently visited by rats than humans. But if a pending deal with a Northeast real estate mogul goes through, the archaic synagogue will be no more — at least in its current incarnation. At a meeting last month, the congregation’s leadership and members voted in favor of a deal with the Kushner Companies, which would demolish and rebuild the existing Adas Le Israel Anshei Meseritz, erected in 1910 at 415 E. Sixth St. in the East Village. In its stead, the developer would construct a two-floor modern synagogue owned and operated by the congregation, topped with four floors of rental apartments owned by Kushner. In addition to restructuring the synagogue, the developer would pay for the shul’s first five years of utility costs and would give the congregation $725,000 in cash, according to the board’s attorney, Brian Burstin. Yet a group of non-members who say they pray there regularly complain that they were not invited to the July 7 meeting and were “surreptitiously” excluded from a vote that they rightfully should have been a part of. “For those who pray there every day to be totally ignored about what they say represents a total callousness on the part of the shul’s administration,” said William Rapfogel, a lifelong member of Anshei Meseritz and the executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Rapfogel sides with the excluded cohort and criticizes the alleged secrecy of the meeting, which he chose not to attend despite invitation. “It was set at a time to minimize participation,” he said, noting the meeting’s 10 a.m. time slot on the Monday following Fourth of July weekend. “I think there was an attempt here to hide and not show what was going on.” But Burstin argues that the 10 a.m. July 7 time slot was the most ideal time for a meeting, and those unable to attend could vote by proxy. The board invited all members from the official annual list, which did not include the disputed group of people, according to Burstin. “We haven’t been invited, we haven’t been informed, our opinion hasn’t been heard,” said one congregant who asked not to be identified. This congregant, who declined to give his name for fear that a volatile member of the insider cohort might physically attack him in retaliation, claimed that he repeatedly tried to pay the $36 annual dues for membership, but was rejected time after time. In adherence with New York state religious corporation law, any decision regarding the disposition of religious property has to be made by a congregational vote, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. During the past three years working with the synagogue, Burstin said that the board has been denying all new membership applications because any further inclusion — and additional voting rights — would be detrimental to the future of the shul. “It would give people the ability to create a bloc of votes who are only interested in translating the synagogue into a failed position,” he said, fearing that the congregation would disappear entirely in this scenario. “We want to build something here — then come members,” said Rabbi Pesach Ackerman, 79, the shul’s spiritual leader for the past 40 years. But his opponents suspect a different motivation behind this strategy. “The reason they are not taking in new members is because they want to avoid accountability, they want to avoid transparency,” Rapfogel argued, adding that his own two sons were denied membership. “Why wouldn’t they want to show the members or let new members come in to see it; why wouldn’t they reach out?” “If they included a broader base of people who attend services there, they would have voted not to do this and to preserve the synagogue with a new rabbi,” said another regular attendee, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of harm to his person. “I believe that this cast of characters is doing this for one reason only — for personal enrichment.” Whether or not there is truth to this statement, the group of non-member fears that during the time spent rebuilding the synagogue, the worshipers will siphon off entirely to other venues. “If they’re basically being told you have no rights here, why would they wait?” Rapfogel asked. “There’s another shul down the block on Sixth Street between First and Second [avenues], why wouldn’t they just try to go there?” Within the contingency loyal to the board’s decision — including those who showed up for the Monday minyan — many members find fault in Rapfogel’s involvement and even question his right to have a voice in the synagogue’s future. “To the best of my knowledge, Rapfogel hasn’t shown up in years to be part of a minyan or to participate,” said Shelley Ackerman, the rabbi’s daughter. “He’s the invisible man,” agreed Les Sussman, a neighborhood resident and member of the shul for the past seven years. “People who never come want to be members,” he added, wondering where these men are when there isn’t a full minyan. To Rapfogel, however, these charges against him skirt the issue at hand. “I’ve been in the synagogue periodically during the year,” he rebutted. “But that’s not the issue. There are people who are there on a regular basis who are completely being ignored.” Meanwhile, although Burstin maintains that Kushner has signed a “binding contract” with the shul, he also recognizes that the decision is not entirely a done deal. According to New York state law, he explained, charities such as Anshei Meseritz must obtain the attorney general’s review as well as an order from the supreme court before selling the majority of their assets. At the same time, Rapfogel and the group of angry congregants are filing complaints to the New York State Attorney General’s office, arguing that the board did not faithfully account for all members’ voices. These complaints hark back to those filed in a 2001 case to save the nearly demolished Stanton Street Shul, a campaign led by the same attorney who is advocating Anshei Meseritz’s demolition and reconstruction. While his critics contend he has gone from supporting the underdog to abetting in the destruction of a shul, Burstin argues that Stanton Street was going to be replaced by a Jesuit theater, and that he he was preserving that synagogue in the same way he is trying to protect the current shul. “I don’t see the contrast here,” Burstin said, in response to charges of hypocrisy. “This project will save the Meseritz synagogue.” In terms of saving their shul, the excluded congregants are not unanimously against the idea of reconstruction — they would simply like to have a voice in the matter before any decision is made. “It may be that this is the best plan, but they should have disclosed things, they should’ve been open about things,” Rapfogel said. If the current deal does go through, Burstin said that the currently unsalaried Rabbi Ackerman would be duly compensated, with an eventual retirement package made possible by the Kushner purchase. But Ackerman maintains that the agreement has nothing to do with money earned, and he aims to preserve the integrity of the congregation. “It has to be a shul — it will not be done unless it is a shul,” he said.

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