Young Israel Movement In Turmoil Over Upstate Shul

No-confidence vote in leadership sought after threat to expel Syracuse synagogue.

Staff Writer
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In the wake of an unprecedented move by the National Council of Young Israel to expel a member congregation in upstate Syracuse, a rebellion is brewing among some of the Orthodox congregations affiliated with the movement.

The challenge to the National Council surfaced during a conference call last Thursday with representatives of the organization’s nearly 150 member congregations.

At the end of what was described as a contentious call — during which National Council leaders repeatedly refused to discuss plans to expel a member congregation in Syracuse — one synagogue representative made a motion of no-confidence in the National Council’s leadership. With that, the national leaders hung up, leaving synagogue representatives puzzled and upset, according to those on the call.

One of those on the call, Hillel Levin, a board member of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, said he was “disappointed by the National Council’s handling of the Syracuse matter and its handling of the meeting of the delegates. Of the delegates who spoke at the meeting, I can think of only one who spoke vaguely in favor of National Council’s handling of the whole thing.”

Levine said that everyone else on the call was upset, ranging from “clearly disturbed to outraged.”

The planned vote on the expulsion of Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse — and possible legal action to seize the synagogue’s assets — was said by the National Council to be over the synagogue’s failure to pay $20,000 in back dues. The National Council withdrew the matter at the last minute to permit time for a negotiated settlement, and cited those talks as the reason for its refusal to discuss the matter with The Jewish Week. 

It did issue a statement late Tuesday, however, in which it said it does not “debate our internal issues publicly,” that it has “no intention of closing a synagogue” and is “guided by the constitution of our organization with the direction of our board of directors and Young Israel Council of Rabbis Halacha committee.”

The Syracuse congregation, however, contends that the real reason for the planned expulsion was its election of a woman president several years ago. Its president, Dr. Beverly Marmor, the second consecutive female lay leader of the congregation, said that although there were rabbis who had wanted to work out a financial settlement in recent days, that ended “because of the chaos of the moment.”

The proposed settlement was said to have had the Syracuse congregation pay at least part of its back dues to the national body, which in turn would drop its alleged complaint about having a woman at the helm.

At least two other Young Israel congregations have had women presidents, but this is believed to be the first time the National Council has sought membership approval to take legal action to stop it.

The action comes at a time when the National Council appears to be moving more and more to the right religiously, a move some of its member congregations are apparently not prepared to make.

Founded in 1912 and considered a modern-to-centrist “Torah-true” movement within American Orthodoxy for most of its history, the National Council in recent years is viewed as increasingly in the haredi camp, having moved to the right both politically and religiously.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the group’s chief executive, has made the campaign to free Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel and is serving a life sentence, a major cause for the National Council. And rules put into effect three years ago by the organization’s Council of Rabbis Vaad Halacha [committee on Jewish law], have upset the leaders of a number of Young Israel congregations who say they did not sign on for the restrictions when they joined the national group.

Several of those leaders interviewed cited in particular an August 2007 letter that included the following in which the organization said there were a series of new regulations:

*  Synagogue presidents must be male and Jewish from birth;  

*  Family memberships may not be granted if a spouse is not Jewish; 

*  Women’s prayer services are prohibited;

*  Women may no longer read the Megillah during a prayer service;

*  The Young Israel Council of Rabbis must approve anyone employed by a Young Israel congregation as a rabbi.

The last one was widely believed to be a mechanism to prevent a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, from gaining a pulpit at a Young Israel synagogue, though Rabbi Lerner has denied that.

“Nobody knows who is making these decisions and who are the halachic authorities,” said one Young Israel synagogue president. “If you are in Syracuse, maybe a woman president is your only option. Maybe a different standard should apply in New York City; you cannot make uniform standards. We have common values, but you can’t impose arcane values.”

The ban on women synagogue presidents, he continued, “is just wrong and offensive and not politically correct or acceptable.”

The synagogue president pointed out that the National Council has not held a membership convention for at least 10 years, preferring instead to convene meetings of member synagogues through telephone conference calls.

“This issue has now exposed the underbelly of the way” the National Council is run, he added. “We’re a civilized, knowledgeable group of people who have finally said enough is enough. We can’t exist under duress and fear of retribution” if we go off the reservation. 

“We must live under an organization that follows rules, is transparent and meets the needs of its constituents,” the synagogue president continued. “We’re here to stand up for one of our own, a poor shul in Syracuse — the only bastion of Orthodox Judaism in upstate New York — that is trying its hardest to preserve itself. And here is a national organization trying to tell them how to operate. Where were [the national leaders] when [the synagogue members] needed them?”

This appears to be the first open rift in the nearly 100-year-old organization. 

There is no known precedent of an extant Jewish congregation in this country becoming the object of, in effect, a hostile takeover by a national group like the National Council, Marc Stern, counsel and acting executive director of the American Jewish Congress told The Jewish Week. “Because most shuls are freestanding bodies and their membership in national bodies is loose, it doesn’t happen often.”

“We’re in the process of putting together a formal response to the National Council,” said the president of a member congregation who asked for anonymity because the response had not been finalized.

“We believe in the right of a synagogue to self-determination and to promote its values as opposed to trying to defend ourselves against a national organization that is imposing standards on local branches,” he said. “If a synagogue doesn’t want to be a member, it should have the right to resign without retribution.”

Marmor said her members voted to resign from the National Council two years ago during an emergency meeting called by the then-synagogue president, Joan Poltenson, after a July 2, 2008, threat from the National Council.

“We were told that if our [woman president] did not resign immediately, they would sue us for having used their name for years and would also claim our assets,” Marmor said, noting that the synagogue owns its building, a parsonage and at least three Torah scrolls.

Although Marmor said her synagogue sent a letter to the National Council informing it of the resignation and a name change from Young Israel-Shaarei Torah of Syracuse, the National Council hired an attorney who wrote back to say that the organization’s constitution bars a member congregation from resigning its membership and affiliation.

The letter also instructed the congregation to confirm its continued membership and “cease and desist from any further effort to operate as an independent Orthodox synagogue...”

Marmor said her synagogue has ignored the letter.

“This is the United States of America,” she said. “Whoever heard that you can’t resign from a voluntary organization?” 

But the National Council does have the authority to expel a member and seize its assets, according to the organization’s constitution. Marcia Eisenberg, general counsel of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said that synagogues that join the organization agree to abide by it.

“When you are part of the movement, there are certain obligations on both sides,” she said. “If they have signed a contract [to join], they have to be bound to it.”

Eisenberg noted that the other national congregational movements — including the Orthodox Union, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union of Reform Judaism — are “much looser” with respect to their synagogue affiliations.  


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07/07/2010 - 06:06

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"The National Council of Young Israel has proven repeatedly that it abides neither by the Torah nor its own supposed standards. It has proven itself to be worse than a mere bully. It has committed fraud and forgery in pursuit of goals that are against the mission the National Council was created to perform. It is time for the Torah-True Young Israel membership and branches to end the reign of kefirah of the current administration of NCYI. "
If you are a board member of a Young Israel, please go to the following link to support transparency at the NCYI. If you are a member of a Young Israel, please bring this to the attention of a board member and ask them to get your shul on board!
The situation in Wilmington was quite different from what Young Israel is doing to Syracuse. If Adat Kodesh Shel Emet had added a mechitza at the time a woman became president they would still be in the OU. Besides, the OU let them go their separate way. The OU didn't try to seize their assets.
Although the OU will most-likely deny it, a similar situation occurred in Wilmington, DE 10-20 years ago. The lack of a mechitza was knowN by the OU but never an issue until the synagogue elected a woman president.
A solution to the turmoil at NCYI is to merge Young Israel into the Orthodox Union. About 40 shuls are already members of both Orthodox organizations. Here's what Ava Sturm Strauss had to say about a merger. "With NCYI’s abolition of delegate meetings as well as regional and national conventions, the Council is no longer accountable to its membership and in turn, its member synagogues. Adding the National Council’s irrelevancy on the social and political scene, is all the more reason to seek a merger with the OU. Some 18 or 19 years ago, at the behest of the president of the Orthodox Union, my father, Rabbi Ephraim Sturm, was asked to prepare a position paper for an OU/NCYI merger. The plan had 3 phases which called for joint ventures, followed by a merger of the lesser departments with the larger departments of the other, and then, the final phases of unity. Since the Council’s then-president rejected the paper outright, there was no need for an OU response. Today unity is much more difficult. The NCYI’s excellent financial position with millions of dollars in the bank gives it a negative incentive to merge." NCYI has millions of dollars (much of it from the over $6 Million "sale" of 3 W. 16th St to a member of the former Young Israel of Fifth Avenue, YIFA) so why do they feel the need to badger the Syracuse for anything? This is a further example of the nastiness of National Council we saw when they were chasing YIFA out of the building. (Split In Young Israel Family, Friday, June 6, 2003:
The CAPTCHA question for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions which I just received had me type in the following characters: aRRAB. Is there some sort of arab conspiracy here? :-)
I would just like to remind the latest Anonymous poster that the Halachot of Shmirat Haloshon do sometimes REQUIRE negative information to be spoken. We saw that in these very pages in the case of Baruch Lanner. If not for the Jewish Week having the courage to speak up then who knows how many other children would have suffered? Here we have a similar situation where corrupt individuals are in the leadership of what is supposed to be a “Torah-true” movement. But the way these leaders have threatened rabbis in Virginia and Syracuse, arrested a widow in Las Vegas, locked the 5th Ave Young Israel on Erev Yom Kippur and sued the shul members is against the Torah. These are things that must be spoken about so they are not Lashon Harah.
For months I've been getting emails about Halachic violations at a Young Israel branch in Nevada and National Council is more concerned about a minor amount of past dues from a shul that already left the organization? Syracuse has a major university and without Rabbi Shore there would not be any kosher food there. The Jewish students depend on Shaarei Torah. Where was NCYI when resources were needed to help keep the shul going? And they want to take away what's left? This isn't Las Vegas where they get billionaires to write checks to pay for radio shows that mock the Talmud. Where is the "Young" in Young Israel if NCYI destroys what's left of Yiddishkeit in Syracuse?
Good question, "Where is the 'Young' in Young Israel...?" The organization should be renamed Young and Naive Israel.
This is the Three Weeks -- please keep this discussion free of lashon hara. I look forward to reading an article headlined "NCYI and Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse Reach Amicable Settlement," bimheira vyameinu.
And I look forward to reading an article headlined, "NCYI Insolvent in Aftermath of Mass Exodus by Branch Synagogues".
Was there a move at this Delegates Meeting to expel and seize the assets of Young Israel of Scarsdale for having a Women's Tefilah service? That isn't just a policy Young Israel made up in 2007 being violated like the ban on women and convert presidents. Its from a ruling from 1985! This is what Steven Mostofsky wrote: "Some have criticized decisions of the Vaad Halacha, such as their ruling on women’s prayer groups. This ruling, however, was based upon a responsum by five Roshei Yeshiva from Yeshiva University. A 1985 Viewpoint stated: The prayer group controversy has diverted attention away from the need to investigate Halachically acceptable ways to augment existing synagogue services to meet the rising spiritual expectations of today’s better educated Jewish woman. The widespread adoption of the Young Israel synagogue model in recent decades is proof that innovation in consonance with Halacha is a realistic possibility even in the Orthodox community.." [] Why is National Council picking on a struggling shul like Syracuse but looks the other way for Scarsdale?
To me as a Jew who lives in Syracuse and is not a member of the congregation involved --- I can't understand what would lead the National Organization to take actions that could only damage this congregation. All they can achieve is hurting Judaism in Central New York. It's a fine place, with a highly respected Rabbi, and is an important Jewish resource for Central New York, the only Orthodox shul within a 60 mile radius and engaged in outreach and cooperation with the entire Jewish community. National Young Israel has really gotten itself a well deserved black eye over this thanks to the power of the internet in revealing their ugly machinations to the whole world.
My understanding is that the clause in the constitution of National Council that deals with acquiring the property of a branch was for the purpose of preventing the assetts of a defunct branch from falling into nonreligious hands IE: the State. It was never the intention of the framers of the consitution to use this clause as a weapon to threaten branches with property seizure when their behavior fails to meet a standard set by National Council. All contracts must meet the test of being "according to the intents of the parties". National Council fails in this test. They may have the option of expelling a branch but not of unjustly enriching themselves with the spoils of property of a branch they are attempting to seize. Furthermore intemporate language on the part of Rabbi Lerner or Rabbi Hammer of National Council is unbecoming to their post.
To the anonymous commenter who began his comment with "As a delegate": The claim that the National Council of Young Israel never wanted to take Syracuse's assets is absurd on its face. Under its own constitution, when a shul is expelled, the National Council takes its property. Indeed, in its letter to the Syracuse shul, available at, the National Council expressly cited that part of the constitution. It was only after an outcry from other synagogues, delegates, and people that you would surely consider "rude" that it momentarily backed off its immediate attempt to expel the synagogue and take its property. But the National Council gave no indication whatsoever that it would not press the issue in the future, or that it would not use the threat of such action to impose its will on other local synagogues. The rules that the National Council claims to follow do not indicate that the leadership may refuse to be responsive to the Delegates by asserting that some unnamed Rabbis asked them not to discuss a topic. That is what they did at this meeting. It is not rude for a Delegate to be concerned about these actions and to ask--even demand--that the leadership provide information and be responsive to its delegates and follow its own rules. As a member of my synagogue's board, I have an ethical and legal responsibility to protect my shul's interests, including its property. Those delegates who sought to press these issues were not being rude at all. They were being responsible.
To the anonymous commentator who starts off his comment with "As a delegate:" You say that NCYI conducted itself admirably. I wonder how many people think it's admirable to write the following: "YI Syracuse purposely used the issue of their having elected a female president as a smoke screen to resign from the Council without paying what they owed." This is a quote from the same email the anonymous commentator cited, in which NCYI told the delegates that it was removing the vote to expel YI Syracuse from the agenda so it could pursue an "equitable" settlement-- "b'shalom" (the mantra used by NCYI on the conference call). And it directly contradicts the letter that Hillel Levin quotes above. What is consistent (and shameful, rather than admirable) is NCYI's contempt for its member shuls.
Can somebody please explain to me the reason for the ban on converts as shul presidents? I truly do not understand what the possible rationale can be. On the face of it this would seem to be prohibited by halacha. I'm not trying to be contentious, just puzzled.
Why is the Jewish Week covering up the disgust threats made by "Rabbi" Pesach Lerner to the Syracuse congregation? These vile threats have been repeated a number of times. It's time for a real convention and for the National Council to replace it's dictator leadership.
I grew up in the Young Israel of Brooklyn.My father a"h,was the first Magid Shieur on Talmud in this Y.I. and the first Magid Shieur in Gemara in any Y.I. I am aware of.At that time it was common practice for members to enter the buliding and remove their hats and remain B'gilu Rosh,unless they entered the Shul or Beis Medrash. Most of the Mispallelim carried handkerchiefs and their yarlmakas in their pockets while walking through the streets to Shul on Shabbos. It was common to have mixed dancing at all functions that had music. From this generation blossomed a wonderful dor of shomrei Torah Umitzvos and people with Yiras Shamayim and Yiras Hakavod for 'true' Talmedei Chachamim. I dare to say that Taharas Hamishpacha was NOT followed by the majority of the K'hilla at the time Iwas growing up.This was even true amoung Yeshiva parents. There are ways of bringing change.It's refered to as 'tachsesei milchama'.BUT we must have people who know the proper 'tachsesei milchama'.Not to have Baryonim (anashim reikim,pochazim lamilchama),lead the fight. It is hurtful to see such bickering develop in the most important modern (used in its most glorious way)orthodox movement that was responsible for seeing such a beautiful flurishing of American Orthodox Judaism. Let's try to live by the principle of'D'racheha Darchei Noam' as explaind by Chazal.
Was that post written in English? With the Orthodox shift to the right has come a severe drop in the quality of secular education. Everything may be in the Torah, but the Torah is also in everything. Learn to write better, dude, or all the Torah you've learned is worth nothing.
YI is not moving the the right. the ignore the halacha of going to a Jewish court! NCYI are just like the reform movement. Change with the times, Beis din doesn't apply nowadays....Whats next shabbos? Who agrees with me (to any extant at the least)
There are other rules in the Young Israel Constitution like having Sabbath Observant officers and ethical rabbis but certain wealthy YI congregations flout those rules and Lerner not only doesn't enforce them, he excuses them and even forged documents for one of them.
I guess YI/Shaarei Torah of Syracuse can sell their assets to a new congregation made up of the old members: Synagogues, especially in older communities, don't sell for much anyway. Then the old congregation can make a nice donation to the new "revitalized" congregation of the same amount paid for the building. Finally, the Young Israel of Syracuse can dissolve itself. Thus it would not have to resign anything or risk being expelled from the National YI, while not having any assets that might be seized. One major item that the articles on this Syracuse synagogue controversy have not elucidated is just who makes up the National Council of Young Israel and how these members are selected. The National YI has every right to enforce contracts. But just because they have the right doesn't mean that for the greater good of the Jewish community, or even just YI's own good, they should try to enforce these provisions. If they want people to be more like their standards, they might find that education and outreach gain more adherents than threats and coercion. I guess that would involve a long term commitment to their congregations, but I imagine 100 year old national organizations are no strangers to the long term.
The NCYI Constitution states that the organization may seize the assets of a brach synagogue if that synagogue is either dissolved or expelled, so dissolving the shul is not a viable option. Despite the lies coming out of the National Council of Young Israel, NOWHERE in their constitituion does it say that a branch synagogue may not resign. Shaarei Torah of Syracuse has every right to resign their membership. They owe NCYI nothing!
"...a poor shul in Syracuse — the only bastion of Orthodox Judaism in upstate New York..." Not to minimize the issue, but just to clarify: There are also Orthodox shuls in Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Rochester, Schenectady, to name a few. Of course, they are mostly OU shuls, not Young Israel. They are all bastions of Orthodoxy of Upstate NY. Unfortunately, some of them are struggling to survive because of the mass exodus of Orthodox Jews (along with the general pop) from upstate communities.Upstate also has a vibrant NCSY region, also quite a bastion.
This is a fine article, but I would like to clarify a number of points. First, my last name is spelled Levin, not Levine. Second, the following sentence is somewhat misleading: "The challenge to the National Council surfaced during a conference call last Thursday with representatives of the organization’s nearly 150 member congregations." In truth, only a fraction of Young Israel's member synagogues chose to participate in the call. Third and most important, the National Council's memo to member synagogues in advance of the call clearly indicated that it was moving to expel the Syracuse synagogue on the basis of both the dues issue and the issue of having a woman president. Any claim by the National Council that this was simply a dispute about dues is disingenuous at best. Here is what the notice said, in relevant part: "The NCYI Chairman scheduled a Delegates Assembly meeting for June 24, 2010 at 7:00.p.m. for a vote on the recommendation by the Cooperations Committee and Board of Directors that YIST [the Syracuse synagogue] be expelled, per the NCYl Constitution. The charges are: a) Y1ST violated Article 8 of the NCYI Constitution by refusing to pay dues. b) YIST violated Article 3 by electing a woman as its president in contravention the Halachic Guidelines set by the Halachah Committee of the Young Israel Council of Rabbis."
As a delegate, and one who could not get a word in edgewise because Mr. Levin and others were so rude,I would like to remind him that the email also said: "A number of Young Israel rabbis asked us to postpone the vote on the resolution about the Young Israel of Syracuse. They want to attempt to resolve the matter with the branch so we may avoid a vote on expelling the branch. We of course agreed to do so. " NCYI never wanted to close Young Israel of Syracuse or "steal" its assets. We wanted only to resolve our differences in an equitable manner. " NCYI was following the rules of its constitution which we recognize guides our branch and all the other branches that call themselves Young Israel. That is what seperates us from other organizations. We have standards. And, according to the constitution, It would be up to the delegates to expell or not. Not the "so called" organization. So to be fair , NCYI conducted itself admirably.
It is my hope that you will cease and desist all further harrasment of this and any other synagogue that choses to no longer be affiliated with your organization. Despite the misinformation that your organization has been spreading, there is no clause in the Constitution of the National Council of Young Israel that prohibits a branch synagogue from resigning its membership.

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