Brian Burstin has been praying at Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush in Brooklyn since 1967, when he was 11.
Before that, his parents were members at the stately yellow brick Modern Orthodox synagogue on Coney Island Avenue, near the busy Avenue J kosher shopping strip in the Midwood section. The shul’s late Rabbi Leo Landman, one of only three spiritual leaders in the synagogue’s 80-year-history, performed Burstin’s wedding.
But this High Holy Days season, Burstin, a 45-year-old attorney with a private practice in Manhattan, is not praying at his longtime spiritual home.
He was, in effect, excommunicated under Orthodox Jewish law, a rarely used punishment dating back to medieval times. Then his synagogue membership was revoked.
Burstin, a former vice president and board of trustee member, was not the only one to be disciplined in a dispute with the synagogue. Two other TTF members were expelled and issued a seruv, or ban: Joseph Peleg-Billig, an Israeli businessman, philanthropist, ex-Mossad spy technician and congregant for 24 years, and a former member of the board of trustees and finance committee; and Abraham Schwartz, a former finance committee chairman and member of the board of trustees and building committee.
They were removed and banned after filing a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court seeking synagogue contracts and financial records regarding the $350,000 renovation of the basement social hall. The trio charged that a handful of longtime top synagogue officials made unilateral and dubious financial decisions behind the backs of the board of trustees and membership, according to court papers.
As evidence they point to dozens of synagogue checks made out to cash: a violation of synagogue policy.
The three contend they are acting to protect the congregation under New York State law governing the operation of nonprofit and religious corporations. But synagogue officials dismiss the critics as troublemakers who want to damage the shul by making confidential financial records public. They refuse to open the books to the trio, noting a recent audit shows everything is in order.
What seemed like a common synagogue quarrel (usually resolved without civil or religious courts) became a holy dispute when the trio filed a lawsuit in April 2001, after months of being stonewalled. Stunned synagogue officers demanded that the trio settle the dispute in a religious court, or bet din.
"We felt that according to Orthodox law, one Jew shouldn’t bring another Jew to secular court, especially against a synagogue," said TTF president Ira Spodek. "It shouldn’t be aired out in public."
Shul officers turned to the Vaad Harabbanim of Flatbush, a local rabbinical board, which ordered that the civil lawsuit be withdrawn.
"We … feel we must inform you that pursuing a case in court against a fellow Jew is prohibited by Torah law and constitutes a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name," said a Nov. 1, 2001 letter to Burstin signed by Vaad president Rabbi Philip Singer and bet din chairman Rabbi Chaim Rubin. "Aside from a Chilul Hashem, you may God forbid fall within the category of ‘Moseir,’ a Jew who causes a fellow Jew to be harmed financially or physically by non-Jews."
After three warnings, the Vaad issued a seruv against the three in late February. Strongly enforced by the synagogue officers and the shul’s new rabbi, Yaakov Shulman, the bans called for Burstin and company to be shunned by co-worshipers and neighborhood synagogues.
But the trio says the Vaad’s bet din made critical religious mistakes and that the bans should never have been issued.
The bet din lifted the bans in mid-June, several days after Burstin and Billig’s attorney Christopher Sullivan sent a letter threatening legal action against the Vaad and TTF officials for damaging the reputations of his clients by publishing "malicious and false statements" about them.
But even though the seruvim were lifted against Burstin and Billig (Schwartz’s remains in effect for other reasons), the synagogue has refused to notify the congregation and the community ó in stark contrast to its aggressive publicizing of the original ban.
"It’s absolutely wrong," said Billig, the driving force behind the social hall expansion, so he could continue sponsoring cantorial fund-raising concerts to help the synagogue.
Billig is outraged that the shul’s "Legal Committee" wasted no time in faxing his wife in Israel about the seruv last March while threatening to publicize it around the world.
The shul’s March 6 fax read: "The Talmud Torah of Flatbush will be providing copies of this Seruv to members of the shul and certain institutions within the United States and Israel immediately."
Billig also said that Rabbi Shulman shamed him during worship. "In the middle of prayers he stopped and made a five-minute sermon advising people they should not sit near me, not do business with me," Billig said in an interview at his Midwood home. "He did it on six different occasions."
Burstin said it is "unfathomable" for the Vaad to have issued the seruv at the same time he had agreed to appear at a bet din to try and settle the dispute. Burstin provided documents showing that he told the Vaad that he would appear before a rabbinical court on Feb. 20: eight days before the seruv was issued.
On Feb. 25, Rabbi Rubin acknowledged Burstin’s letter, noting the next step: "We expect you to come to the din torah, and we will set a date."
But no date was ever given. Instead, Burstin said he learned that he had been banned, and the order publicly read to the congregation by Rabbi Shulman, a member of the Vaad, before Burstin was notified.
"It is inconceivable that the Seruv would have been furnished to certain claimants for a public reading on March 4 prior to sending the Seruv notice to me," he wrote the Vaad. "Needless to say, it has caused me and continues to cause me extraordinary pain and harm."
The Vaad admits it made a mistake in leaking the seruv.
"We would like to acknowledge at this time an error that had been made, that the Seruv was leaked and was read to the members of the Congregation prior to your receiving it in the mail. For that we are truly sorry," the Vaad said in a March 19 letter.
But the Vaad now insists it is not responsible for publicizing the seruv’s removal.
"It’s out of our hands," said Rabbi Singer, who noted his group issued only five such bans last year: three in this case.
Bet Din Under Attack
The Vaad also defends its seruv process as being "in accordance with halachic rules."
However, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a leading voice in Modern Orthodoxy, chastised the synagogue and the Vaad for failing to publicize the lifting of the bans.
"That is wrong," he said, adding that if the shul officers refuse to do it, "the Vaad should force them to."
Rabbi Rackman said the case is another example of the corruption of Orthodox rabbinical courts.
"Batei Din [rabbinical courts ] have a bad reputation, and that’s why Jews seek relief in secular courts," he said.
Rabbi Rackman also disagreed with the Vaad’s prohibition of Jews using secular courts. "In the absence of a better way, you certainly can do it," he said.
Rabbi Saul Berman, director of Edah, a Modern Orthodox advocacy group, said the TTF case points to the problem of accountability and credibility in the rabbinical court system.
He specifically noted the lack of an appeals process, so people like Burstin could get a second hearing before being put in, what Rabbi Berman calls, "a minor form of excommunication."
"I think there’s definitely a problem," he said. "We do not have a well-developed bet din system. We don’t have an appeals system. The system as a whole is not set up in a manner that encourages reliability and in a manner which has resulted in the confidence of the community that justice is being done."
Spodek, the TTF president, said he has no plans to notify the membership about the seruv’s removal. "The rabbi says we have no obligation," he said. Spodek suggested it is the Vaad’s responsibility.
Rabbi Shulman, who works full-time in the advertising department of The New York Times, said: "There’s no retracting." He said he would not announce seruv removals from the pulpit. He insisted that Burstin and Billig have no one to blame but themselves.
"Who brought the shame and embarrassment upon them? Who precipitated the contempt of the bet din? The correct behavior was to submit to the bet din and not go to a non-Jewish court and do a chilul Hashem," said Rabbi Shulman, who was hired in September 2001 in the middle of the dispute.
"My goal from day one was to create a proper halachic venue for resolving a dispute, and that’s been around since the days of Moses’ father-in-law," he said.
Spodek, meanwhile, recently filed a legal complaint against Burstin in the Departmental Disciplinary Committee of the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, a watchdog group for lawyers. It is a secular body.
In a May 12 letter on TTF stationery, Spodek accused Burstin of "deceitful and unprofessional conduct" for claiming to represent the synagogue in the lawsuit.
Rabbi Shulman was asked about the seeming contradiction of condemning Burstin and Billig for turning to a secular organization against another Jew, while Spodek is seemingly doing the same thing.
Rabbi Shulman defended Spodek. "I was aware of it," the rabbi explained. "The shul has a right to pursue relief."
Burstin says whether he can represent the membership against the officers to obtain financial records is the point of the lawsuit.
"To accept their contention as accurate would be to accept that the shareholders of Enron and WorldCom had no cause of action against Kenneth Lay or Bernard Ebbers," Burstin said, referring to the disgraced corporate CEOs.
Burstin believes he has New York State on his side, citing laws he says permit members to sue in the name of the congregation.
So far, he has not been successful. His lawsuit was tossed back and forth between two Brooklyn judges for more than a year before being dismissed on Aug. 9 by Judge Priscilla Hall because an affidavit was missing a signature, she wrote. An appeal is pending.
As for the synagogue, the dispute has taken its toll.
"Some people may have been friends and are no longer" because of the dispute, said one congregant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Longtime member Abraham Eisenberg said while most people are in the dark about the dispute and don’t discuss it, "the more that they hide it, the more you think that there’s something there. How big and how deep, I don’t know."
For Billig, who commutes between Israel and his Flatbush home, the dispute is about "saving the shul from self-destructing" due to what he calls a corrupt election process and officers who hide their actions.
"You shouldn’t let evil in your midst," he said.
Burstin said he is persisting in the memory of his grandfather. "I came to the shul in 1967 because my grandfathers’ shul, Congregation Sfard of Flatbush, was evicted after a foreclosure action, which started as a synagogue renovation project," he said.
Burstin said synagogue officers hired relatives to do the renovation work, "and the next thing you knew they were deep in debt."
"The eviction, I think, broke my grandfather’s spirit. The shul was the center of his social and non-work life," Burstin said. "So when those people try to wag the finger of Torah against me and condemn me for asking for the records, I say, ‘Where was the Vaad then?’ "
Brian Burstin has been praying at Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush in Brooklyn since 1967, when he was 11.