There is nothing remotely community minded about the war that is gripping the Sixth Street Community Synagogue.
Tensions at the East Village Orthodox shul, which have been building between old-timers and newly recruited younger members for six months, erupted last Sunday morning at a meeting to elect new board members.
The two sides hurled curses at one another in the shul basement, where a spread of whitefish salad and bagels had been laid out. At one point, someone suggested that the police be called in to restore calm.
The battle for the soul of the 70-year-old Sixth Street Community illustrates just how dicey it can be to try to revitalize flagging synagogues. Longtime members feel the shul — which has seen its membership double since last spring — is being stolen out from under them by carpetbaggers, new members who don’t even live in the neighborhood and who rarely attend services. The new members say they have revived a shul that was on its last legs, and that the old-timers want to strip them of their voting rights.
“We hoped that maybe someone who lived in the community would join,
” Schoenfeld said. “I’d take a lie detector test — there’s not one new member that has been here on Friday night or Saturday. Not even their leaders.”
At the center of the struggle stands Rabbi Simon Jacobson and his Meaningful Life Center. A popular and charismatic Lubavitch-born rabbi and author, Rabbi Jacobson moved the center’s headquarters to the Sixth Street Synagogue two years ago. In lieu of paying rent to the shul, he agreed to renovate the entire basement floor and pay the synagogue 30 percent of the proceeds from his programs.
Rabbi Jacobson told The Jewish Week that last spring he was approached by then-Board Chairman Matthew Pace, asking if he would encourage some of his participants to become shul members. The rest of the board was aware and in favor of a membership drive, part of which would solicit Rabbi Jacobson’s crowd as new members, according to board meeting minutes obtained by The Jewish Week.
“I said to them, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want? Because if people start becoming members, members are shareholders,’ ” Rabbi Jacobson said. “They said ‘We’re sure that’s what we want.’”
Within a few months of the initial membership drive, the synagogue population grew significantly. But for the old-timers, the effort seems to have backfired.
“The board was unaware that Pace and Jacobson intended all along to use this as a pretext to flood the shul’s member rolls with Jacobson’s followers,” said President David Landis, who is joined in his opinion by Treasurer Jack Lebewohl, of the Second Avenue Deli-owning family. Added Landis: “It was nothing more than a brazen plan to snatch a valuable building away from a community that had been using it for 70 years.”
Both Rabbi Jacobson and Pace vehemently deny the charge, calling Landis’ accusations “false and slanderous” and guaranteeing that board members were kept abreast of the process. But Landis and the rest of the board believe the rabbi simply ushered in members from Queens, the Upper West Side and as far away as Montreal, who neither intended to attend services at the shul nor were interested in preserving the East Village community.
Meanwhile, caught in the crossfire is newly minted Rabbi Greg Wall. An accomplished saxophonist working at the intersection of jazz and Jewish music, Rabbi Wall took over last fall. And in keeping with the shul’s revitalization efforts, he launched a Sunday afternoon concert series featuring some leading lights in the downtown Jewish music scene. But the rookie rabbi had no idea when he signed on to run the shul that he was walking into a hornets’ nest.
“If I had known that I was being courted for the job as rabbi while this was going on, I don’t know how involved I would’ve become,” Rabbi Wall said. “I felt helpless throughout the whole thing.”
At Sunday’s meeting, Rabbi Wall, who presided over the tense gathering, announced that members would only be qualified to vote for the new board of directors if they both gave money to the shul and attend services regularly, at least once per month.
“The idea wasn’t that they wanted to conduct a ‘Who is a Jew’ inquisition. They wanted to provide a standard that would apply to everyone,” Rabbi Wall said. “[Jack Lebewohl] told me he had to take his wife off the list because she doesn’t come to shul. There has to be some standard, and on the surface this seems like a fair one.”
By the end of the day, 155 people had voted for the white slate of board members that supported Landis and Lebewohl’s team, while 100 voted for the yellow ballot that included three veteran shul members (Pace, Raquel Mehlman and Michael Rosen) and 21 newcomers, according to Landis. After accounting for regular synagogue attendance and financial contributions, the final vote was 86-2 in favor of the white slate, Landis confirmed. Yet the opposing side argues that the vote was actually 100-83, in the new members’ favor.
“If they had come [to services] I’d say they were full members,” Lebewohl said. “Unfortunately, the number of people from the Meaningful Life Center who participate in our synagogue are really negligible. Our goal was that you come in and participate.”
Rather than bring in practicing congregants, Landis says that Rabbi Jacobson “used dishonest and fraudulent means to present his followers as members,” by selling $325 ticket packages that included complimentary synagogue memberships, a detail a potential member could only find out by clicking on an “FAQ” section on his Web site. Most Meaningful Life participants who now claim membership were not even aware that they were joining a synagogue in the first place, Landis said.
Rabbi Jacobson argues the allegations are “absolutely groundless,” adding that he explicitly encouraged people to become members, with only a handful joining through the Web site.
Though Landis admits that the Center turned over the money to the synagogue as membership revenues, he insists that the efforts were underhanded and motivated by the desire for takeover. He said the board began investigating these memberships as soon as they “caught on” to what was taking place.
“I wasn’t notified that my membership was tabled,” said Shuli Hallak, a new member. “I think the Sixth Street Synagogue made a mistake when the checks were cashed.”
“I got a letter saying welcome to Sixth Street — I thought I was a member,” she added, noting that she made her check out to the shul and has attended Shabbat services. Hallak questioned the legality of repealing their memberships or voting rights.
“I don’t think it’s clear that they’re legally members,” Landis said. “But if people ask for a refund then I think we’ll just have to deal with that at the time.”
But to new members, this decision is not so clear, and some are considering taking legal action.
“The way they’re doing the vote — they’re just not counting the new members,” said Spencer Schneider, a lawyer who sides with Rabbi Jacobson.
Lawyers for the synagogue had no comment but assured The Jewish Week that they were abiding by the law.
The new members had actually spearheaded the vote to begin with, demanding that the synagogue hold a fair board election, particularly since a board had not been properly elected in 10 years. After receiving no response from the board, the new members called for an election to occur on March 1, Rabbi Jacobson said, which then prompted the board to establish the Feb. 7 election.
“I always believe in inclusion,” said Pace, who believes he was essentially ousted from his long-held position as board chairman after siding with the new members. “I believe our synagogue is a synagogue for all Jews and we shouldn’t be deciding who should participate and who shouldn’t participate.”
Mehlman, one of the two other former board members to side with Pace, says she now feels ostracized by the vote, adding, “They consider me a traitor.”
“There was never an intention of a takeover or a separate slate,” she said. “We wanted a combined slate with the majority old members and a few new members to infuse the shul with new energy,” she continued. Mehlman became so frustrated with the situation at the shul that she handed in her resignation on Jan. 24. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for the new members to convince the older ones that they’re not trying to take over.”
And as the tallying dragged on through Sunday afternoon, no one from either side seemed particularly happy. In a narrow corridor, new member Robin Blumenthal and longtime member Steven Schoenfeld engaged in a swearing match. Blumenthal had cursed at Schoenfeld following a squabble at the ballot box, adding, “Your behavior is insulting.”
“You guys are trying to invade this synagogue,” Schoenfeld retorted, upset that Blumenthal came to vote but never attends shul. “You’re a foreign presence here.”
Meanwhile, Hallak was simply disillusioned by both sides of the fighting, adding, “To come here on a Sunday morning and be accosted, it was humiliating.”
Like Hallak, who was hurt to see Jews fighting Jews, Rabbi Wall said he too was saddened by the situation, no matter what the outcome.
Both Rabbis Wall and Jacobson hope the fighting will calm down soon and that no lawsuits will be filed.
“It basically just comes from misunderstanding,” Rabbi Wall said. “If the congregants and the Meaningful Life Center don’t have any contact with each other, then it’s very easy to vilify each other.”
As for the Meaningful Life Center location, Rabbi Jacobson says he is not sure he wants to renew his lease at Sixth Street when the contract expires in December.
“I have to see how the dust settles,” he said. “I’m not interested in staying in a place that’s going to be fighting till the end of history.” n
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