The National Council of Young Israel has threatened to seize the assets of an Orthodox synagogue in central New York State that resigned two years ago from the Young Israel movement and joined the Orthodox Union network of congregations, the synagogue claims.

According to an e-mail notice sent this week by Beverly Marmor, president of Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse, the Delegates Assembly of the National Council was to vote this week on a motion to expel the congregation, which formerly was known as Young Israel – Shaarei Torah of Syracuse.

The delegates’ meeting was postponed, a source close to the National Council stated. The source declined to comment whether the effort to take over Shaarei Torah’s assets will continue.

The ongoing dispute between the congregation and Young Israel was exacerbated, the synagogue claims, by the National Council’s unwillingness to accept a female president at Shaarei Torah. There has been a female president at the synagogue since 2005.

By expelling Shaarei Torah, whose resignation it does not recognize as legally binding, the National Council, according to its constitution, in effect can take the synagogue’s building and other belongings. “In the event that a branch is dissolved or expelled, all its assets, both personal; and real, shall become property of the Organization [the National Council],” the NCYI constitution states.

No representative of the congregation or the National Council would agree to speak for attribution about this topic to The Jewish Week.

“From June 1984,” when two Orthodox congregations in Syracuse merged, “until August 2008,” when Shaarei Torah left the Young Israel movement, the congregation “received no services in any way from NCYI,” according to a Position Paper issued by Shaarei Torah.

The congregation informed Young Israel by a letter, sent by Federal Express in August 2008, that “the Congregation has elected to resign its membership and affiliation with National Council of Young Israel effective immediately.” In a letter sent to Shaarei Torah a month later by attorney Daniel Kurtz, the synagogue was informed that, “The National Council’s Constitution does not permit a branch, like the Syracuse Branch, merely to ‘resign its membership and affiliation.’ … Any such purported action by the Syracuse Branch, therefore, is rejected by the National Council as a nullity.”

The letter by Kurtz said the National Council had “in recent years … supported the Syracuse Branch while it has experienced financial and congregational problems … the Synagogue has not been able to pay its required dues for more than 10 years … [Shaarei Torah] has benefited greatly from this association through, among other things, the National Council’s tax exempt status and its internationally recognized name and reputation within the Orthodox Jewish community.”

The source close to Young Israel said the congregation owes about $20,000 in back dues; he did not indicate if the National Council will accept Shaarei Torah’s resignation if the dues are paid.

“Our resignation is fully in accordance with New York State Not-For-Profit Corporation Law,” the Position Paper states. The document claims that the synagogue, since the time it resigned its Young Israel affiliation, is “no longer bound” by the NCYI constitution.

The National Council is “acting like a bully,” a spokesman for Shaarei Torah said. Like many synagogues in the Northeast, Shaarei Torah has experienced a drop in membership during the last generation, he said, from a maximum of 75 to 40-50 today.

The National Council drew criticism in a similar case seven years ago, when, negotiating to sell its six-story building in Lower Manhattan, it tried to evict two small Orthodox congregations based there, including the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue. The dispute was settled in 2005, when a member of Young Israel of Fifth Avenue agreed to buy the building allow the synagogue to remain.

While such disputes happen frequently in the Christian community, 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, said Marc Stern, counsel and acting executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “Because most shuls are free-standing bodies and their membership in national bodies is loose, it doesn’t happen often.”

Shaarei Torah has gone with public with the controversy, after keeping “a low profile since 2008,” according to the Position Paper, “because of the inevitable chillul hashem [public desecration] that would result from public litigation. Our overwhelming motivation in this whole process is to preserve and promote Orthodox Judaism in Central New York.”

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org

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