(Adds comments from Young Israel officers and leaders of member synagogues, details about amendment process.)
Delegates representing 140 Young Israel congregations in the United States voted overwhelmingly Tuesday evening to amend the constitution of their parent body, stripping it of the right to seize the assets of any member congregation that seeks to resign, is expelled or dissolved.
A newly elected board of directors of the National Council of Young Israel made the constitutional change its top priority upon assuming office in November, according to Bob Levi, the board chairman.
In an e-mail to congregations Jan. 24, Levi wrote that this had been a “lingering contentious issue” because the organization’s constitution did “not allow a shul that joins the organization to leave. This provision was in effect to prevent Orthodox shuls from becoming Conservative shuls, which was a major concern at the time. Clearly, this is not a significant concern today. Today, this provision has hurt the organization’s reputation and its effort to attract more shuls to join.”
Farley Weiss of Phoenix, the organization’s new president, said in an interview that before the change “there was a perception of infighting [within the NCYI]; I think this decision will lay that perception to rest.”
The controversial section of the constitution was cited by former leaders of the National Council when they took the first steps in June 2010 towards expelling and seizing the assets of a member congregation in upstate New York, Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse. The National Council said it took the action because the congregation owed $20,000 in dues. But the synagogue’s president, Beverly Marmor, said the action was taken because her congregation had elected a woman president in 2008. Marmor said her congregation tried to resign from the National Council but was told the organization’s constitution prohibited it.
The issue sparked a rebellion in the 100-year-old organization, a motion of no-confidence in the NCYI leadership, threats by congregants to withhold money from synagogue fundraising drives, and a call by at least 35 Young Israel congregations requesting the president and board chairman of Young Israel to convene a meeting to repeal the controversial provision.
In December 2011, both the president and board chairman of the embattled organization resigned and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, its executive vice president for 20 years, was granted a six-month leave of absence. He subsequently requested and was given the title of emeritus and he no longer has any decision-making authority. Rabbi Bini Maryles, the National Council’s associate executive director and senior director of branch services, runs the organization.
Weiss said attorney David Schultz, a newly elected associate vice president from Los Angeles, crafted the constitutional amendment that the board adopted Dec. 18 after two lengthy meetings.
“This was our most important issue and we tackled it at the first meeting of the new board, half of whom were new,” he said.
“This was a contentious issue and we took everyone’s different concerns and came to a consensus, which was an extraordinary accomplishment for the National Council of Young Israel,” Weiss said.
Congregational delegates overwhelmingly approved it in a conference call Jan. 29. Weiss said the reason for the change was explained, questions were answered and “people thought it was a good idea.”
The new amendment allows a member congregation to resign after providing written notice, having paid all its dues and other monies owed, and agreeing to immediately cease using the “Young Israel” name.
In addition, if a member synagogue is no longer able to hold weekly Sabbath services or is in the process of dissolving, closing, merging, liquidating or disposing of its assets, it may not resign unless it complies with the above requirements and presents the National Council with a written plan for the disposition of its assets that must be approved by two-thirds of the National Council board.
Weiss said that although an attorney for the National Council had determined two years ago that delegate assembly meetings could no longer be held by conference call, the new board consulted a different lawyer who said meetings could continue to be legally held that way.
Weiss said the constitutional amendment is to take effect in three months barring objections from a majority of member congregations.
“We’re very optimistic that more shuls will join now because of our highly valued trademark, because we have a board that has decision-making capabilities and because everyone’s voice matters,” he added.
Although no member synagogue left during the turmoil over the constitution, Weiss said, “I think new shuls didn’t want to join so quickly. By our actions we have shown that we have an extraordinary board that can deal with contentious matters. People like an organization that works in such a professional manner.”
One of those calling who had been calling for changes at the National Council, Evan Anziska, a board member of the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles, welcomed the actions of the new slate of officers and directors.
“The new board is made up of a significant number of individuals who either supported the efforts of the coalition to amend the NCYI’s constitution, or voiced displeasure at how the previous administration handled its affairs,” he said.
“We demonstrated that an organization’s constituents can band together to effect meaningful change when issues of serious concern arise.”
Avi Goldberg, a former president of the Young Israel of Brookline, Mass., said the new leadership still “needs to deal with other issues, such as the need for an audit, but we are confident they will address them.”
Weiss, however, said the “issue of an audit is an old criticism that is no longer relevant. There is transparency in the organization and the board is aware of the finances. At the delegates’ meeting we went through the budget and at the board meeting we went over the finances of the organization. We will continue to always try to make sure we improve and maintain transparency.”