A downtown Manhattan congregation trying to keep its doors open has run out of legal options after a judge last week sided with the building owner, upholding an eviction notice.
Ordered to vacate the Flatiron District building that has been its home for 67 years by Wednesday, Jan. 16, the 16th Street Synagogue will be taken in by sympathetic neighboring institutions free of charge while searching for new quarters.
“We’ll be OK, but it’s camping out,” said Richard McBee, president of the now-nomadic shul. “It’s not having your own home. We are looking for new facilities and have been for months.”
The congregation made one last-ditch effort to stay the eviction notice on Monday, to no avail,
Jack Braha, owner of the property, told The Jewish Week in a lengthy phone interview Tuesday that he had no sympathy for the congregants he is displacing.
“I couldn’t care less,” he said. “They are not a synagogue, they are a group of people who do not respect the law.”
He said the synagogue’s leaders and those of a Sephardic congregation, Magen David, which shared the space, failed to live up to their end of a 2006 deal to develop the upper floors of the building — with his money — that would have allowed them to stay on the lower floors. After that, they have defaulted on rent stipulated by the agreement since 2008, Braha said. He also accused them of spreading “lashon hara,” the Hebrew term for spiteful gossip about him to the media.
Braha, 49, and another businessman from the Syrian Jewish community, Steven Ancona, had a deal to develop the upper floors that had been used until 2006 by the National Council of Young Israel — the building’s former owner — into apartments, but the construction took longer than expected, which ultimately scuttled the deal. Magen David left the building last year and bought another nearby building.
When reached by phone on Tuesday Ancona declined to comment because of litigation still pending between himself and Braha.
The congregation has asked several respected Sephardic rabbis to intercede on its behalf with Braha, to no avail. Braha provided some correspondence to The Jewish Week via e-mail, in which he told Rabbi Eli Abadie of the Edward Safra Synagogue “this is not a souk [Middle Eastern marketplace]! I will not renegotiate my deal so that in effect I pay for the sins committed by others and I certainly won’t pay a 2nd time!”
Rabbi Abadie tried to mediate the dispute between Braha and Ancona.
Braha paid $6 million for the property in 2005 but now says his investment in it, including unpaid rent and litigation costs is around $25 million. It also includes $3 million he put up for the upper-floor renovations, which still have not been completed. He now plans to finish the job and use the lower floors for commercial space.
McBee said the congregation was concerned about losing members while searching for a new location.
“It happened before,” he said. “We were out of the building for two years during construction, when the roof was opened and there was flooding of the whole second floor and sanctuary.”
While conceding that the courts have spoken, McBee said, “We feel in this case the rule of law has failed. [Braha] is doing something that is morally wrong. It should be clear even to a child that it is morally wrong to evict a synagogue.”
Edward Kerson, president of the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue, said his temple would allow the displaced Orthodox shul to hold its daily minyan in the sanctuary, which is not in use during the week, free of cost. It accommodates about 75 people, he said.
“They’re basically getting thrown out on the street,” Kerson said Tuesday. “We’re helping people have a minyan. That’s a mitzvah.”