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A Major Jewish Philanthropist is at the Center of a Manhattan Feud Over Homeless Shelters
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A Major Jewish Philanthropist is at the Center of a Manhattan Feud Over Homeless Shelters

Sam Domb owns an Upper West Side hotel that has been converted into a men's shelter during the pandemic.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Left to right: Michael Steinhardt, Rabbi Ephraim Buchenwald and Sam Domb
Left to right: Michael Steinhardt, Rabbi Ephraim Buchenwald and Sam Domb

As a major philanthropist, Sam Domb has been generous to numerous Jewish institutions, including Congregation Ohev Shalom, an Orthodox congregation located on 84th Street between Broadway and West End Ave., where he is a member.

As a hotel owner, Domb finds himself at the center of the controversy tearing through the Upper West Side, including its Jewish community.

Domb, a hotel developer, is the owner of The Lucerne hotel on West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, one of three area hotels where several hundred homeless individuals are currently being housed to avoid overcrowding at other city shelters amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will begin moving people out of the hotels and back into shelters in response to complaints. He did not provide a timeline for the move.

The residents have been welcomed by many in the neighborhood, one of the most distinctly Jewish communities in the city. But even many who express compassion for the homeless say the hotel shelters have brought a wave of open drug use, panhandling and poor pandemic hygiene to some of New York’s most affluent zip codes.

A photo showing homeless men arriving at the Hotel Belleclaire accompanies a petition demanding “safe and clean streets on the Upper West Side.”

The critics of the shelters include members of Domb’s own synagogue, among many others in the neighborhood.

“The impact of these homes is pretty obvious in the streets,” said Ira Streitfeld, a long-time member of Ohev Shalom.

But the communal frustration is not being directed at Domb, said Streitfeld, who knows the hotel owner personally.

“People from shul are not happy about what Sam has done, but they don’t place the blame on him as much as on the mayor,” said Streitfeld, referring to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Even though Sam’s the actual one who rented out his hotels, de Blasio’s policy is putting the homeless in the neighborhood.” 

The de Blasio administration initially resisted the move to hotels, despite criticism from advocates for the homeless who said failure to disperse shelter residents could take a deadly toll. Eventually, the city agreed to a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is paying for 75 percent of the new housing program’s cost.

“When you’re putting out a fire, you don’t worry about the cost of the water,” Charles King, the head of nonprofit Housing Works, told Politico in an article.

The move was also seen helping hotels struggling under the pandemic. “From shul, we talk about it amongst ourselves,” Streitfeld said. “We understand that the hotel business is terrible now and we can understand why he [Domb] did this economically, even if we aren’t happy with it.”

“I haven’t discussed the matter with him directly but others in the neighborhood have spoken to him,” said Rabbi Aaron Mehlman, the rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom who is currently out of the city with his family. Rabbi Mehlman has largely avoided the controversy but said he understands the safety concerns of congregants. 

Domb could not be reached for comment. In an interview with the New York Post, Domb claimed he “didn’t have a choice” in accepting the joint contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is paying for 75 percent of the new housing program’s cost, and New York City. The arrangement is set to expire in October.

“I will not renew,” he told the Post.

“He was pressed for funds to support his business,” said Rabbi Mehlman, who said he has not spoken with Domb since the controversy broke out. “I can’t blame him.”

Added the rabbi: “His hand was forced — he’s not going to renew the contract.”

His hand was forced — he’s not going to renew the contract.

Ohev Shalom is not the only synagogue in the neighborhood where the Domb family has close ties. Domb’s two sons spearheaded the Yemenite minyan that meets at West Side Institutional, another Orthodox synagogue nearby, according to community members. (Domb, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Poland, according to his autobiography; his wife is from Yemen.)

Along with several other executives from the hotel industry, Domb donated $2,800 — the maximum contribution for the primary and general election — to Mayor de Blasio’s presidential campaign last year, public filings show. The Regent Hotel LLC, of which Domb is the principal, also contributed $2,800, contributing to the $1.1 million de Blasio pulled in over the course of six weeks after declaring his run.

Among the Jewish causes Domb has supported are the NJOP (formerly the National Jewish Outreach Program), a non-profit organization established by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald in 1987 to combat assimilation among North American Jews. He is a major supporter of Israel, including the annual Celebrate Israel parade in Manhattan, and has been close with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years, according to Haaretz. 

Meanwhile, the de Blasio administration will start the process of moving the homeless back into shelters.

“As the health situation has continued to improve, we’re going to start the process of figuring out where we can get homeless individuals back into safe shelter facilities, and reduce the reliance on hotels,” de Blasio told reporters on Monday. “Hotels [are] certainly not where we want to be in general, and we’re going to start that process immediately.”

 

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