One the eve of the National Council of Young Israel’s 100th anniversary dinner, an event that would ordinarily be cause for pride and celebration, long-running dissatisfaction among member synagogues with the group’s leadership continues to grow.
One dissident member now speaks of the “demise of this once-storied organization” even as more than 400 supporters are expected to laud the group’s leaders and former leaders Sunday at Terrace on the Park in Queens.
The coalition of disaffected synagogues is now said to have grown in the last year from 35 to 45; there are about 121 active Young Israel synagogues. The coalition congregations have signed a letter calling for fundamental changes at the National Council — including overdue elections for all executive board seats and an independent audit of the group’s finances. It asks that the changes be made immediately “as a good faith indication of your intention to overhaul the governance of NCYI.”
“Holding a centennial dinner now to celebrate Young Israel and honor members of the executive board who haven’t even been elected to their current terms — and who are presiding over what we feel is the demise of this once storied organization — is hypocritical and directly contradicts the principles on which this movement was founded,” said Avi Goldberg, immediate past president of the Young Israel of Brookline, Mass., and co-organizer of the coalition of 45 synagogues.
“We have left no stone unturned over the past 15 months in our efforts to restore the values of good governance and transparency to this organization, but the leaders are in breach of their basic fiduciary duties and have continually refused to change their behavior,” Goldberg added.
He was referring to thwarted attempts late last year by 35 member congregations to petition the NCYI to place proposed constitutional amendments on the agenda of an upcoming Delegates Assembly meeting.
The changes would have permitted a member synagogue to resign, repealed a provision that permits the National Council to seize the assets of a branch that is dissolved or expelled, and permitted the National Council to sue a branch only with the approval of two-thirds of member congregations. The proposals were submitted following an aborted attempt by NCYI in June 2010 to expel and seize the assets of a member synagogue in upstate Syracuse.
Beverly Marmor, the immediate past president of the Syracuse congregation, said she believed NCYI acted against her synagogue because it had elected a woman president (her) in 2008. The National Council denied it at the time and insisted it was acting only because the synagogue had failed to pay $20,000 in dues. It also rejected the congregation’s resignation letter, saying the NCYI constitution bars synagogues from resigning.
But in stunning admission this week, NCYI’s counsel, Daniel Kurtz, acknowledged that the national leadership is trying to push back against what it sees as attempts by dissidents to make over the movement. They are looking, he suggested, at changing the traditional “role of women, how strictly they should be segregated, the height of the mechitza [synagogue divider separating men and women] — they want to relax centuries-old tenets. If you relax them too much, you get Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism.
“Jews don’t have a pope and must follow centuries-old precepts. They are seeking to modernize. They want to play by a different set of rules. If they want that change, they should go off and start their own religion. My client believes deeply in Torah-true Judaism, and there was more than a little unhappiness with the dispute that arose because a congregation elected a woman president. You can’t do that if you want to be a Young Israel synagogue. That is not in its rules and it still resonates. …”
Asked about their back dues, Kurtz said that was an additional issue that irked the national leadership.
“Then the Syracuse synagogue said it was leaving,” he recalled. “But you can’t leave on your own. They were part of a continuum — it’s like a franchise. People belong because they believe in its principles. … You can’t just say you are moving in another direction. You can’t take that investment built up in Young Israel and use it for yourself. If you want to start something new, move across the street and start your own synagogue. You can’t take the ball and go home, because it is their ball.”
Goldberg insisted in response that the proposed amendments were crafted because of the national leadership’s “bullying and attempted expulsion of the Syracuse branch, and has nothing to do with women presidents or ‘modernizing’ the Young Israel movement.”
“It is about balancing the levers of power, making the NCYI a more accountable, transparent and democratic institution, and stripping the leadership of its ability to bully and intimidate its branches with powers they wield from clauses that they have come to abuse over the past decade,” he said.
To address the concerns of the dissident synagogues, NCYI created a constitutional committee at the beginning of this year. The committee disbanded in September, however, after a co-chair, Mark Zomick, resigned citing what he suggested was the national leadership’s contempt for the committee. In an e-mail explanation at the time, he said the national leadership had “spun a story [about the committee] filled with outright lies.”
In a later e-mail on Sept. 8, Zomick, former president of the Young Israel of Teaneck, N.J., said the current leadership has failed to “adhere to procedural issues … [and] other matters that fundamentally affect the future viability of this organization.”
Zomick wrote of a “growing chasm between the leadership of the National Council of Young Israel and many of its branches. While the catalyst for this disagreement was the way NCYI handled the attempted discipline of a particular branch, the discord that has grown has largely resulted from the perception on the part of the branches that the national organization has not governed with fairness, transparency, accountability, and full adherence to its constitution and halacha [Jewish law].”
He pointed out that although the organization’s constitution calls for biannual elections, there has not been once since July 2007; no budget has been presented to delegates for approval for almost 20 months; there has been only one delegates meeting since July 2010 even though such meetings are constitutionally required three times a year; although the constitution requires an annual audit, one has not been conducted of the books and records “in recent memory.”
Zomick noted also that although the constitution since 2004 has allowed delegates to participate in meetings via teleconference, Kurtz notified NCYI leadership in February that such a practice is illegal under New York State law. Delegates would now have to appear in person in order to vote on some issues. NCYI leadership withheld that information from members until August, he claimed.
Goldberg in an Aug. 23 e-mail used the words “disdain and outrage” to describe the coalition’s feelings towards the national leadership’s decision to wait until Aug. 18 to inform delegates they had to appear in person at the Aug. 30 meeting.
Evan Anziska, a delegate from the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles and a co-organizer of the coalition, complained that the right to vote by telephone was “stripped away with no explanation given.” He said this and other “unacceptable actions together with the woeful leadership of this organization have led branch synagogues to feel more disenfranchised and alienated than ever before in Young Israel’s 99-year existence.”
Kurtz said he told NCYI leaders that he would be available to answer questions about the state’s voting requirements but that no one called. Critics said there were no calls because the national leadership concealed the information. And they pointed out that at a delegate’s meeting last December in Kurtz’s office delegates were allowed to call-in and vote by phone.
Kurtz said the December meeting was more of an informational session and that he doesn’t believe anything was voted on. He said he has recommended that proxies be used in the future for board elections, but he said proxies are not permitted for budget votes. Kurtz pointed out that there was an attempt Sept. 1 to approve the budget but that there was no quorum.
In answer to the other complaints, Kurtz said, “There is a recognition that the constitution calls for an annual audit and we will engage an auditing firm to do a regular audit.”
He said new elections would soon be held. He noted that the constitution calls for biannual elections and that the last election was skipped in error.
“There was no manifestation of corruption or venality or fraud,” he insisted. “These things happen all the time. They will have an election; no one is trying to avoid these obligations.”
He questioned also how truly representative the coalition is, pointing out that whether there are 121 or 140 NCYI congregations, as the national leadership contends, the 45 congregations signing the statement are still a minority. And he said the dissidents failed to confirm that a majority of their congregations’ members supported their positions.
“I don’t think they should be driving the majority of this organization that has been thriving for 100 years,” Kurtz said.
He stressed that the constitutional committee was to address the coalition’s concerns but said Goldberg “scuttled” it by becoming “deeply engaged” in its workings when he was supposed to let it work on its own. But he said NCYI is still “open to dialogue” to resolve these issues.
Zomick told The Jewish Week that NCYI leaders are blaming everyone for the committee’s failure except themselves.
“I am confident that if they had put this issue at the top of their priority list, we would have been able to meet as a group and reach agreement on a proposal within a reasonable period of time,” he said. “The reality is that they worked at every turn to raise logistical obstacles which prevented meaningful progress …”