Though not particularly religious, Boris Karasik enjoyed going to the Orthodox Mapleton Park Jewish Center in the seven years since he arrived in Brooklyn from Belarus.
At the Bensonhurst shul, he could hear a sermon in Russian and recite the Kaddish for lost relatives. But the former Red Army officer, who fought the Nazis and wears his medals proudly on his chest, could also swap war stories with other immigrants over a bottle of cognac.
“I was more attracted to the synagogue as a Jewish cultural center, not so much as a religious place,” Karasik, 83, who speaks little English, said through a translator in an interview Monday.
He sat in the basement of the nearby Young Israel of Mapleton Park, where the girls’ yeshiva housed there was preparing for a Purim party. Karasik and a few dozen other elderly congregants can no longer go to the Jewish Center on West 8th Street because the building has been closed and turned into a mosque.
That led the old soldier into one last battle, this one in the courtroom, where Karasik and 15 other plaintiffs — including family of the Jewish Center’s late rabbi — are suing several people they allege concealed the sale of the building until it was too late.
Karasik says he found out the news when he showed up to shul one day in 2003 and found it locked.
Brooklyn State Supreme Court Judge Mark Partnow could decide as soon as next week to hear arguments about whether the building should be returned to use as a synagogue, or grant a Jan. 17 defense motion to dismiss the suit.
That would mean the final chapter for the prewar synagogue that has changed hands three times since the death of its founding rabbi in 1992.
“There was no public discussion of a sale,” said Brian Burstin, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who says his clients had no opportunity to oppose the first transaction, and that subsequent transactions should therefore be invalidated.
An attorney for one of the defendants has filed documents suggesting that three relatives of the congregation’s late rabbi received $100,000 and transferred a 1971 mortgage on the property to a new owner in 1998.
Signatures in their names appear on notarized public documents, with a principal sum of $40,000 to Yeshiva Hamerkaz, which began using the property in 1990.
Yakov Soled, the son of Rabbi Moshe Soled, whose name appears on the document with those of his mother and sister, said it is false.
“The original transfer was done fraudulently, and this is false as well,” said Soled.He did, however, confirm another exhibit by the defense attorney, an affirmation in an unrelated lawsuit in which he, as then-vice president of the congregation, notes that the synagogue was sold to Yeshiva Hamerkaz.
Neither the notary nor the title attorney listed on the 1998 mortgage document could be located.Sanford Young, the lawyer for one of the defendants, Jacob Frankfurter, insists the plaintiffs had ample opportunity to oppose the transactions, and counters that they are seeking a retroactive payoff from the $850,000 sale.
“We believe the case was brought merely as an attempt to obtain money from us to settle the case,” said Young. “A demand for money was made before the lawsuit was brought.”
Soled admits that his family sought a settlement of at least $100,000 to settle outstanding debts to the rabbi’s estate in order to avoid the lawsuit.
All three transactions on the property were approved in state court and certified by the state attorney general’s charities bureau.
In court papers, Burstin claims Rabbi Eliezer Perr, who took control of the property in 1990 to start a yeshiva there, conspired with other defendants to “conceal the transfer of title to the premises” from the yeshiva to another synagogue, which later sold it to the mosque. He also claims the original transfer of title from Mapleton Park Jewish Center to Rabbi Perr’s Yeshiva Hamerkaz violated the synagogue’s bylaws.
“The documents submitted to the attorney general, only disclosed to me in 2005, illustrate a series of names that are not worshipers and congregants,” Burstin said. The court, he insists, should determine the status of membership at the time of the transaction to determine whether Religious Corporation Law, which governs the sale of synagogues, was followed.Karasik does not recall if he ever paid membership dues, but says he financially supported the congregation over the years. “They had my name on the list,” he said in Russian. “They were not so well organized. But many times we were paying money” for shul expenses. He could not recall the name of the Russian-speaking rabbi that presided over services at the time it closed.
Sofia Smolitskaya, who is not a plaintiff in the suit, says her husband was a regular at the congregation since 1991 until he passed away four years ago. He never spoke of any upcoming sale of the building, she said Monday.
Moshe Fundo, a Moscow native who lives in Long Island but works at a business school near the Jewish Center and prayed there, said no one asked the elderly congregants to become members “because they didn’t want to impose on them.”
The Jewish Center is located in the heart of Bensonhurst, a short walk from the bustling Bay Parkway commercial strip. According to the Jewish Community Study of New York released in 2002 by UJA-Federation, Bensonhurst had 30,900 people living in Jewish households in 1991. That number grew to 44,500 in 2002, the last year for which data are available.
A majority of those people, 57 percent, are currently Russian speakers.The origins of the lawsuit date back to 1971, when Rabbi Soled left a dying congregation in the Bronx.
In lieu of a severance package, board members of the Bronx shul agreed to set up the rabbi in the Mapleton Park congregation, says his son, Yakov. Over the years, says Yakov Soled, his father was responsible for payments on behalf of the shul, until the congregation began to dwindle. In 1990, Rabbi Soled struck an agreement with Rabbi Perr, who lives in nearby Borough Park, for Yeshiva Hamerkaz to take over the building for $10,000 per year. Rabbi Perr produced blueprints to redesign the synagogue building, but those plans were not implemented, according to Burstin and Soled.
The defendants claim the agreement called for the title of the building to be transferred to the yeshiva after two years and that all proceeds should be used to pay Rabbi Soled.
The sale was approved by Judge James W. Hutcherson of state Supreme Court in January 1994, and approved by then-state attorney general Robert Abrams. But Soled said congregants were not informed of the sale.
Four years later, in Feb. 1998, Yeshiva Hamerkaz entered into an agreement to sell the property to another synagogue, Yeshuas Yaakov, for $310,000. Public records list Jacob Frankfurter, one of the defendants, as an officer of Yeshuas Yakov, located in Borough Park.
The sale was approved on May 13, 1998, by Judge Lawrence Knipel, and later certified by Dennis Vacco, then attorney general.
In February 2003, Congregation Yeshuas Yaakov received approval for the sale to Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, a movement with origins in India that is critical of mainstream Islam.
The sale was approved by Hutcherson and then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
Partnow denied a motion to dismiss the suit by Ahmadiyya last August.
A lawyer for the group, Michael Schwartz, declined to comment, and several calls to the home of Rabbi Perr were not returned.
Young, the lawyer for Frankfurter, said he was confident the suit would be dismissed because the proceedings were approved by attorneys general and 12 years have passed since the first sale. The statute of limitations, Young said, and established case law preclude any new motions.
“We also claim that some of the plaintiffs have not proven they are the proper parties to represent the congregation,” said Young. Burstin said his clients could not have objected to the sale if they were not aware of it, and that the passage of time does not diminish their rights in the matter. The statute of limitations, he argued, should only apply from the point their access to the premises was denied, which would be in 2003.
It is then, the lawsuit alleges, that the entrance to the synagogue was padlocked, and congregants were told it was being renovated.
There are several other Orthodox synagogues within a few blocks of the closed Mapleton Park as well as the Jewish Community House, which has extensive programming for Russian Jews.
But Burstin says the congregants are still hoping to reunite at the Jewish Center.
“Like most people, they have a comfort level in the shul,” he said. “They had every reason to believe they weren’t expected to go to one of the surrounding shuls. This was their spiritual home.”