Some people like to hear concerts in football stadiums, and some like to pray in vast cathedrals. However, aficionados are often minimalists, preferring jazz in clubs, or hockey on frozen ponds. Lower East Side tourists follow guidebooks to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, or the Bialystoker Synagogue, still in daily use, but the shtiebel — a vest-pocket shul, not much larger than a living room or a two-car garage — was once the shul of choice on the Lower East Side.
One block, East Broadway between Montgomery and Clinton streets, once housed more than a dozen shtiebels; “Shtiebel Row,” they called it. One shtiebel, at the Home of the Sages of Israel on Willett Street, is known for sending out thousands of calendars of elderly Jews every Rosh HaShanah, a fundraiser that regularly pulls in $800,000, such is the sentimental appeal.
That’s a lot of money for a shul that is fighting for its life, not from a lack of money but from too much of it.
The streets are paved with gold, after all. Real estate developers are waving $13 million at the shtiebel, to sell. But who was getting the money? Who was authorized to sell? The shtiebel’s congregants won an unlikely victory in court this week, stopping the sale, when the attorney general’s office, whose approval is required for the sale of nonprofit charitable institutions, suddenly revoked its approval.
A spokesman for the AG’s office told us, “Some of the new information from people objecting to the sale conflicts with the statements in the petition” to sell the building. “So we are withdrawing our ‘no objection’ pending our review of the new information.” That led the judge to issue an adjournment until May 7. Will the sale be stopped? No one is claiming victory. The story is hardly over. In some ways, it’s hardly begun.
A Jew in the neighborhood said, “The people who daven [in the Sages] are sweet, down to earth, ehrlicher Yidden,” meaning they are “refined,” with integrity and dignity. Yidden who came to daven, not to care about shul business. Did the shul have a board of directors? No one quite knew. Did the shul have members, bylaws or elections of officers? Well, maybe, once upon a time, but when?
The shtiebel, founded in 1939, is housed in a room belonging to an old-age residence originally intended for elderly rabbis, teachers and scholars, but most died long ago. There may be an elderly Jew in the four-story building, but no sages remain. David Jaraslowicz, a lawyer for the congregants, said, the residents of the home “are a mixed population, African Americans, Hispanics; there are no ‘sages of Israel.’ If I walked in there,” said Jaraslowicz, “I’d be the sage.”
When the nursing facility was sub-leased to a non-Jewish operator, it was promised at a court hearing that the shtiebel would remain fully operative for the full duration of its lease, until 2025.
Last year, with no notice to the congregation and without an announced election, the board of the shtiebel suddenly became entirely comprised of nine Gerer chasidim, none of whom daven there or even live in Manhattan. Dr. Aaron From, who told The Jewish Week that he’d been davening at the Sages for more than 25 years, said, “I didn’t know anyone on the board, not one.”
Also at the top of the shtiebel leadership was Shmuel Aschkenazi, the Sages president for many years, who lives in Queens, and is connected to Ger, as well. According to New York State law, when a nonprofit, such as a synagogue, is sold, the money must go to similar nonprofits. But when Aschkenazi sold the shtiebel to Peter Fine, the developer, the Gerer board designated $10 million from the sale to build a new Gerer shul in Israel, even though the Third Temple itself would likely cost less than $10 million to build.
Another $3 million was designated for Congregation Tifereth Shmuel, a synagogue whose address just happens to be Aschkenazi’s private home in Queens. Then, Aschkenazi signed a lease to pay at least $4,000 a month, or $240,000 over five years, for the shtiebel to sublet space from Tifereth Shmuel, the shul in Aschkenazi’s home.
In the court papers, Aschkenazi said he was simply moving the shtiebel to Queens “for the use and benefit of the current congregants of the Home of the Sages.” Of course, none of the shtiebel’s congregants would be able to walk from the Lower East Side to Kew Gardens on Shabbos, nor could they reasonably commute there for daily services.
The $240,000 lease was signed by Aschkenazi, on behalf of the shtiebel, and by his wife on behalf of Tifereth Shmuel in his home. Aschkenazi did not return phone calls to either his personal residence or to the Home of the Sages.
Fine, the developer, also purchased the air rights of the neighboring Bialystoker shul and adjacent lots. Fine was a friend of William Rapfogel for more than 30 years. Rapfogel, who had been executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, is now in prison for embezzling several hundred thousand dollars in an insurance scam. Although he was, before prison, a leading member of the Bialystoker Synagogue whose air rights were sold to his friend, Fine, Rapfogel was appointed by the attorney general’s office to serve on the AG’s advisory panel overseeing the sale.
There was speculation in the neighborhood that Rapfogel’s appointment by the attorney general was engineered by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was arrested in January for taking more than $4 million in bribes and kickbacks. (Silver denies the charges.) In the small world of Lower East Side politics, Rapfogel and Silver were seen as joined at the hip. If Silver was famously known as the second-most important Democrat in the state (after the governor), he was certainly the most powerful man on the Lower East Side, with influence in the attorney general’s office, and with two state judges sitting with him in the Bialystoker pews.
Said one Jewish professional this week, “The [Jewish] Lower East Side has become just toxic politically.” That Rapfogel was conveniently appointed by the attorney general’s office to oversee and approve the Sages sale, according to the New York Observer, which first reported the mess at Home of the Sages, was “a wolf-guarding-the-henhouse situation.” One lawyer told the Observer, “Two years ago, [Rapfogel] was the prince. Whatever he said was golden. No one looked, no one checked. When he went to jail, a lot of things he did began to blow up, and this is one of them.”
In a curious development for what started out as a routine charitable transaction, Aschkenazi is being represented by the powerhouse law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, raising eyebrows. The firm did not return phone calls about the case.
Jaraslowicz, working pro-bono for the shtiebel’s congregants, told us, “I think [Aschkenazi] and the Gerer chasidim got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. One guy, according to tax returns, is the head of Friends of Ger. Suddenly he shows up on the board and votes to give Ger $10 million.”
The Home of the Sages, said Jaraslowicz, “still sends out a calendar with a mailing soliciting money. My sister says she has the calendar on her refrigerator. One of the old rabbis [supposedly from the Sages] on the calendar reminds her of our grandfather, so every year she sends them a check. They ask for money for Passover for the old rabbis,” and offer to say Kaddish for people. “The whole thing was a sham.”
Jaraslowicz is continuing to discover further curiosities, if not illegalities, in the Home of Sages portfolio. For example, he said, Aschkenazi is president of a second facility using the Home of the Sages name, the Belle Harbor Home of the Sages, Inc., which does business as Belle Harbor Manor. They also have a board that was not properly elected, said Jaraslowicz. “According to my calculations, Belle Harbor [Sages] has donated over $2 million to charities operated by [Gerer chasidim].” And another half-million to some of the “196 Jewish charities that share the same address in Brooklyn.”