The schism between the National Council of Young Israel and its member synagogues deepened this week amid fears by some congregants that the donations they make to their local synagogues might be subject to seizure by the National Council.
Those concerns surfaced in the wake of the recent aborted attempt to seize the assets of a member synagogue in upstate New York.
“Many shuls are writing Torahs and beautifying their shuls, and the feedback we are getting [from members] is that they are concerned the Young Israel constitution gives the organization the power to seize all of a shul’s assets,” said Evan Anziska, a board member of the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles.
Although one Young Israel leader said that there had been actual threats by congregants to withhold money from synagogues for fundraising drives, Anziska would say only that the feedback he had been getting was that “the constitution has to be changed to protect synagogue assets.”
The threats go beyond individual congregants.
“Some people are saying they no longer want to pay dues to Young Israel,” added Avi Goldberg, president of the Young Israel of Brookline, Mass., who stressed that he is encouraging them to continue paying dues because they have an obligation as a Young Israel synagogue.
As a result, 35 of the 140 member synagogues of the National Council wrote to the organization’s president and board chairman Tuesday requesting a special meeting of the Delegates Assembly next month, The Jewish Week has learned. They want to amend the constitution to repeal the section that authorizes the council to seize the assets of a member synagogue that is dissolved or expelled.
Anziska said he was confident the leadership would call a special meeting because the requisite number of synagogues had signed the request. To amend the constitution, two-thirds of both the Delegate Assembly and member synagogues must ratify the change.
Neither Rabbi Pesach Lerner, National Council’s executive vice president, nor its president, Shlomo Mostofsky, returned calls seeking comment.
The synagogues have also requested two other amendments to the constitution. One would prevent the national organization from initiating litigation against a branch, former branch or its representatives without a two-thirds vote of the Delegate Assembly. The other would permit member synagogues to resign from the National Council.
“Our message is a positive message,” Goldberg said.
“We are trying to promote good governance and the right of self-determination on the part of the branches [member synagogues].”
The move comes following aborted plans in June by the leaders of the National Council to expel and seize the assets of Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse. The synagogue’s president, Beverly Marmor, said she was told the proposed action was being taken because her synagogue had elected a woman president in 2008; the National Council said it was because the synagogue had failed to pay $20,000 in dues.
When the dispute erupted, the congregation voted to resign from the National Council, but the council said its constitution bars synagogues from resigning.
Just hours before the Delegates Assembly met in a conference call two months ago, the leadership of the National Council removed the item from consideration, saying two rabbis were mediating the matter. When some delegates insisted on discussing it, the leadership repeatedly rebuffed them. After one delegate made a motion of no confidence in the council’s leadership, the national leaders hung up.
“The amendments are to preserve the integrity of the Orthodox synagogues,” said Rabbi Edward Davis, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Hollywood, Fla.
He said his synagogue was one of the 35 that signed the letter requesting a special meeting.
“There is no question that it is necessary to change the system the way it is,” Rabbi Davis said. “I’ve been a Young Israel rabbi now for close to 30 years and I’ve seen the change in leadership of the council. There have been some efforts made to serve congregations better, but at the same time congregations like mine want to be a participant in the activities of the council and not just a recipient of their directives.”
“I’m glad now that there is some spunk in some congregations to make sure that the National Council hears this spirit,” he added. “No one has challenged the council in all these years. There has been a lot of intimidation, and it has been from their side to us.”
Marmor said her congregation believes it legally resigned from the National Council two years ago and noted that the New York State not-for-profit corporation law says a member can resign from an umbrella organization. She said she is watching developments from the sidelines.
“It’s not about us anymore,” she said. “It’s really about the organization and the many disaffected members. I’m very impressed with the manner in which the delegates are going about this. What they are trying to do is restore the good name of Young Israel, and they are working from within to do that in a well thought-out and respectful manner.”
Anziska stressed that the action of the 35 synagogues is “not an effort to seize leadership or upend the way the organization is run.” By removing the threat that the National Council could seize the assets of a member congregation, he said, “we can have a meeting of the minds.”
“We are not in this organization because we are fearful of what could happen if we were to leave, but because we want to be in it,” he said.
Another congregation that signed the letter requesting the amendments was the Young Israel of West Hartford, Conn., which until last month had a woman president, Laura Miller.
She said that she was elected president two years ago with the approval of their rabbi. But after he left, the National Council’s executive vice president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, met with the synagogue board to discuss the matter.
“He suggested that we, ‘Put in place a man with the title of president and who would, on paper, have the ultimate responsibility for the shul,’” Miller quoted Rabbi Lerner as saying. “‘He may never attend meetings or exercise that authority, and there may be another person actually in charge of the daily operations.’”
“We told him this was a sham and he responded, ‘It’s not a sham. He has the ultimate authority even if he chooses not to use it.’”
Miller said the “conversation went back and forth and my concern was that to kowtow on this matter would make our shul a laughingstock. Someone asked, ‘Why should we do this, just because NCYI has a ruling?’ Lerner replied, ‘There is a process and a constitution. We can follow the path of lawsuits and assets seizure, etc. We are confident in our position.’”
Miller said she viewed that as a “veiled threat” to the future of the congregation.
In the end, the congregation wrote to Rabbi Lerner saying that the congregation had been through a number of rabbis in recent years, was just getting back on track and to please “leave us alone” and let Miller finish out her term.
“Pretty much they did that,” Miller said.
She added that the person who had been slated to be her successor is also a woman and that she was designated instead the chairman of the board of directors rather than president until the National Council resolves the issue of a woman president.
“We have a congregation of 75 families, and quite a lot of members have already served,” Miller said. “Thus, the pool to choose from is very small. The National Council has to understand that their whole thought process about a woman as president is just silly, because the president of a synagogue has no power. Anything of monetary significance must be approved by the membership and anything of significance must be approved by the board.”
“I think the National Council is not reaching out to its members and finding out what they want,” Miller added. “It is taking positions on Israel and Jonathan Pollard, but it seems not to care about anything that happens at any local synagogue, in juxtaposition to the Orthodox Union. It reaches out to its synagogues and helps us with membership, fundraising, peer mentoring and asking what our needs are. Whatever we want them to help us with they are there.
“Our membership cost to the OU is $350. We paid the National Council in the neighborhood of $1,700. They are not giving us back anything, and you can’t quit. Once in, you’re in it for life. If the amendment goes through, we hope it will be the beginning of a little more responsiveness by the National Council.”