It looks like Jewish rituals are being used as the latest weapons in the ongoing legal battle between the National Council of Young Israel and its affiliate and tenant, the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue.
Last week the NCYI tried to bar YIFA from using a meeting room for Yom Kippur services.
An emergency ruling by an appellate court judge issued Sunday (Yom Kippur was to start that evening) in the lobby of his Upper East Side residence allowed a special Day of Atonement service to be held as planned. Last week, a judge declined to rule on the case, citing separation of church and state.
But synagogue attorneys were in court this week trying to make sure YIFA can use the sukkah on the roof of NCYI’s headquarters on West 16th Street, as the congregation has for years.
"It seems [NCYI is] elevating the legal dispute over required religious observances," said YIFA attorney Michelle Pahmer.
The Tuesday court hearing follows NCYI’s demand that YIFA obtain $5 million in liability insurance, $5 million in caterer’s liability, city permits for construction and public assembly, and the hiring of two security guards in order to use the sukkah next week.
Both sides agree this is the first time such conditions were imposed by NCYI. But they disagree about the intent.
YIFA president Victor Bellino suggests that NCYI’s unprecedented denials and conditions are payback against the YIFA public campaign opposing NCYI’s sale of its headquarters to condominium developers for $5.4 million.
"One can only come to the conclusion it’s contrived," Bellino said.
But NCYI attorney Ken Fisher says there are good reasons for the new conditions and denies they are related to the legal disputes.
Fisher says NCYI turned down YIFA’s request to use the fourth-floor room because a Sephardic minyan, which had previously used the space, caused damage and left the floor in disarray. Also, the Sephardic minyan "is not part of the Young Israel movement," he said, and is not entitled to access.
Bellino acknowledges that some picture frames of past NCYI presidents were damaged when the Sephardic worshipers took them off the wall to pray. He says he offered to pay for new frames last year but never heard back.
Anyway, he says, the Sephardic minyan and a beginner’s minyan are legitimate YIFA-sponsored events.
Fisher says the sukkah conditions are necessary to cover NCYI’s insurance requirements and ensure security. He says NCYI was shocked that in response to its demands, issued Sept. 30, YIFA went to a secular court three days later and not a religious court.
NCYI is more sensitive to security since 9-11, Fisher says, citing the discovery of Young Israel’s name and address in an al-Qaeda cave in Afghanistan. He also revealed that security problems have recently increased in the building.
Fisher says city permits are needed this year because NCYI was fined $500 by the city building department two years ago for failing to have the proper permit. YIFA paid the fine.
Bellino dismissed the fine as a technical matter easily resolved.
On Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Milton Williams ordered that YIFA could use the sukkah if it obtained $2 million in liability and caterer’s insurance and "all required permits," and provided "adequate security." Bellino said YIFA intended to comply.
The growing hostility stems from the plan to sell the building.
YIFA says NCYI acted in bad faith to approve the sale, which would put the synagogue out of business. YIFA says the sale violates Jewish law, and NCYI’s stated mission to support synagogues.
NCYI claims it needs the money, has to pay a $4 million debt to the state, and that it unsuccessfully tried to work out a deal with YIFA to find alternative space. The battle is being waged both in rabbinic court and state court.
In September a state judge voided NCYI’s board vote last year approving the building sale. The board voted again two weeks ago and approved the sale.
It’s not clear if state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer needs to re-approve the deal under New York’s religious corporation law.