A 150-year-old Brooklyn Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Tifereth Israel, could be demolished as early as next week in the midst of a nasty legal dispute between two factions over the sale of their spiritual home in Williamsburg.
"The intention is to demolish it," said attorney Franklyn Snitow, who is representing a group of shul officers who sold the one-story building on Bedford Avenue to a neighborhood congregation, Adas Yereim, for $850,000 in 2000.
"If in fact a [demolition] permit is procured, I believe the new owners are not barred from demolishing that building if there is no emergency legal relief," said Brian Burstin, an attorney for a faction of Tifereth congregants who are fighting to overturn the sale, claiming it was illegally approved by the shul board.
To save the building, Burstin said he intended this week to seek emergency relief in Brooklyn Supreme Court not only to stop demolition, but also to allow his clients to return to the synagogue to hold prayer services after they were barred last week by Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Yvonne Lewis.
In an unusual flurry of court activity last week, Judge Lewis had barred the anti-sale faction from entering the building on Jan. 16.
This came a day after Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Betsy Barros had issued a ruling permitting them back into the building, after they were barred on Jan. 3.
Last week, Judge Lewis also ruled that the anti-sale faction’s effort to overturn the shul sale (contending that the process did not comply with New York State law) must be brought before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Theodore T. Jones Jr., who approved the sale in October 2000.
Burstin told The Jewish Week that the vote to approve the sale violated New York State Religious Corporation Law because adequate notice was not given to all shul members to vote on the deal.
For example, Burstin said that Rabbi Yuda Stein, who has been the spiritual leader of the shul for nine years, was an officer of the board of trustees, but was not notified about the board’s vote on the sale in April 2000.
He also said members believed the air rights over the building were being sold, not the synagogue itself.
Burstin represents a group that includes Rabbi Stein, Leo Weiss, Bernat Levy, Leopold Zelkovics, Michoel Kremer and Bernard Siegel.
Snitow says his clients approved the sale of the building because the Orthodox congregation was dwindling in the largely chasidic neighborhood and they wanted to ensure they would have a place to worship in the future.
His clients are elected officers of the shul and a former president, including George Stern, Howard Kuperman, Irwin Friedman and Hymie Zweibach.
The terms of the sale call for Congregation Adas Yereim, a non-chasidic Orthodox group known as the Wein congregation, to build a yeshiva on the site.
During construction, Adas would provide Tifereth with an interim space for prayer.
Snitow said Tuesday that the buyers agreed in the long term to provide rent-free prayer space and an office in a proposed new yeshiva on the site "until the last [Tifereth] member is dead."
But Burstin disputed Snitow’s description of the deal, saying the congregation would only get 10 years of rent-free space.
It was among a host of disagreements, charges and countercharges exchanged between the two attorneys Tuesday.
Snitow accused the anti-sale faction of stealing a Torah scroll during the brief period they were allowed into the building last week.
It was not clear yesterday whether an official complaint was filed with the police.
Burstin told The Jewish Week that one of his clients may be safekeeping the Torah.
Snitow also accused his adversaries of "dishonesty and misleading" the court about facts of the case.
"They have attempted to cast themselves in the role of oppressed people and disenfranchised, and nothing could be further from the truth. The leadership of this synagogue had a vote because they recognized the dwindling membership and they wanted to be in a position to preserve a premises to pray in," Snitow said.
Burstin noted that bad blood exists between the officers and some of his clients, whom the officers sought to expel from the shul last year.
Regarding Snitow’s accusations, Burstin said: "Mr. Snitow should end the personal attacks. It amounts to histrionic showmanship to label individuals less than upstanding when the issues are always going to the facts: that not-for-profit religious corporation was the subject of a real estate sale which either was or [was] not in compliance with New York State religious corporation law."
Recently, about 60 people came to Tifereth for Sabbath services.
"This is very confusing and shocking," said congregant Ben Stein, a nephew of the rabbi. "You have to see the faces of the old people the last two weeks who have no place to pray."