Shul Keeps Its Spirit

Shul Keeps Its Spirit

Stanton Street Synagogue lives. A small band of worshipers last week secured the right to keep their Lower East Side shul months after their elderly rabbi tried to secretly sell the building to a Jesuit priest.
“I think it’s a victory for the Jewish people,” declared congregant Iris Blutreich, who helped lead the bitter two-year battle to save the 90-year-old synagogue. “If we don’t have synagogues, how can we have peoplehood?”
“I think we’re pleased that the shul will continue,” said Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, “Hopefully the future of the shul is settled.”
The Oct. 22 settlement before a specially appointed Manhattan Supreme Court judge, according to sources familiar with the case, called for 86-year-old Rabbi Joseph Singer and his family to permanently abandon attempts to sell the tenement-style shul that served as a religious home for thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.
Justice Martin Evans also ruled that the Singer family must return two Torah scrolls they removed.
The congregation had to drop its demand that Rabbi Singer provide a financial accounting of monies he collected in the synagogue’s name over the years, the sources said. Rabbi Singer had voluntarily managed the synagogue for about 35 years.
The rabbi also will receive annual payments of $8,000 for three years, apparently as a pension, according to the sources.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity, citing an apparent directive by Evans that details of the terms not be divulged to the press. But the attorneys disagreed on the directive.
“There’s a gag order. It’s settled, but we can’t talk about the terms,” said Rabbi Singer’s attorney, Giancarlo Terrilli. “We don’t want to get into who may have gotten the best settlement. We don’t want to degrade anything with regard to the rabbi.”
Congregation attorney Brian Burstin said, however, that Evans ignored Terrilli’s request for a gag order.
“The judge said he didn’t want anything said that was hurtful to the rabbi’s reputation,” Burstin said.
Burstin said he understood the judge’s directive to apply only to the attorneys and not the congregation. He said Evans indicated it was permissible to provide the basics of the settlement.
Burstin, who took the case pro bono, declined to discuss details of the settlement.
Congregant Ira Yavarkovsky, a local businessman, said he was “overjoyed” by the ruling.
“First of all, this was a very unjust thing, trying to sell a viable synagogue for money,” he said. “People who have been davening here for 20, 30 years or even more now don’t have to lose their shul.”
Rabbi Singer could not be reached for comment.
In June 2000, the rabbi and his family secretly contracted to sell the shul for $1.2 million to Jesuit brother Rick Curry’s National Theatre Workshop for Handicapped Children.
Rabbi Singer reportedly was to keep about $300,000 as a pension, with the rest disbursed to other local Jewish institutions. Prayer services would be moved to the Litovisker Shul on Delancey Street.
In September 2001, Rabbi Singer’s petition to sell the shul went before state Supreme Court Justice Robert Lippman. After a year of testimony, Lippman appointed Evans to resolve the dispute.
It was Evans who wrote the landmark 1980 “who is a congregant” legal definition in a case involving the proposed sale of the Lower East Side’s Pike Street Synagogue. (It is now a Buddhist temple.)
Evans had defined a congregant, in the absence of a formal membership list, as someone who for a period of one year before a vote to sell the synagogue had regularly communed with God there and who contributed to its upkeep, whether by donations, making repairs, buying challahs or sponsoring kiddush.
The “who is a congregant” issue came into play in the Stanton Street case because Rabbi Singer and the congregation disputed who were bona fide shul officers and members.
In court testimony, witnesses for Rabbi Singer testified that the synagogue did not have a functioning minyan. But Yavarkovsky told The Jewish Week that it has a viable minyan every morning and a “nice-sized minyan” of 30 to 40 for weekly Sabbath services.
“With an influx of new young people coming into the shul, there’s no reason to sell it, except the [Singer] family trying to make money, and we put a stop to it,” Yavarkovsky said.
“Now the shul is going to be owned by the congregation itself. We have an elected board of directors with people functioning over a year now.”
Evans’ landmark definition of a congregant has not been affected by the Stanton settlement.
Yavarkovsky had harsh words for Rabbi Singer, who he said “has nothing whatsoever to do with the shul.”
“When this first happened a year and half ago, the congregation couldn’t believe what was going on. There was a time when one half was loyal to him and one half didn’t like him. They all came to realize what was happening was a money thing,” Yavarkovsky said. “They have all learned to dislike and despise him.”
Said Blutreich: “The Lower East Side adored this rabbi before this ever came out. I think that he had degraded himself. Had he just come to us for a pension, he could have left gracefully.”
She also accused local Jewish community and political leaders of quietly backing the sale and allowing the rabbi to go to court when he had no legal right to the building.
Kaplan said he believes the next step is for the shul to hire a rabbi.
Because of the dispute, “there’s been a tremendous upsurge in the people who have gotten involved,” he said. With a rabbi, “I think that will hopefully attract and bring in even more people.”

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