Citing a gradual decline in membership over the past 30 years, the rabbi of the East Nassau Hebrew Congregation in Syosset, L.I., decided late last year to sell the building.
But a group of area residents who claim to be synagogue members have sued to block the sale. The lawyer for the group, Michael Adler, said they want to pay the rabbi, Solomon Appleman, $1 million just to walk away and let them reorganize the congregation with the help of the local Chabad or some other organization.
Rabbi Appleman insists that those who filed the suit and who held a meeting in January to fight him were never members of the congregation. And he wants to take a leader of the group, Gerald Rieff, to a religious court to resolve the dispute but that Rieff has refused to go.
“Having the matter reported in your paper is precisely what would have been avoided if Mr. Rieff and his cohorts abided by Jewish law and brought this matter to a beth din,” said Howard Rabin of Garden City, the rabbi’s lawyer.
But Adler said the beth din Rabbi Appleman selected is one with which he is affiliated. He said Rieff believes this was a “ploy to trick newly religious people unaware of their right to select another beth din into giving up that right.”
Adler said he is still willing to let a beth din mediate the dispute and that they will be meeting to discuss their options. “In the meantime, we need a civil court to preserve the status quo,” he said. The drama playing out in Syosset is yet another example of congregants fighting for control of shuls in the New York metropolitan area. Similar struggles have occurred in Manhattan and Brooklyn, some turning on matters of real estate, others on the character and direction of a synagogue.
In papers filed in state Supreme Court in Mineola, Rieff asked that the court compel Rabbi Appleman to provide him with a membership list, the synagogue’s by-laws and other material in preparation for a planned legal action against the rabbi for “fraud.”
Rabbi Appleman, Rieff claimed in his court papers, “has perverted the shul from a place of worship to a place of business for his own financial gain. … His most outrageous act has been to close the shul and prohibit the congregation from entering.”
Rabbi Appleman assumed leadership of the synagogue after his father, Rabbi Morris Appleman, a founder of the congregation in 1956, fell ill in the late 1990s and died in 2004.
Rieff said that when the synagogue was closed after the High Holy Days last year, the building was closed for renovations. But he said he believes the “goal was actually to dissipate the congregation so that there would be no members eligible to vote, thereby allowing Appleman to approve the sale with a two-thirds vote of his self-appointed board.” Rabbi Appleman said he put the building up for sale because a tenant, the Torah Academy of Long Island, defaulted on its lease last summer when the school went out of business and that he regained possession in November. He said when the group of people who claimed they are former members learned that the building was being offered for sale for $3.250 million, they told them, “Either you sell to us or we will have a meeting and we will block a sale to anyone else.”
The rabbi said Rieff’s court papers were filled with “lies and half truths,” and insisted that Rieff could not claim to be a member of the synagogue just because he occasionally worshipped there. A member, he said, is someone who pays for High Holy Day tickets, among other things, he said.
Rabbi Appleman charged in his court papers that the Town of Oyster Bay Chabad is “responsible for causing this hostile attempt to take over East Nassau” and that it is using Rieff and his lawyer “to front for them in this proceeding. … Their real goal is to obtain possession” of the building.
But Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, executive director of Lubavitch of Long Island, said in an interview that he has made clear to Rabbi Appleman that Chabad has “no interest in getting involved in any shul’s internal problems.”
“He [Rabbi Appleman] stated that originally out of paranoia, and it was clarified that this is 100 percent not the case,” he added. Rabbi Appleman said he took the building off the market when he found that there were people who were again interested in attending services there. Adler said it was only taken off the market after he asked the state attorney general’s office to write to him reminding him that he needed state approval to sell the building.
Rabbi Appleman said the court action is merely a “ploy to hide the bigger goal.”
“Their aim is to take possession of East Nassau’s real property, which they were not able to buy at the true market price, through this baseless litigation,” he said.
A transcript of the January meeting that was provided by the rabbi’s lawyer reveals that the group of congregants at the meeting voted to remove Rabbi Appleman, hire a local Chabad rabbi in his place, hire Chabad to run a new school there, renovate the building from top to bottom, have a daily minyan for prayer services and to cease renting the building. Rabbi Appleman said no one has contacted him to tell him he was fired.