After thwarting an attempt to oust them on Sunday with an 11th-hour court order, trustees at The Jewish Center of the Hamptons say they will reach a decision early next month on whether to renew their rabbi’s contract, a matter that has bitterly divided the opulent Reform congregation.
"The board will make a decision in January about whether it wants to extend the rabbi’s contract and submit it on Feb. 26 for a membership vote," said Laura Hoguet, the lawyer representing the trustees.
But the attorney for supporters of Rabbi David Gelfand said they are convinced the trustees have no intention of renewing his contract, which is said be worth more than $1 million over three years.
"Our position is that they have repeatedly said they are not going to renew this contract," said David Samuels. "The suggestion that they have not yet made a decision is simply not true."
Discord over Rabbi Gelfand’s tenure has already led to two lawsuits in Suffolk County Supreme Court, and this week the rabbi’s lawyer told The New York Times he is considering adding a third: a libel suit against those who have called for his dismissal. Those critics have raised questions about his treatment of staff, his bookkeeping and the originality of his sermons. Supporters of the rabbi had called a meeting Sunday to replace the current board of trustees with a pro-rabbi slate. But the board members, who want Rabbi Gelfand to answer questions they say he has avoided, obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent the meeting from taking place.
The court agreed with the board members that voting to replace the board would cause "irreparable harm" to the Reform congregation, whose 600 members include noted financial and real estate leaders, as well as director Steven Spielberg.
Leonard Gordon, a 35-year member of the synagogue who is suing the board members to keep Rabbi Gelfand, called the restraining order "a dirty trick" because it was served only on Friday afternoon, even though notice of the meeting had gone out weeks ago.
"It was grossly inappropriate," said Gordon. "By the time we learned about it there was no judge to talk to."
Hoguet did not deny that the timing was intended to prevent a legal response from the rabbi’s supporters. "We did know that the meeting was going to come and that it was illegal, and this was the way to stop it. The TRO was issued on Thursday and served on Friday. The court gave us until Saturday night to serve it, but we wanted to give people as much advance notice as we could."
She added that had the vote gone forward, "it would have resulted in a second group of people claiming to be trustees, and the organization would be thrown into chaos. The 35 employees wouldn’t know who would sign the paychecks and tell them what to do."But Samuels said his clients had declared their intention to defer implementation of the vote until the court had a chance to rule on its validity.
"We were willing to hold the result in abeyance," said Samuels. "The real reason they did not want the election is because they had very little support and would have lost it drastically."
Samuels said he would seek to overturn the restraining order so the vote can proceed.
Board members told The Times the rabbi’s compensation is $350,000 per year, excluding other benefits.
Both sides are expected to submit motions to the court this week, but no trial date has been set in the case.