In his first interview since a rift developed last month among member synagogues of the National Council of Young Israel, the group’s president said proposed constitutional changes would “hurt the unity of the organization.”
“I believe the National Council of Young Israel has to maintain a unified format,” explained Shlomo Mostofsky. “It has to maintain its current organizational structure and its ability to maintain its standards.”
The proposed constitutional changes would permit a member synagogue to resign, repeal a provision that permits the National Council to seize the assets of a branch that is dissolved or expelled, and permit the National Council to sue a branch only with the approval of two-thirds of the member congregations.
The proposals were submitted following an aborted attempt in June to expel and seize the assets of a member synagogue in upstate New York, Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse. Organizers of a coalition formed in the wake of that attempt said they had the support of 35 of the 140 Young Israel congregations, enough to request Mostofsky to schedule a special meeting of the group’s Delegates Assembly to vote on the proposals. A two-thirds vote is needed to amend the constitution.
But Mostofsky said the signatures of representatives of the 35 congregations had not been attached to the request and that he could not act until the request had been properly submitted.
Evan Anziska, a board member of the Young Israel of Century City in Los Angeles and an organizer of the coalition, said in an e-mail that the coalition is now “in the midst of getting together the actual signatures of the coalition, which is taking some time to coordinate, especially with the holidays approaching.”
The dispute with the Syracuse synagogue, according to the synagogue’s immediate past president, Beverly Marmor, stemmed from the fact that the congregation elected her president in 2008. The National Council denies that and said it was because the synagogue had failed to pay $20,000 in dues.
The congregation voted to resign from the National Council because of the furor, but the council said its constitution bars synagogues from resigning. A week before the Delegates Assembly met in a conference call to vote on expelling the synagogue and seizing its assets, Mostofsky said the congregation’s rabbi asked two Young Israel rabbis to intercede and mediate the dispute.
“That meant to me that the clause in the constitution worked because we did not have to use it,” he said. “We therefore took it off the agenda. … We never wanted to expel anybody, but rather only to sit and talk. And when the opportunity came along, we jumped at it.”
But the ensuing Delegates Assembly conference call degenerated into a contentious session with National Council leaders refusing to discuss their plans to expel the synagogue.
“I was completely shocked when we held the meeting and there was opposition to us taking it off the agenda and not voting on it,” Mostofsky said. “Many people later told me they were on the call and that there was so much screaming and yelling that they were unable to speak.”
Asked if he believed there would have been enough support to expel and seize the synagogue’s assets had the vote been taken, he said he didn’t know.
“I believe in running a democratic organization and putting things to a vote,” he said. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
Several people on the call said National Council leaders hung up when someone asked for a vote of no confidence in the leadership. But Mostofsky said that claim “is not true.”
“There were derogatory comments made about Rabbi [Pesach] Lerner [the group’s executive vice president] and me that had nothing to do with the motion, were uncivil and patently untrue,” he said.
Asked his reaction to the proposed amendments, Mostofsky said the one calling for a two-thirds vote of the Delegates Assembly to initiate litigation against a branch synagogue is meaningless because “the [committee on Jewish law] does not allow us to take anyone to a secular court.”
“That amendment would give us power we do not have and that we do not seek to have,” he said. “We don’t sue people. What would this accomplish?”
Regarding the amendment that would allow member synagogues to resign, Mostofksy said the National Council of Young Israel was founded in 1912 “with a structure to ensure that branches did not use the Young Israel name, build a community based on that and then make a determination that they no longer wanted to follow the tenets of the organization. Leaving the organization would hurt the unity of the organization.”
“The Young Israel name is a brand all over the world,” he continued. “One reason is because you can walk into any branch just about all over the world and feel comfortable. That’s because of our standards. … I think we’ve been portrayed unfairly by everyone who has taken an opportunity to do that.”
But Rabbi Edward Davis, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Hollywood, Fla., told The Jewish Week that the “amendments are to preserve the integrity of the Orthodox synagogues.”
But three Young Israel synagogues have contacted the National Council to voice their objection to the proposed changes. Two sent letters.
The Young Israel of Northbrook, Ill., wrote that the proposed changes “are an attempt to weaken the united and binding Orthodoxy of the Young Israel movement. The results of these changes could allow for a deterioration of basic halacha [Jewish law] …”
The Young Israel of San Diego wrote that in the “business world it is very common for a franchise to have their franchise revoked and face punitive damages for not living up to the franchise standards. The parent organization has a reputation to protect, and allowing franchises to bend rules and/or selectively choose which standards to follow weakens the entire network of franchises.”
Mostofsky told The Jewish Week that the National Council has a board of rabbis who make decisions based on Jewish law.
“They set certain standards that apply to every branch,” Mostofsky said. “The only way to enforce them is to have an organization that is able to actually do something if someone breaches those standards. For the most part we’ve had very few problems, and in almost every situation where one arose there has always been a resolution.”
Several lay leaders of Young Israel synagogues said they were upset that there has not been a national meeting of Young Israel synagogues in several years, only conference calls with delegates. But Mostofsky said he instituted the conference call about five years ago in an effort to ensure wider participation.
“As soon at the technology became available, I arranged for telephonic meetings so that the Young Israel in Texas could participate,” he said. “Young Israel used to have a convention every year, and people were complaining that they couldn’t be there in person. So we have now opened it to delegates all over the country. …
“One of the most important things to me was to make this organization national in scope. Our board now has people calling in from Boston and Phoenix; it’s no longer confined to New York City. This is more important than having meetings where nobody showed up. It’s the greatest thing. It’s opened us up.”
Asked if he would consider holding a meeting in the near future, Mostofsky said he found it “too expensive for our members.”
“We have tried it,” he said. “We had a Shabbaton [weekend retreat] and had a great time, but it was very hard to attract people. To ask somebody to come to a hotel for a Shabbat is going to cost $300 to $400, and they may also have to get on a plane to do it.”