December 7, 2006
Getting kicked out of shul
The unpleasant underside of synagogue life raises questions about the power of rabbis and boards to keep some Jews out
After services, during the Kiddush, Steven Weil, the congregation's rabbi, came over to Biston and asked him to leave the synagogue because he had been banned from its premises several months prior.
Biston refused and demanded, in front of his 13-year-old daughter, to know why he should comply.
Biston said the rabbi replied by addressing the girl: "Your dad's a thief, a crook, a bad man and a menace to the community."
Biston then cursed out the rabbi.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute, but both parties agree that the rabbi publicly asked Biston to leave the synagogue and never return.
Biston is now threatening a lawsuit against the congregation unless, he said, he receives a public apology from the rabbi and is allowed to return to the synagogue. Weil has already sent a letter to Biston and his daughter, in which he apologized for his language but said he stands by his decision to ban Biston from the shul.
Biston's public airing of his story and his threat to file suit have brought to light a number of complaints from others who also have been asked to leave Beth Jacob. They claim the rabbi is autocratic and mercurial and bars people who don't fit his image of an appropriate congregant.
Weil is a charismatic and intense leader. He came to Beth Jacob from Detroit in 2000, and he can often be seen wearing the work boots and jeans of his upstate New York farming upbringing. He is known for innovative programming, including a cigar club where the rabbi and young men in the community smoke, drink and learn Torah, and the summer Kollel, a post-college learning program.
He spoke to The Journal in the company of synagogue president Dr. Steve Tabak and former synagogue president Marc Rohatiner. Together they openly discussed the half-dozen people who have been banned from their shul.
Although they did not divulge identities of the people they had banned in order to protect them and their accusers from public scrutiny, they painted a picture of individuals whom they believe pose a threat to Beth Jacob's membership.
Among the stories was that of Biston, who was a defendant in a civil lawsuit over a real estate deal with another member of Beth Jacob that went sour. Court documents allege that Biston cultivated the deal on the shul's grounds, although Biston claims to have known the man outside of the shul.
The other individuals include someone alleged to have sexually harassed a synagogue member, a man alleged to have behaved inappropriately with children, a woman alleged to have stalked a member with whom she believed she had a relationship and a man who, shortly before being asked to leave the shul, was convicted of pedophilia.
This ugly underside of synagogue life raises the question for all synagogues, not just Beth Jacob: What power does a rabbi or executive board have to deny entry to Jews?
The legal answer is straightforward: A synagogue is a private institution, and when it comes to membership -- or in this case, entry, because most of the people asked to leave were not members -- the synagogue is entitled to accommodate however it sees fit.
The religious answer is not quite as clear. According to halacha (Jewish law), one needs a beit din, a religious court, to put a person in herem -- which means to excommunicate them, to cast them away from the community and isolate them. But the old rules don't really hold today, when there are many congregations from which to choose.
"Many times, throughout Jewish history, there were rabbis who placed people in herem," said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the Orthodox Union. "In those days it was a major thing; today, they'd laugh and go to the next town."
The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which runs the Orthodox religious court of California, said it does not get involved in private synagogue matters. "The RCC is a council of rabbis, not a council of synagogues, per se, and doesn't set synagogue policy," said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the administrator for the RCC.
In any case, all the religious courts have refused to intervene in the Biston case. (Biston said he is taking his case to a New York beit din.) The Orthodox Union, the governing organization for Orthodox shuls, holds that a rabbi has the authority to act independently.
"Each rabbi is the morah d'atra, the rabbinic halachic authority of his congregation -- that's why he was chosen," Kalinsky said. "If the rabbi feels strongly about [someone], he will go to his board, which is responsible for the issues of governance in the synagogue, and they could enforce what they deem appropriate."
Even if the question is neither legal nor halachic, it nevertheless remains one of ethics: If a synagogue is intended to be open to all Jews, how should leadership deal with characters they feel are unsavory or pose a threat to the community? What is the balance between freedom and security?
Synagogues everywhere always have grappled with the issue of security, but especially since the attacks of Sept. 11. With terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks on the rise internationally, most Jewish institutions have strengthened their security. For example, on the High Holidays this year, a month after the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle were attacked by a gunman, murdering one worker, most synagogues in Southern California increased the number of guards at their doors and carefully checked guest lists of people who had preregistered.
The price? Drop-ins, unaffiliated, undecided and last-minute shul-goers, were turned away. In addition, before the High Holidays, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss met with neighborhood synagogues to discuss security issues and precautions.
But what of the insider whom synagogue leaders believe may pose a threat to synagogue members? In a climate of increasing vigilance against sexual predators, many religious leaders these days would rather err on the side of caution than take any potential risk.