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
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"Most rabbis are well advised to try to stay away from these legal matters," he said, although the rabbi can try to encourage the people to go to beit din. "Too often it's a lose-lose situation for the rabbi. Unfortunately, if it's bitter and nasty, he should try to get them to reconcile, but it's best to stay out of it."
Weil didn't become involved until recently in the Biston dispute. The lawsuit that caused rift revolves around a civil court case with a shul member, Gary Klein. The two entered into a real estate deal together in 2000, and within the next year they were on opposite sides in a civil lawsuit.
In 2005 a jury verdict was returned against Biston, who filed a motion for a new trial, but the case was settled before the motion was ruled on. The settlement agreement provided for payment of $300,000 to Klein.
Biston says the entire affair is a private matter irrelevant to his attendance at Beth Jacob.
"Rabbis should not get involved with other members of the synagogue," Biston said. "Who is he to decide who should be able to pray at the temple? No rabbi can decide that."
Weil said he only got involved in the Biston case because, as stated in allegations in court documents, Biston had first approached Klein on synagogue grounds to discuss the real estate transaction that ultimately resulted in the lawsuit. Biston claimed to have known Klein beforehand.
After the settlement, Klein said he went to the rabbi and said, "I waited three and a half years, now I have the goods; you have it here in writing ... he used your institution."
When Klein approached him, Weil got the board involved. Beth Jacob's bylaws provide that the executive board has the right to ask people to leave. This transaction is done privately and is not subject to a trial. But some people who were asked to leave the shul have taken offense at the manner of the proceedings.
Gadi Pickholz wrote a letter from Israel to a Web site, www.lukeford.net, run by blogger Luke Ford, saying that Weil "falsely accused me of sexual impropriety of an unstated nature with a congregant of unstated name (how convenient) in an attempt to get me out of his shul."
Ford also had been banned from Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Century City. The rabbis of the synagogues and Ford all declined to speak on the record about the ban, which has to do with Ford's blog and his former involvement writing about the porn industry.
"We did not go into reasons of why we were asking [Pickholz] to leave in order to protect the person," Weil said. He and the board had been following up on a specific complaint from a member, and they solicited advice from the police. "The Beverly Hills police said we had to protect the members. It was left pretty vague -- we did not want to get into it. I was careful to tell him, 'We're not saying you're guilty; we've taken on a policy that when credible accusations are made, we're going to ask people not to return.'"
Another man asked to leave the shul said he found the whole process mystifying. "It was Yom Kippur morning , and I was saying 'Avinu Malkeinu,' and [Weil] said can you come outside, I want to talk to you," said the other man who requested that his name not be used. He told the rabbi that that he'd come out when he finished davening, and was told, "You have to leave this shul, and if you don't come now, I'll call the police."
The police came and evicted him. Later, he said, "I tried to talk to some people on the board, but I don't know why he did the whole thing." A few months ago, the man said he ran into the rabbi at an event and confronted him. "What did I do?" he asked the rabbi, who told him it was about a problem with another member.
"A man came crying to me that he couldn't come to this synagogue without being verbally abused and threatened," by this man, Weil told The Journal. The man in question had been a tenant of the other man, who was elderly, and they had also been involved in a court case.
"The case was five or six years old, and it was resolved in court; it's a civil issue that has nothing to do with the shul," the man told The Journal. Weil said that if people like this man would like to return to the synagogue, they'd have to go before the executive board and "ideally ask for forgiveness" from the people they offended.
"A community has a responsibility first and foremost to create a safe and secure environment," Weil said of the various cases of eviction.
"We want to create a place where young people of all ages can explore their Judaism in a warm environment," Weil said, "where adults can explore their Judaism emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. And where there's a sense of responsibility to the community, to Israel, to tikkun olam [heal the world]."
Despite the recent allegations against him, Weil's vision for the synagogue has proven results. When he came to Beth Jacob from Detroit in 1999, the congregation had between 400 and 500 member families, about 50 of them families with children. Now, some eight years later, Beth Jacob membership has almost doubled, with more than 800 family units -- some 200 of them with children and teenagers -- making it the largest Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. The synagogue leaders pride themselves on being diverse and welcoming.
And it is perhaps that same sense of openness that has made the synagogue seem inviting to some undesirable characters, Beth Jacob leadership said, although, noted board president Tabak, asking six or seven people to leave from among the thousand or so that pray there on a weekly basis "is not very many." He said, "One of our greatest strengths is our greatest weakness."