March 7, 2008
A mysterious resignation. Legal papers served during evening prayers. Police called after a mid-day altercation. A missing contract. Accusations of betrayal.
Many heated conversations.
What is this, a new episode of "Law and Order"? A rerun of "Columbo"?
Actually, it's another day at the office at Young Israel of Beverly Hills, a venerable 40-year-old shul in Pico-Robertson that has seen better days.
Until I found out about the messy intrigue going on at the shul, I was planning to do a sweet little story on them. I had in mind a clever side-by-side comparison of an ultra-hip spiritual place like Ikar -- where boredom is strictly forbidden -- with an old-school shtibl like Young Israel, where the main entertainment comes from the herring they serve at kiddush.
I thought: At a time when the Jewish world is contorting itself to find new and exciting ways to enhance the synagogue experience, how charming to have this modest shul where alter-kackers and other yids just go to daven -- and nobody cares whether you're experiencing any transcendental moments of spiritual uplift. There was something refreshing about a shul that refused to market itself, and I thought it'd make a neat story.
Alas, over the past few months, a less-pleasant story has arisen -- a story of how human weakness and misunderstandings can poison relations between Jews and put a stain on a house of God.
After weeks of escalating tension, the story came to a head recently when a few tough-looking gentlemen interrupted the post-Shabbat evening prayers and served the president of the shul with a legal summons charging Young Israel of Beverly Hills with fraud and breach of contract. The summons was on behalf of a local caterer who had rented kitchen space from the synagogue about six months ago and who was now engaged in a bitter dispute with the shul on a host of issues, such as: the terms and validity of the agreement, who is allowed to enter the social hall and whether the kosher certification prevented open access to the hall, who should prepare the Shabbos Kiddush, whether the president of the shul was in fact a duly elected president or even a member of the shul and whether the shul had the right to terminate the agreement.
I got most of this from the summons itself, which is available to the public. I don't know about you, but legal complaints give me indigestion. By necessity, they're completely one-sided. The aggrieved party looks like a saint who has done nothing wrong, while the accused party is made to look like a serial deceiver who's only out to pull a fast one on the complainer.
If you like to read stuff that's fair and balanced, don't become a lawyer.
As expected, when I checked out the other side, I got a whole other story. I don't know who's right, but it's clear that both sides made a sloppy deal. Nevertheless, the shul is planning a vigorous defense, including a possible eviction notice. They feel they've been taken advantage of, and this will be expressed in their answer to the summons. Eventually, there will be two aggrieved parties facing off, and a judge or jury will decide what is fair and balanced unless the parties reach a settlement first.
But the damage will have been done, and scars will remain. This is a shul that has gone without a rabbi for more than a year, and it was hoping to rejuvenate itself this year. Instead, it's been mired in a petty and ugly quarrel in a deal gone sour.
So how should we look at this kind of infighting among Jews? Should we be saddened by it or see it as just another saga in the affairs of men?
I have an idealistic, almost naive side to me that says Jews have enough enemies in the world and the last thing we need is to fight among ourselves. I think I got this from my father, who was known to be oblivious to the quarrels that swirled around him at the Sephardic shul he attended in Montreal for 30 years.
But I have another, more prudent side -- the one I got from my mother -- that says people are human and they have weaknesses and agendas, and these can play out anywhere, even in a synagogue.
Where do we find guidelines that balance the innocence of my father with the prudence of my mother?
Ironically, we can look to a group of sophisticated and brilliant legal minds -- a group you won't find in Century City, but in the pages of the Talmud.
If you ever needed another reason to love Judaism, consider this: Our Talmudic sages knew we were human and weak, that we can be greedy and unfair, petty and vindictive, and easily seduced into making sloppy deals. So what did they do? They spent many centuries hashing out intricate guidelines that try to anticipate all the things that can go wrong when people deal with each other. It was their way of showing us their love, as if to say: We really don't want to see Jews fighting one another, and the best way we can think of to prevent these fights is to make sure that arrangements are clear, fair and unambiguous.
Find me another religion that expresses its love for its people through meticulous consideration of the mundane issues we must deal with in our everyday lives.
Had the warring parties at Young Israel of Beverly Hills taken a page from these legal sages, my guess is they would have drawn up a crystal-clear agreement that would have left little room for misinterpretation.
And I would have had a lot more fun writing a witty column on their charming little shul.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.