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Jewish Journal

Young Israel shuls challenge parent group on branch rights

by Jonah Lowenfeld

December 8, 2010 | 9:47 am

A long-simmering dispute between a vocal and frustrated group of Orthodox synagogues and the parent organization of their movement could boil over next week.

On Dec. 15, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), the New York-based umbrella group that leads the country’s second-largest Orthodox synagogue movement, will hold a Delegates Assembly conference call with representatives from the 140 Young Israel branch shuls (Yiddish for synagogue). To the chagrin of those from the 36 shuls that make up the Young Israel Future Coalition, the three constitutional amendments they have spent the last six months advocating for are not on the call’s official agenda.

The amendments, which would require the support of two-thirds of the delegates to pass, would affirm the right of a branch to resign its status as a Young Israel and strip NCYI of its power to claim the assets of any branch that is dissolved or is expelled from the organization. Coalition leaders have been working to muster support for the amendments since the last Delegates Assembly conference call broke up acrimoniously, on June 24.

Included in this coalition are some of the country’s largest and fastest-growing Young Israel branch synagogues, as well as some smaller shuls. Four Southern California branches have signed onto this effort, including Young Israel of Century City, Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, Young Israel of Beverly Hills and Young Israel of Santa Barbara.

Leaders from NCYI and the coalition disagree on many aspects of this dispute — most importantly over what exactly is motivating it. NCYI leaders say that the coalition’s primary intention is to water down the strict standards of halachah (Jewish law) that are the hallmark of the Young Israel movement.

The leaders of the coalition strenuously dispute this premise, instead focusing on how their proposed amendments would help branch shuls feel confident in their own ability to maintain control over their property. “This is the one thing that everybody’s unified on,” Evan Anziska, a board member of Young Israel of Century City, said of the shuls in the coalition that he helped to assemble. “The National Council should not be able to seize the assets of a synagogue that wants to leave.”

Still, even as they attempt to amend the constitution to affirm the right of branches to resign from Young Israel, those involved with the coalition are quick to add that they have no intention of leaving the movement. Indeed, many — including coalition co-organizer Avi Goldberg, the president of Young Israel of Brookline, Mass. — profess a great deal of affinity with the Young Israel brand.

The shul brand is significant, because when a person goes to a Young Israel anywhere, he knows what he can expect to find. “You can be guaranteed that there’s going to be a mechitzah [a divider between the sections for men and women] that’s [acceptable according to] halachah,” said Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz, who has been the rabbi of Young Israel of Los Angeles for 16 years.

Rubanowitz’s shul has not signed on to the coalition; Rabbi Elazar Muskin’s Young Israel of Century City is home to some of the coalition’s strongest leaders. “The Young Israel name certainly gives a credence for anybody looking for an Orthodox synagogue,” Muskin said, practically echoing his colleague across town. “You don’t have to investigate; you’ll know right away that everything is being done according to halachah.”

By working to win the right to resign, the coalition is, confusingly, fighting for a right that its members claim not to intend to exercise. But apparent double-speak exists on the other side as well, with NCYI leaders fighting to maintain a power — the ability to claim the assets of any synagogue that is dissolved or expelled — that they say has never been used in the 99-year history of Young Israel, and that they hope will never have to be.

“If you looked, you wouldn’t find anywhere where we attempted to go after a branch, or put somebody up, or expelled somebody. It just didn’t happen,” NCYI President Shlomo Z. Mostofsky said. “But there is something in the constitution to make sure that branches don’t violate halachah, and that they follow the rules that they agreed to abide by.”

In letters sent to leaders and members of Young Israel branch synagogues aimed at convincing them of the value of the constitution in its current, unamended form, NCYI leaders have stated repeatedly that the clause regarding the transfer of assets is essential to preserving religious standards within the movement. “The founders of our movement and, most likely the founders of your synagogue, believed that Young Israel was more than a name on a building,” NCYI’s leadership wrote in a letter to synagogue leaders on Oct. 8. “It stood for the idea that, whatever might happen in the future, whatever winds of change might come, the Torah-true Judaism that is the essence of Young Israel would survive.”

This claim is met with disagreement from the other side. “I don’t believe that it has anything to do with standards,” Muskin said. “We’re not discussing standards here, and the National Council, if they think they are, they are so mistaken.”

Indeed, identifying ways in which the religious practices of Young Israel synagogues in the coalition differ from those not in the coalition is difficult, if not impossible. All Young Israel synagogues have a mechitzah, and these barriers are required to be of a certain height. All keep their parking lots closed on Shabbat. All use the same prayer books. Many of their rabbis went to the same rabbinical schools and belong to the same national and local rabbinical associations.

For the coalition’s leaders, this dispute has never been about religious standards. “The goal of the Coalition,” they wrote on Nov. 17 in a letter to NCYI leadership, “has always been to help NCYI become an organization that is more vibrant, democratic, accountable and transparent.” By taking away the stick with which NCYI could threaten branch shuls — asset seizure — the coalition hopes to compel NCYI to be more attentive to and cognizant of the needs of its constituents.

Anziska admitted that these goals — vibrancy, democracy, accountability, transparency — were lofty. And beneath the coalition rhetoric lies a simple fact: Among the Young Israel branches in the coalition are many whose leaders say they feel their synagogues get little of value from their membership in Young Israel.

“The National Council of Young Israel had nothing to do with the acquisition of our property,” Young Israel of North Beverly Hills President Philip Kaufler said. The 65-family shul is currently building a new building, which will have a 90210 ZIP code. “It’s costing us millions of dollars, and they aren’t contributing anything. And they really don’t provide much service, aside from the name that we’re using.”

Asked whether he felt the shul benefits from that name, Kaufler said, “Candidly, I’d have to say no.”

Allan Sternberg, president of the 300-plus-family Young Israel of Century City, described a meeting he had “about a year ago” with NCYI Director of Synagogue Services Mordechai Roizman. “He offered services that he thought would be useful to our shul,” Sternberg said. “He offered the National Council to help us with a security grant that the [federal] government has for religious institutions. We had participated in that grant a couple of years ago already.”

In a letter sent to the national membership of Young Israel this summer, Mostofsky said that NCYI helped nine of its branches apply for and win a total of approximately $800,000 in homeland security grants. The letter, aimed at outlining the benefits of membership in Young Israel, also mentioned the charitable projects undertaken by NCYI, including raising $300,000 to buy food for former residents of Gush Katif, many of whom are still struggling financially five years after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.

Closer to home, some smaller shuls — like the 40-family Young Israel of San Diego — do feel they get their money’s worth from affiliation with NCYI. At one point, with Young Israel of San Diego behind on paying its dues, NCYI helped the shul restructure its debt. (A representative from NCYI said that 22 of the 36 shuls in the coalition are not up to date on their dues, and 11 of those are two or more years behind.) Its board officers have joined NCYI’s bimonthly Web seminars on shul governance, and its president, Robert Sigal, even used the national group’s Web site as a template for his shul’s own site.

The atmosphere in advance of next week’s conference call is tense. Last month, coalition leaders made two separate attempts to show NCYI that they had collected signatures of delegates from 25 percent of Young Israel branches, the number required to introduce these amendments onto the agenda at the next Delegates Assembly.

NCYI’s outside counsel first responded on Nov. 12 by requesting that the signatures — which had been sent on separate “disembodied” pages — be presented in a way that made clearer reference to the amendments that the signers were supporting.

Coalition leaders complied and quickly collected a new set of signatures, which they submitted on Nov. 17. NCYI’s lawyer responded to their second submission on Dec. 2, saying that it was being reviewed “to determine whether it has been properly proposed.” Since the meeting announcement had already been circulated on Oct. 28, the lawyer wrote, it was too late to add the amendments to the agenda for the Dec. 15 delegates assembly.

Asked what would happen if the coalition’s amendments were at some point deemed to have been properly presented, Mostofsky was unambiguous. “The constitution will be followed to the letter of the constitution,” he said. “We don’t play games.”

Speaking for the coalition, Anziska disagreed. “I am disappointed and frustrated that the NCYI, in bad faith, is using procedural rules to block properly submitted proposed amendments from being considered at their upcoming Delegates Meeting,” he said in a statement.

The coalition is intent on getting these amendments to a vote, and they are pursuing a variety of strategies in order to do so. On Nov. 15, coalition leader Goldberg had the Beth Din of America issue a hazmana — an official summons from a court of Jewish law — to NCYI President Mostofsky. Mostofsky said in a statement that he was surprised by the action and said that the NCYI constitution requires that disputes be dealt with by the Young Israel’s internal Vaad Halachah (Jewish law arbitration committee).

And even though the amendments are not on the agenda for the meeting on Dec. 15, sources within the coalition say that they intend to raise the issue before the delegates.

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