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Jewish Journal

Synagogue dispute heads to court

by Jonah Lowenfeld

October 12, 2011 | 3:40 pm

Shaarei Tefila. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Shaarei Tefila. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

The trouble at Shaarei Tefila, one of Los Angeles’ oldest Modern Orthodox synagogues, began in 2008 with a disagreement over whether one member’s brother should be allowed to be called up to the Torah. Over the last three years, however, that dispute led to a competition between two groups of members for control over the struggling 77-year-old Beverly Boulevard congregation.

The conflict is now heading to court.

Each of the two factions claims to represent the synagogue’s best interests. One group, called the Committee of Concerned Members and Stakeholders of Congregation Shaarei Tefila, is led by Allan Lowy, a former president of the synagogue and its only officially “expelled member.”

The other group, which currently controls the synagogue’s board and leadership positions, is composed of mostly, though not exclusively, younger synagogue members who are relative newcomers to the congregation.

Lowy, 62, became a bar mitzvah at Shaarei Tefila and continues to pray regularly at the synagogue. He sends regular updates to about 250 recipients from the e-mail address .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), and said the core of his committee is 25 people, most of them middle-age or older, only some of whom are still formally affiliated with Shaarei Tefila.

After months of back and forth with a Los Angeles-based beit din, or rabbinical court, the two sides failed to agree even on which three rabbis should hear the case. With no clear way forward, the Beit Din of Congregation Agudas Yisroel, led by Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, granted Lowy permission on Sept. 19 to sue the officers of the synagogue in a secular court.

Citing official beit din policy, Teichman would not elaborate as to why Lowy was given this written permit, known halachically, by Jewish law, as a heter arkaot.

Lowy is an attorney and said he intends to file suit after the Sukkot holiday. He will request that the synagogue’s books and records be opened to him and other members and a restraining order placed on the synagogue’s leaders, preventing them from taking actions that would significantly affect the future of Shaarei Tefila. Such an order would prohibit the selling of synagogue assets, merging with another organization or entering into an employment agreement.

Lowy said he also intends to ask the court to invalidate the two most recent Shaarei Tefila board elections and to appoint a monitor for all future elections.

Here, as in many intra-synagogue spats, what might seem to be picayune questions of organizational governance are being hotly contested. And while Lowy claims that the most recent board election, in May 2011, was conducted in defiance of a separate rabbinic injunction, also issued by Teichman’s beit din, members of the synagogue’s leadership counter that Lowy himself is not a “member in good standing” of Shaarei Tefila, and therefore had no right to vote in the last election, nor does he have standing to bring the suit against them.

According to Shaarei Tefila President Alan Goldstein, Lowy still has a “significant” unpaid balance left on his membership account.

“The people who are screaming are not even members,” said Goldstein, a 77-year-old semi-retired businessman who was acting as Shaarei Tefila’s president before being elected to the position in May. “The membership seems to be very happy with what’s going on.”

Lowy, for his part, said that he had attempted to settle his membership account with the synagogue, but that he had been dealt with unfairly by Shaarei Tefila’s immediate past president, Aaron Kin.

Indeed, Lowy traces the beginning of his dissatisfaction with the synagogue’s leadership back to the service in 2008, when Aaron Kin’s brother, Meir Kin, was called up to the Torah in defiance of yet another rabbinic court order. That rare order, known as a seiruv, prohibited any Orthodox synagogue from offering religious honors to Meir Kin until he gave his wife a formal Jewish writ of divorce, known as a get.

Behind the flurry of rabbinic court correspondence, the allegations and counter-allegations of fraudulent elections and fights over unpaid membership dues, what is roiling at Shaarei Tefila is a fight for power.

At stake, first and foremost, is the future direction of a synagogue that was once a proud pillar of Los Angeles’ Modern Orthodox community. Current members of the synagogue’s board, both young and old, have said they are working to ensure Shaarei Tefila will always remain “a community shul.” Lowy and his committee, however, fear that it could soon become a strikingly different institution. And the fact that this synagogue — which, according to Goldstein, filled fewer than one-quarter of the seats in its main sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah this year — is housed in a building worth an estimated $8 million to $10 million cannot be far from anyone’s mind.

Initially known as the Western Jewish Institute, Shaarei Tefila began as a “traditional” synagogue. Men and women sat together in the sanctuary during services, and microphones were used to amplify sound until the late 1960s, when the synagogue began to align itself more with the standard practices of the Orthodox Union.

Over the last two or three decades, however, Shaarei Tefila’s attendance and membership declined, as many Modern Orthodox Jews left the area and moved to Pico-Robertson, Hancock Park or elsewhere. Meanwhile, the neighborhood around the synagogue, which sits on Beverly Boulevard just west of La Brea Avenue, became home to increasingly traditional Jews, many of them affiliated with Chasidic sects.

The newcomers to Shaarei Tefila, the younger men and families who now make up the majority of the synagogue’s membership and board, embody this trend. On Saturdays, about half of the newer members wear the traditional Sabbath-day garb of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect: a black coat, known as a kapote (pronounced kuh-PUH-tuh), cinched with a string belt called a gartel, also black.

“We’re not Chabad,” said Sholom Feigelstock, a Shaarei Tefila board member and the de facto leader of the group of young members. “We’re a group of young guys interested in building this community.”

To Feigelstock’s chagrin, many of the old-timers — including long-time members like Goldstein who have aligned with the new members — regularly refer to the new group of young families as Chabadniks.

With more than 4,000 shluchim, or emissaries, located in the farthest corners of the globe, the visibly expansionist character of Chabad-Lubavitch has occasionally stirred up fears in neighborhoods, communities and college campuses where shluchim establish a presence — a fear that Chabad-affiliated groups are “taking over.”

That’s not the case at Shaarei Tefila, Feigelstock said. In 2008, he and approximately 30 other families who had been praying together at the nearby Chabad of Hancock Park, were invited by Shaarei Tefila’s then-president Aaron Kin to join the synagogue. Feigelstock, who is in his 30s, said that the membership of Shaarei Tefila today includes about 90 young member families who had been drawn to the synagogue to be part of Chabad-oriented services.

The total membership of Shaarei Tefila, Feigelstock said, is hard to determine, but the synagogue sends its mailings out to a list of about 200 individuals and families.

In an interview in May, Feigelstock said that he could understand why the old guard might be concerned by the rapid influx of young families into the community who prayed differently from the Ashkenazi style that had been used in the synagogue for decades. But he dismissed any talk of his group engaging in a takeover.

“We are focused on building Shaarei Tefila to be a nice community for everyone to come to,” Feigelstock said.

Even Goldstein said the synagogue might need an extra layer of protection to prevent its assets from being mishandled, by anyone. “I’m working to create a trust for the shul, in order to make sure that it will always remain a community shul,” he said.

As Lowy prepares his lawsuit aimed at stopping or slowing the changes being made to Shaarei Tefila, the character of the synagogue continues to shift. On Rosh Hashanah, Goldstein said, the main service in the 900-seat sanctuary attracted about 180 people — fewer than the 250 who came to the Chabad-style service in the building’s social hall.

That many people haven’t been seen at Shaarei Tefila in decades. According to Joseph Schames, a past president and 30-year member of the congregation who is now serving as secretary of its board, the synagogue has “turned around in the past year and a half from a shul that was dying to a revitalized shul.”

The main service, which followed an Ashkenazi style, was led by Rabbi Moshe Kesselman, grandson of an influential Chabad rabbi. Kesselman was, until recently, on the staff at Chabad of Beverly Hills and, according to Goldstein, has been retained by Shaarei Tefila to act as the synagogue’s rabbi on a month-to-month basis until a synagogue membership meeting can be called to vote on whether to officially hire him more permanently.

Lowy said he is not opposed to seeing changes at Shaarei Tefila, but rather that he only wants them to be made in a more transparent manner.

“If in an open, fair and transparent election, Kesselman is elected” to be the next rabbi, Lowy said, “it would be my honor to daven [pray] with him. It would be my privilege to work for his success.”

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