Crisis of Faith

Rabbi Tries to Sell Synagogue—Without Telling Members

Three times in the last three weeks, padlocks to the synagogue at 180 Stanton Street have been changed—once to keep the congregation from establishing a squatters' claim, and twice to keep the rabbi and his family from moving the Torahs to another shul.

Holy life here hasn't always been so hostile. For the past 35 years Rabbi Joseph Singer voluntarily managed the tenement-style building, luring daveners to morning services with hot coffee and cake, sometimes a piece of gefilte fish. On holidays, they got chickens, and dues were never required. Paul Cowan, a Voicereporter in the 1970s, once noted that Singer's "passion for people ignored all price tags."

Then, last May, the 85-year-old rabbi and his immediate family quietly contracted to sell the synagogue for $1.2 million to Jesuit brother Rick Curry's National Theatre Workshop for Handicapped Children. Ten months later, the congregation was finally notified. "Please do not worry that you will lose out on anything that you enjoy now," read the March 9 handbill, attributed to Singer, who explained that the congregation was having trouble getting the 10 men needed in order to hold services and would be moved to the Litovisker Shul, on Delancey, closer to the ailing rabbi's home.

"It was all done in secret," says one congregant. "How can one man make the decision to sell a functioning synagogue? Isn't that against the rules?"

Perhaps. The congregation—two or three dozen elderly Lower East Siders allied with a younger guard of artists—claims the building was originally deeded as a religious corporation and is therefore owned by the board of trustees. The rabbi's family claims to compose a majority of the board, but congregants say they never elected them. They've lobbied the New York State attorney general's Charity Bureau to prevent the sale. A spokesperson there declined to discuss the case in detail.

Singer's family says the Stanton Street congregation doesn't exist. "It's not really a synagogue," says Abe Schwarzman, Singer's son-in-law. "The membership has dwindled, and the only reason why people come is because it's more of a social hall. They don't start praying on time; they just come for the food."

Schwarzman says the rabbi never told congregants about the sale because the real estate lawyer for the deal, Katharine Baecher, advised him "that we should get it through as quick as possible, not to make any waves." But Baecher says she has never spoken or met with Rabbi Singer.

"It's specious," says Iris Blutreich, a congregant who has been tacking up Save the Stanton Street Shul posters around the neighborhood. "So people come late or for food. That's no reason to close a synagogue."

The synagogue's faithful have also appealed to local Jewish authorities. In an initial ruling, Rabbi David Feinstein decreed that the "sale of the shul should take place." Feinstein has since told the Voice he lacks the authority to decide whether Singer can sell the building, but maintains that the bulk of any proceeds must go to local Jewish charities—a category that includes one run by Feinstein himself. Further, the first list of committee members who would parcel out the money is packed with leaders whose personal nonprofits would benefit.

"That's a conflict of interest," says Blutreich. "First, how can other people decide whether another institution, which they have nothing to do with, should exist or not? Second, how can they receive funds from destroying it?"

In the ruling, Rabbi Feinstein also awarded Rabbi Singer a $300,000 pension. Singer, who worked two paying jobs while running the synagogue, says that he never asked for a pension, and that when he first consulted Rabbi Feinstein, the orthodox authority told him money from the sale could go toward Feinstein's yeshiva.

For now, morning and weekend services continue—when the doors are open.

The Singer family says it still plans to sell the building. "Even if these people do breathe some life into the synagogue in the next couple of months, it will just be artificial resuscitation," Schwarzman says. "Whether it be six months or a year, I don't know. But it cannot exist."

 
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