A Morristown synagogue whose congregation was bitterly divided over its future will remain open, following a decision by a beit din, or religious court, in Monsey, NY.
Last June, the board of Congregation Ahavath Yisrael voted to close, citing financial issues. A vocal minority of the shul’s members — including Rabbi Yaakov Zirkind, a follower of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement — challenged the decision in a lawsuit filed in Morris County Superior Court, and before the beit din.
In January, the religious court ruled that the synagogue must remain open if it is viable, but set certain conditions; earlier the county court ruled that the decision of the beit din would be considered binding arbitration.
Under the beit din ruling, those seeking to keep the synagogue open must pay off all debts, totaling about $50,000, within 90 days. They must also maintain the building. If they fail to do so, the property can be sold, but both sides will have a say in the disposition of assets.
A new interim board, including members of the vocal minority and some newcomers, has been appointed.
“To say we were thrilled with the outcome would be a real understatement,” said Zirkind, who calls himself the congregation’s “interim religious adviser.” “A shul can and should exist. Just because someone does things a little differently doesn’t mean it should cease to exist.”
The synagogue is more commonly known as the Cutler Street Shul because of its location at 9 Cutler St.
Members from both sides characterize the reorganized shul as far more vibrant that it was before the challenge.
“There are successful minyans every Shabbos since Shavuos and on holidays,” said Jerry Nedelman, who was president at the time of the vote to close. He continues to attend on a weekly basis. “There’s more energy, and there’s more people. More people generates more energy. The plaintiffs and the interim board are doing quite a good job. And there’s a nice kiddush every Shabbos. It’s a pleasant place to be.”
Whether the congregation is able to pay off its debts is an open question, Nedelman added.
While some of those supporting the shul’s closure have resigned their membership and no longer attend, others, like Nedelman, have stayed on.
Most members who supported its closure declined to comment for this article and did not respond to messages.
At its peak, the shul had 30 or 40 family members and now has about 15 paid members and 18 attendees at any given minyan. Ahavath Yisrael began about 30 years ago as a breakaway Orthodox minyan at the Conservative Morristown Jewish Center, which some of the members have returned to.
In addition to Zirkind, slightly more than half of the 11 who voted against dissolution are affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch. (The vote was 27 to 11 in favor of closing.) Court papers reveal that the conflict was over more than finances, and that there was tension between two groups: the founders, a Modern Orthodox group, and the challengers, led by a Chabad-affiliated group.
‘A very interesting place’
Judge Deanne M. Wilson of the Morristown County Court invoked King Solomon in her July 22, 2009, written ruling advising parties to try to work out their differences, or in the alternative, to seek binding arbitration in a beit din. Her ruling prevented the synagogue from closing until a resolution had been found.
“This synagogue is a kind of a baby, and it’s an issue almost of whether the natural mother, who’s unable to take care of the child, wants to give it away to somebody that she doesn’t think would be an appropriate parent,” she wrote.
Since the reorganization, Zirkind characterized the synagogue as “not hostile” toward any worshiper.
“The Torah is so vast; there are all kinds of customs for all kinds of people,” he said. “There’s no reason it has to be an exclusive club.” Before the reorganization, he said, “I never felt part of a larger community here. I was the only Lubavitcher, and I felt hostility. I felt uncomfortable.”
He painted a different picture of the community today. “Now, everyone wants to be there; everyone comes with a smile on their face.”
Stephen Stein, who described himself as neutral — “just a guy who lives in the neighborhood” — has been a member for about five years. His children attend the nondenominational Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph.
“Since the shul ‘closed,’ it never did so well,” he quipped. He pointed out that contrary to the founders’ fears, the shul has not become a Chabad outpost.
“It’s very consciously not Lubavitch. It’s Orthodox Jewish, and it’s viewed as a community synagogue,” said Stein. “It’s a very interesting place. A guy in a shtreimel sits next to a guy in jeans. I’ve never seen that anywhere else. It’s a good mix of people from various backgrounds with various practices.”