The former rabbi of East Brunswick Jewish Center and his wife have filed suit against the synagogue, claiming it violated terms of a 2007 agreement that allowed them to stay in the house they have lived in since he became its religious leader in 1979.
A six-year lease agreement to allow Rabbi Chaim and Deborah Rogoff to rent the East Brunswick home owned by EBJC — drawn up when he left the EBJC pulpit — ended on Aug. 30.
Religious leader at the Conservative synagogue for almost 30 years, Rogoff retired in 2007 after his physician declared him to be “totally disabled” and unable to perform “the services of a pulpit rabbi,” according to the suit, which was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Brunswick and was obtained by NJJN. It also stated that both the synagogue and rabbi agreed that “the duration of Rabbi Rogoff’s medical disability was unknown.”
Rogoff is asking for damages, counsel fees associated with the legal action, and for the court to “use its inherent power to fashion an equitable remedy permitting Rabbi Rogoff and Mrs. Rogoff to continue to reside in the parsonage as tenants paying the lawful rent as permitted under the township of East Brunswick” as month-to-month tenants.
The suit says that when the lease ended, EBJC agreed to pay the rabbi the “then equity value,” or former fair market value, minus the $350,000 remaining mortgage, but EBJC claims it is required to pay only “the net equity” minus the mortgage.
“In 2007 the board of directors of East Brunswick Jewish Center signed a separation agreement that allowed for a final payment to be paid to the Rogoffs,” said EBJC copresident Eric Rabinowitz after a court hearing on the matter Dec. 13 before Superior Court Judge Travis Francis.
Rogoff “would get a lump sum payment equal to the value of the home minus the mortgage that remained on the home,” Rabinowitz said. “Now Rabbi Rogoff is challenging that and wants the house free and clear.”
Rabinowitz said the home was valued at about $600,000 at the time of the agreement, but is now worth about $450,000.
He said the synagogue’s other copresident, Elissa Smith, was in the process of putting the house on the market and he expected the listing to go up by the end of day. The Rogoffs are now living in the house on a month-to-month lease.
“Our plan was always to put the house up for sale,” said Rabinowitz. “It was never part of the plan for Rabbi Rogoff to get the house.”
However, Rogoff’s attorney, Jack Borrus of North Brunswick, said he was pleased the judge agreed that the contract “specifically defined the net equity of the parsonage was payable to Rabbi Rogoff.”
“Under the agreement, Rabbi Rogoff was entitled to the fair-market value of the parsonage less payments totaling $162,000,” said Borrus. “The rabbi made those payments; therefore he is entitled to receive the fair-market value of his lease. EBJC wanted to deduct the balance of the mortgage to the bank, but that was denied by this ruling.”
The suit asks for the court to set a “reasonable period” of time for paying Rogoff the “then equity value,” and establishing the fair-market value of the house.
The suit claims by denying the Rogoffs “the then equity value,” the couple was “deprived of the opportunity to purchase a home in which they could reside without the payment of rent.”
It called EBJC’s actions “oppressive for the purpose of depriving Rabbi Rogoff of the benefits of the agreement.”
Rabinowitz, however, called the separation agreement “very lucrative.” He said it included a severance package under which Rogoff was paid $77,000 a year, of which $27,000 was applied to the rent.
“When the home was sold, we would give him the net equity value,” he said. “It was a great deal, and we are just trying to get past this. He said we tried to evict him from the house. We never tried to evict him from the house. We don’t have any malice, but we are saddened that our former rabbi, a rabbi who we’ve given so much to, is looking for more. We are just so upset by this.”
Rabinowitz said he thought the court hearing went well for the synagogue, which succeeded in its motion to have the case transferred from the chancery to the civil division.