Three members of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh in Perth Amboy are appealing a decision by a Middlesex County Superior Court judge upholding the sale of the historic Orthodox synagogue to an international spirituality and meditation group.
The 14-page decision by Judge Frank M. Ciuffani, issued May 31 after a trial running April 30-May 9, dismisses the members’ claims that the 109-year-old shul did not follow its own bylaws in voting to shutter the building and accept the $925,000 offer from the Science of Spirituality.
Perth Amboy has seen most members of its formerly robust Jewish community, among the oldest and once one of the largest in the state, depart for the suburbs in recent decades.
Shaarey Tefiloh had only about 25 members left and could no longer draw a minyan. The city’s lone remaining shul, the 115-year-old Conservative Congregation Beth Mordecai, is holding on, although the majority of its residents no longer live in the city.
Shaarey Tefiloh closed about a year ago. When it scheduled a contents sale for Oct. 23, three members — Herschel Chomsky of Perth Amboy and his sister, Zephyr, of Edison, and Dr. Alan Goldsmith went to court to try to halt the sale.
The Chomskys are the children of Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, who served at the shul from 1983 to 1992. Goldsmith grew up in Perth Amboy and is founder and president of the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center there.
Herschel Chomsky, the only member of the congregation presidium to vote against the closure and sale, told NJJN that a yeshiva in Roosevelt was interested in renting the building.
“There was no reason it had to close,” said Chomsky. “We have a party who is still interested in coming to Perth Amboy. But, every time [the presidium members] talked to anyone, somebody always had a different demand.”
Chomsky said as a presidium member, he has a key and continues to go by himself every Shabbat to quietly pray at the synagogue. He said he sometimes is joined in a show of support by Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, who is not Jewish.
“My hope is that we can save the synagogue and hopefully all get along together,” said Chomsky.
However, presidium member Shep Sewitch said no credible offers were ever presented.
Sewitch, a city resident for all of his more than 90 years, is the prime defendant named in the suit; others are his brother, William; Barry Rosengarten; and George Cohen.
“We’ve had at least a half-dozen yeshivas come and say they’d like to rent the building,” said Sewitch, “but you have to have a rich community to support any yeshiva. The yeshivas we have spoken to…all say they have wealthy backers, but the backers never show.”
He said he is now concerned that the buyer may withdraw its offer if the legal fight drags on much longer.
Meanwhile, Sewitch said, utility bills and other expenses are still being incurred, although they have been sharply reduced since the structure was closed.
He said he doesn’t understand why the Chomskys and Goldsmith “are doing this. All they are doing is bankrupting our treasury. The congregation voted and did exactly what it was supposed to do according to the bylaws and our constitution. Whatever money we got was supposed to take care of our three cemeteries and if there was anything left to go to charity.”
‘More than curious’
Larry Loigman of Middletown, an attorney for the Chomskys and Goldsmith, said an appeal was filed because they believed the bylaws were misinterpreted.
“Part of the problem is that there are a number of sets of bylaws dating back to 1928,” said Loigman. The one that appears to be legitimate, he said, requires that 75 percent of the congregation vote. The 13-5 tally taken Dec. 5, 2010, constitutes only 72 percent of the congregation.
He said it is difficult to predict how long an appeal could take. “I’ve had appeals that have taken six months to be heard and others that have taken 18 months, and when the opinions come out sometimes it’s a week later or sometimes six months later,” said Loigman.
In his ruling, obtained by NJJN, Ciuffani noted the plaintiffs had also claimed Halacha, or Jewish law, was being flouted and asked that the defendants be required to go before a beit din, or Jewish court of law.
That request was previously denied in October, although the judge noted a “default judgment” was entered by an unspecified beit din in the plaintiffs’ favor.
The judge said Jewish houses of worship are traditionally considered to be congregational, vesting governing power in their membership.
Previous court rulings, he said, have held that when a house of worship is deemed congregational, civil courts must enforce the property decisions made by a majority of its members or by any other governing body it may have instituted.
Additionally, Ciuffani said, the Supreme Court has ruled that “neutral principles,” using “neutral, secular principles of property law,” should be applied when examining church deeds, constitutions, bylaws, or cannons to settle property disputes, “thereby freeing civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.”
The judge also found it “more than curious” that Goldsmith and Herschel Chomsky never questioned the validity of the votes when they were taken.
He said he found Sewitch’s testimony to be “credible and persuasive” and said although the bylaws adopted in 1966 state a three-quarters vote is needed in such matters, a note in the document’s margin states it was amended in 1977 to a simple majority.
A cover letter about the revision from the presidium to the synagogue’s executive committee was submitted to back that up.