The three-year battle to prevent the sale of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, Perth Amboy’s last remaining Orthodox synagogue, appears to have ended. The international spirituality and meditation group that purchased the building several years ago moved in following an April closing.
However, the lawyer for the three members of the congregation who have sought to block the sale said he is hopeful it can still be reversed.
“We are concerned about the misappropriation of funds from the sale, and we went back before the judge to appeal the decision on the sale,” said Larry Loigman, the Middletown and Red Bank lawyer representing Herschel Chomsky of Perth Amboy and his sister, Zephyr, of Edison and Dr. Alan Goldsmith of Spotswood.
The Chomskys are the children of Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, who served as religious leader at the shul from 1983 to 1992. Goldsmith grew up in Perth Amboy and is founder and president of the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center.
“We did not get the results we wanted,” acknowledged Loigman, who said he informed representatives for the Science of Spirituality, Inc., that the sale could still be invalidated; however, the group elected, with the approval of the title company, to move into the building.
“I’ve seen things undone after a sale is completed that invalidated the sale,” said Loigman. “That could happen.”
The meditation group purchased the more than 110-year-old building for $925,000. Shaarey Tefiloh, whose membership had dwindled to about 25, could no longer draw a minyan of 10 men required to hold a service. Members of its presidium had wanted to earmark the money to maintain its three cemeteries, two in Perth Amboy and another in Fords.
“As far as I know the case is over,” said Avram Eule of the Roseland firm of Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello, who represented presidium members Shep Sewitch, William Sewitch, Barry Rosengarten, and George Cohen.
“Shaarey Tefiloh is no longer a synagogue,” he told NJJN. “The sale is not going to be undone; the sale is over. We’re talking about a defunct synagogue that was old and dying off, and after the congregation voted to shut it down, three individuals tried to stop it.”
Herschel Chomsky, the only presidium member to vote against the sale, alleged the presidium hadn’t kept congregation members apprised of its dealings as required and had refused to talk to yeshivas that may have been interested in renting the shul.
However, Sewitch previously told NJJN there had never been any “credible” offers from a yeshiva or Jewish group.
Chomsky also had said presidium members were summoned to appear before a beit din (a religious court) early in the litigation in 2011, but failed to show, resulting in a default ruling for his side.
He insisted he has been kept in the dark by other presidium members, adding, “If this is resolved it’s news to me,” he said in a phone conversation in late August.
“I have no idea what they’re doing with the money,” he said. “If it is resolved, I am the last to know. As a presidium member I have a right to know and they didn’t tell me anything. There are a lot of unresolved details so I would not use the word resolved.”
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Frank M. Ciuffani, in the original ruling for the presidium, made note of the plaintiffs’ claim that Halacha, or Jewish law, was not being followed, and cited the unspecified beit din’s default ruling.
However, the judge said the Supreme Court has ruled that “neutral, secular principles of property law” should be applied when examining church deeds, constitutions, bylaws, or canons to settle property disputes, “thereby freeing civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.”
The decision was challenged in Appellate Court on the grounds that a religious court, not civil authorities, should have had the final say. But in July 2013 that court upheld the lower court ruling, saying that the presidium did not violate its bylaws by selling the building. The plaintiffs then asked that that decision be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which last December declined to hear the case.
That opened up a new line of legal wrangling between the two sides, ending with a filing in Middlesex County Superior Court by the three plaintiffs seeking details of how much money is in synagogue accounts and where it would it would be allocated.
On April 8, Ciuffani “ripped the heart out of the case,” said Eule, by ruling against the trio. Two days later the meditation center closed on the property.
“My clients were only trying to do what was in the best interests of the congregation by maintaining their cemeteries,” Eule said. “They were blocked every step of the way and were accused of stealing money and had their names dragged through the mud. It wasn’t right.”
Eule said the shul’s financial information had always been available and if the three challengers “hadn’t started a third suit, we would have just given it to them.”
Rosengarten said the legal battle was “a sad part” in the proud legacy of Perth Amboy’s Jewish community.
“It was a horrendous waste on the part of the plaintiffs in terms of time, energy, and money because we had to defend ourselves against these suits, which never had any merit,” he said. “There was never any justification for attacking us. It was specious and their attacks were untruthful and we just want to put this behind us.”