Young Israel synagogues go head to head with headquarters over control

Young Israel synagogues go head to head with headquarters over control

LOS ANGELES — A group of Young Israel synagogues is challenging the control being exerted by its central body, formally proposing changes to the constitution of the National Council of Young Israel.

In an Aug. 3 letter to the leadership of the council, 35 of the organization’s 140 North American branch synagogues offer amendments that would make explicit for the first time the right of Young Israel branches to resign from the group voluntarily and repeal the clause that allows the national council to seize the assets of any branch synagogue that is dissolved or expelled.

Together, the changes could significantly restrict the punitive actions taken by the council against its branches.

The amendments are being proposed by synagogue leaders who say they do not wish to resign their shuls’ Young Israel memberships.

“The shuls recognize that Young Israel is a valuable brand,” said Evan Anziska, a board member at Young Israel of Century City in Greater Los Angeles and a representative of the coalition of synagogues that sent the letter, which he signed.

The coalition includes synagogues ranging in size from 50 members to as many as 1,000.

“These 35 shuls represent a geographic cross-section of shuls across the country that have demonstrated by signing onto this effort that they’re concerned with the way the [council’s] constitution is currently structured,” Anziska said.

Ultimately, he added, the group hopes to establish “a more constructive relationship” between the council and its member synagogues.

The letter was addressed to the council’s board chairman, Rabbi Jonah Gewirtz, and sent without listing the names of any individuals or synagogues involved in the effort. It claims to represent “a coalition of over 50 delegates representing 25% of the branches of NCYI.”

Twenty-five percent is the minimum number required to propose an amendment, according to the council’s constitution.

The letter comes in response to a public dispute between the national council and a former branch, the synagogue now known as Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse, N.Y.

The synagogue was called Young Israel-Shaarei Torah of Syracuse until August 2008, when it attempted to resign from the national council. A lawyer for the council responded to Shaarei Torah a month later saying that the constitution does not permit branches to resign at will.

At a meeting of delegates on June 24, the council attempted to vote on the expulsion of Shaarei Torah — a decision, council leaders claimed, precipitated by the synagogue’s failure to pay $20,000 in back dues. The synagogue claimed the real reason for the planned expulsion was its election of a female president in 2005, which is prohibited by the council’s constitution.

The subject was placed on the meeting agenda in advance, sparking a vocal protest, particularly from Shaarei Torah. Had the shul been expelled, the council would have been entitled to seize its property, according to the constitution.

The meeting, held as a conference call, was “contentious,” according to The New York Jewish Week. It broke up after council leaders “repeatedly refused” to discuss the matter, according to reports.

Leaders from a number of Young Israel synagogues have since established a website and started to marshal support for changes to the council’s constitution — an effort that led to the Aug. 3 letter.

In addition to the proposed amendments, the group’s website ( says its goal is to “peacefully resolve the situation” with the Syracuse synagogue and “preserve the credibility of the Young Israel name.”

The letter calls for three amendments to be put on the agenda at the next NCYI Delegates Assembly meeting.

The first would add a section to the constitution allowing branch synagogues to resign from the council; the constitution does not specify any way of resigning from the national body.

Another amendment would repeal the constitution’s so-called “reversion clause,” the section that allows the council to seize the assets of any dissolved or expelled branch.

The third amendment would prevent the council from initiating litigation against a branch, former branch or any representative of a branch without the approval of two-thirds of the members of the Delegates Assembly.

Avi Goldberg, president of the board of Young Israel of Brookline, Mass., who helped organize the synagogues and signed the Aug. 3 letter, called their outreach “a vote of confidence in [the council’s] leadership.”

Freedom of choice strengthens the organization, he said.

“We’re affirming the right of a branch to resign,” Goldberg said. “If that’s the case, people could walk away tomorrow. But that’s not what we want. We want people to stay in the organization because Young Israel means something.”

Young Israel was founded in 1912 as an effort to attract young, English-speaking Jews to Orthodox synagogues, which at the time were dominated by Yiddish speakers.

Today, Goldberg said, the Young Israel name means “that no matter where you go in the country, you can walk into any Young Israel, and you can know that the songs that they sing, the people that you meet and the environment will be comforting. The brand is that powerful. It is that strong.”

“It’s about feeling a sense of belonging,” he said.

Goldberg wondered whether the council leadership was on the same page as its constituents.

“Are they in sync with that meaning?” he asked. “That’s where I think that the disconnect is.”

The letter was sent to Gewirtz via e-mail, fax and certified mail. Council President Shlomo Mostofsky and Executive Vice President Pesach Lerner also received copies. Calls to all three were not returned.

Anziska said that a “handful” of other Young Israel branches are considering signing onto the letter, which closed with a request for Gewirtz to call a special session of the Delegates Assembly, where the proposed amendments would be discussed and possibly voted on.

The letter closes with a request that a special session be held on Sept. 1, “or another mutually acceptable date no later than September 30, 2010.”

“We’ve tried to keep this a very positive message,” said Goldberg.