Borough Park

Dispute over historic Borough Park synagogue continues in new lawsuit

World Chabad Lubavitch is asking the Brooklyn supreme court to invalidate a beth din decision allowing the property to be sold.

Historic synagogue Chevra Anshei Lubawitz of Borough Park before being demolished. Credit: Chevraanshei1/Wikimedia Commons

Jun 10, 2024 11:16 AM


Though the historic building was dramatically demolished in March, the dispute over a Borough Park synagogue took another turn on Monday when World Chabad Lubavitch, joined by some synagogue members, filed a lawsuit against the synagogue leader who spearheaded the sale of the synagogue and the real estate developer who bought it. The suit asks the Brooklyn supreme court to invalidate a beth din decision allowing the synagogue to be sold.

The synagogue, Anshei Lubawitz on 12th Avenue and 41st Street, has been embroiled in a dispute since 2017, when synagogue leaders reached an agreement with developer Moshe Aharon Karpen of the Williamsburg-based Waterfront Property Management to demolish the synagogue and replace it with a new building that would have a synagogue on the first floor and condo units on upper floors.

In a legal filing from that time, one synagogue leader, Asher Gluck said the agreement was necessary because the synagogue was expensive to maintain and had a dwindling membership, creating a feedback loop where the building’s condition continuously worsened.

But other congregants opposed the deal, saying it wasn’t made in a transparent manner inclusive of the entire synagogue community, and that it didn’t fully account for the building’s value in an area where property prices are ever-increasing. Debates at the synagogue became so heated that, in his filing, Gluck claims his group was “harassed, intimidated, physically confronted, attacked, and defamed.” At one point he even claims that someone who opposed the sale pulled his pants down in front of children and adults and, exposing his underwear, told synagogue members to “kiss his ass.” 

According to Brooklyn Paper, the synagogue was originally constructed in 1906-1907 before being sold to Chabad-Lubavitchers in 1922, making it one of Brooklyn’s first Chabad synagogues. But the Chabad Hasidic community is now concentrated in Crown Heights — not Borough Park, and in an interview with Times of Israel, Gluck said that the synagogue was no longer as connected to Chabad as it used to be.

The Brooklyn court referred the parties to arbitration in a beth din composed of three rabbis: Rabbi Zalman Grausz, Rabbi Isaac Eichenstein, and Rabbi Daniel Geldzahler. To make its decision, the rabbinical court drew up criteria for membership, interviewed congregants to confirm their eligibility to vote and then asked them what they wanted to see happen to the building. By their count, 27 out of 52 congregants supported the sale, so in February the beth din validated the sale of the synagogue with the stipulation that the developer must post a $5 million bond before making any alterations to the building.

In March, though, developers tore the building down unexpectedly, violating multiple rules from the New York City Department of Buildings. Video of the demolition shows large sections of the synagogue wall falling beyond the construction zone barriers, over the sidewalk and onto a vehicle parked on the street. “The synagogue was definitely not just destroyed,” Chabad activist Yaacov Behrman said at the time in an interview with Brooklyn Paper. “It was desecrated the way it was ripped down.”

Furthermore, the congregants who opposed the agreement to sell the synagogue had received a copy of the beth din’s decision only the afternoon before the demolition, according to an email from Eichenstein they shared with the court. Chabad says the stipulated bond still has not been posted, nearly three months after the beth din’s decision and more than two months after the demolition. Chabad also says the developer violated a stipulation signed by a judge stating that for 30 days after the beth din made its decision, no changes could be made to the building. 

According to Chabad, the beth din judges erred in two ways. First, New York state law requires a two-thirds majority to authorize the sale of the synagogue but the judges only counted a simple majority. Second, the judges interviewed members individually, rather than holding a meeting in which different sides could present different arguments and seek to convince each other of their points of view.

The congregants were faced with a limited choice, Chabad’s petition says: find some funds to repair the old synagogue, or demolish it and build a new one as per the 2017 agreement with Waterfront. But according to the petitioners, this was misleading, because the congregants actually had at least one other option: the Crown Heights-based business Dira Realty LLC had offered to help restore the building or develop a new one on a nonprofit basis.

If the beth din’s ruling remains valid, Waterfront Property Management will have to complete the building by September 2027. The synagogue will hold a 19% interest in the company that owns the property. 

In the legal filings from 2017, Gluck and developer Moshe Aharon Karpen said the agreement came with some benefits. “The new synagogue building will allow the congregation to offer many more amenities, such as a Mikvah and a library,” Gluck wrote, referring to a ritual bath. “It will also have a catering hall that will generate income for the Synagogue so that we will no longer have to solely rely on the donations of Members and congregants.”

But according to Chabad, having only a 19% interest in the company that owns the synagogue would render members “powerless to take any steps to ensure that the Building would actually be built as promised and represented by the Developer.”

Eichenstein did not respond to a request for comment. The other rabbinical court judges could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone for Waterfront Property Management said the company was not interested in speaking to Shtetl.