At the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, newcomers and old-timers battle for its future

Congregation Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, the last remaining non-Hasidic synagogue in Williamsburg, has become embroiled in a dispute as some congregants allege fraud and mismanagement

Congregation Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo: Google Street View

Mar 3, 2024 2:00 PM


At the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn and the last remaining non-Hasidic synagogue in Williamsburg, longtime congregants are facing off with a cohort of newcomers accused of a range of misdeeds, including using the facilities for fraudulent activities, pocketing synagogue funds, and scheming to sell off the building for its sky-high real estate value.

Congregation Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue with a storied past, has in recent decades attracted new congregants from the fringes of the nearby Hasidic community. In recent years, a subset of those newcomers have taken control of the synagogue board.

Now, a group of longtime congregants led by Carlota “America” Ruiz and her husband Marty Needleman, who once served as board president, are accusing the current board of participating in, or at best enabling, “a scheme to collect and pocket government grants,” and allege that some board members “falsely represent that they provide services to troubled youth.” The accused congregants include Chaim Ruttner, a board member, Marcos Masri, a congregant with close ties to Ruttner and whose mother Rebeca serves on the board, and Israel Leichter, the congregation’s secretary.

At the center of the controversy is an organization run by Masri and Ruttner called JC YES, Jewish Coalition For Youth Education & Support, which has been using the congregation’s premises and claims to provide services and support for young people in need. Many congregants believe that JC YES receives much of its funding from the government.

But according to the recent complaint by Ruiz and the other congregants, JC YES has “no credentialed personnel and does not provide services, support, or education to youths.” The complaint notes that “Chaim Ruttner exercises with a personal trainer” in the synagogue basement, which JC YES then represents to the government as providing “exercise classes.” Another example in the complaint: Masri organizes Shabbat dinners and summer barbecues for himself and his friends, and then submits to the government that these are programs for troubled youth.

In addition, the complaint accuses Leichter of enabling JC YES’s fraudulent activities by allowing it to use its space rent-free, for a “donation” that is well below the market value for a comparable rental space. Leichter is also accused of pocketing congregation funds and “manipulating Congregation records regarding its membership,” and collecting proxy votes from ineligible or inactive members in order to install board members he favors.

The complaint, while not yet a legal filing, was delivered in a Letter of Demand to the congregation’s board through Meyer Silber, an attorney representing Ruiz, Needleman, and several other longtime members. The letter demands that the board initiate a lawsuit on 14 causes of action against those accused of misconduct, and it demands access to the congregation’s membership list as well as its books and records.

According to multiple sources, JC YES is also currently the subject of a federal investigation. Reached by Shtetl, Masri and Ruttner declined to comment. Leichter initially agreed to be interviewed, but then refused to speak to Shtetl at the appointed time.


Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom was originally established in 1869 as an Orthodox breakaway from a Reform temple. Now, it’s one of the last remnants of a Jewish Williamsburg past, before the neighborhood became predominantly Hasidic. The congregation has always leaned toward a moderate Orthodoxy. And unlike the Satmar and other Hasidic groups that now dominate Jewish Williamsburg, Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom has associations with Zionism: one of its rabbis, Wolf Gold, was a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948.

Williamsburg first became a center of Jewish life at the beginning of the 20th century, after the Williamsburg Bridge was built, connecting Brooklyn to the Lower East Side, where Jewish immigrants had been concentrated for decades. Williamsburg soon became populated by Jews of all kinds, but became especially filled with Orthodox synagogues and kosher food stores. 

In 1918, the neighborhood became the home of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, a famed Orthodox institution that still exists today, albeit in a different Brooklyn neighborhood. According to Frieda Vizel, a tour guide of Hasidic Williamsburg and well-known blogger and podcaster, that was a watershed event. “From when Yeshiva Torah Vodaas opened,” Vizel says, Williamsburg “became the most Orthodox neighborhood for immigrant Jews.”

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the neighborhood attracted hundreds of Hasidic immigrants who arrived after suffering the ravages of the Holocaust. These included Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who founded the Satmar Hasidic sect in the city of Satu Mare, Romania. For Hasidim seeking a devout and ultra-conservative Orthodoxy, Teitelbaum offered a compelling option.

“People didn’t necessarily know where to go to find that insularity,” Vizel says. “They were nervous about the outside world and about America itself. They wanted to preserve their traditions.”

Teitelbaum’s reestablished Satmar community began to draw hundreds, which soon turned into thousands.

By the ‘60s, white flight and the completion of the BQE, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which cut right through Williamsburg and brought with it diesel exhaust and snarling traffic jams, led longtime residents to abandon the neighborhood en masse.

Of the Jewish community that stayed, it was mostly the Hasidim.

Still, a small core of non-Hasidic Jews remained, and Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom became one of a few such institutions to survive the rapidly changing demographics. In the ‘80s, when Ruiz and Needleman were married at this synagogue, it was already a congregation in decline. By that time, Ruiz says, “most of the families moved away.” Among those who stayed, “many got old — and most of them passed away.”

But Ruiz and Needleman’s young family became a mainstay at the congregation, keeping it alive and helping it survive for over four decades to come.


While tensions at Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom are now at their highest, they have been long brewing, ever since some among the newcomers orchestrated a kind of hostile takeover.

The newcomers originally began drifting to Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom nearly two decades ago, during the mid 2000s. Most had been raised nearby, within Satmar and other Hasidic sects. Among them were Masri, Ruttner, Leichter, and a score of others.

Masri had been raised in Williamsburg’s Satmar community, but his parents are from Argentina, of Sefardic background. Fluent in both Yiddish and Spanish, he is a well-known independent political operative who advises elected officials and local candidates for public office. Those who know him cite his ability to act as a bridge between the Satmar community and its Black and Latino neighbors.

Ruttner, who is from a more conventional Satmar background, was convicted for credit card fraud in the ‘90s. While doing time in federal prison, he had something of a religious awakening and, upon his release, began to style himself a rabbi. He began giving Torah lectures at a Hasidic synagogue near Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, attracting a group of young Hasidic men who, for various reasons, felt out of place in their original communities. The group soon migrated over to Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, becoming the core of a new cohort at the historic shul.

When they first joined, the newcomers were welcomed. One congregant who asked not to be named says he understood them. “These people were misfits or dropouts of the Hasidic system. They didn’t feel welcome in other places. They wanted to find a place where they wouldn’t be judged.”

Ruiz, too, saw a potentially invigorating force. “When the young Hasidim started to come, we embraced them,” Ruiz recalls. She remembers being the young blood herself, when she’d joined the synagogue back in the ‘80s: “Oh, we were so young. Everybody said, ‘Oh, new blood.’ Now we are the old blood,” she laughs. 

“But we were very respectful of the older people,” she adds, which she pointedly contrasts with the behavior among some of the newcomers, including some who show little deference to the older congregants.

As the years passed, tensions continued to rise between old and new. By 2020, the new cohort managed to take control of the board – which was itself a source of contention, with some congregants alleging irregularities in the board elections. What’s certain is that the goodwill that once existed between the two groups has significantly deteriorated, with the present demand for legal action bringing the conflict to a new peak.


In many ways, the demand for legal action masks a greater concern: older congregants have begun to doubt whether the current board leadership is even committed to maintaining an active congregation. Many suspect not.

“They just look at the congregation as prime real estate,” Ruiz says about some within the new leadership cohort. “They just counted the millions that they’re going to make.”

It’s happened in other places, where communities with declining membership and aging populations watched beloved communal spaces sold off for parts. Here, too, the older congregants feel the vultures circling. “They act like we’re already dead,” Ruiz says. “But we’re not dead yet.”

It doesn’t help that Hasidic Williamsburg is suffering a severe housing shortage. Vizel agrees that the concern is real. Hasidic developers, she says, “are desperate for real estate,” especially in areas from which “children can safely walk to and from shul.” And, Vizel says, “they are going to pay very high prices.”

Ira Smerkas, an old-timer and a board member, also worries for this congregation’s future. In the past, he’d been a board member at the Clymer Street Shul a few blocks away — the only other non-Hasidic synagogue in the area at the time. When a Hasidic organization sought to purchase the shul, they promised to provide an alternative space for its congregants. The congregation agreed and they sold, but the promise was never delivered.

“I don’t want what happened to Clymer Street to happen here,” Smerkas says.

Another longtime congregant, who asked not to be named for fear of damaging relationships with other community members, says he suspects Leichter has designs on a financial windfall. “I think that he’s extremely dangerous in his motives,” the congregant says. “I think he wants to cash in. They can sell off the building to a developer, make all these promises, and then run off with their money.”


Beside everything else, the congregation has suffered a clash of cultures — in some ways reflecting the ongoing demographic and social change that Williamsburg has felt over the decades. 

Ruiz complains of the general lack of decorum shown by some of the newer congregants, such as talking during services and leaving a mess in the yard. For her, it’s a matter of principle. “I was taught that when you go to churches, temples, synagogues, whatever, you have some respect for what is there,” she says. “You don’t go with the idea of ‘OK, let me see what kind of business can I get from this?’”

But for her, it’s also more personal. She does not feel welcome in the Hasidic synagogues in the neighborhood. As she puts it, “This is the only synagogue that I have here.” Without Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, she has nowhere to go.