Shul with pool or pool with school?

Shul with pool or pool with school?

Teaneck Jewish Center plans to sell its building to yeshiva


Teaneck’s oldest synagogue and its youngest yeshiva high school are getting ready to tie the knot.

The precise terms of the relationship between the Jewish Center of Teaneck and Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah remain to be hammered out.

But by a close vote on Sunday night, the Jewish Center board agreed to explore a proposal from the yeshiva in which the boy’s high school, which now rents space in the synagogue, would share responsibility for the synagogue’s building, while the congregation would maintain its independence. Under the proposed terms, the school will pay only a fraction of the estimated 5 million value of the building, which includes a gym and a swimming pool.

The vote was 15 to 14, with the synagogue’s president, Isaac Student, casting the deciding vote.

Those who voted against it preferred a plan offered by the Chabad of Teaneck, which would have offered even less money.

An offer from the Holy Name Medical Center, across the street from the Jewish Center, was not debated at all. The hospital had offered a partnership in which it would use most of the building’s facilities, while the congregation would continue to use its sanctuary for services and the hospital and congregation would jointly employ a rabbi to serve as both congregational rabbi and hospital chaplain. It also offered to have the building appraised and to pay fair market value for it. Neither of the building’s other two suitors proposed such an arrangement.

“There was a very strong consensus that the Jewish Center of Teaneck should not go to a non-Jewish organization,” said Abbe Rosner, a board member, explaining why that proposal was not seriously entertained.

“There’s a lot of negotiations that still have to happen,” between the school and the shul, Mr. Student said.

Once those negotiations are concluded and ratified by the synagogue board, the agreement will have to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the congregation’s membership.

Three years ago, two thirds of the membership gave their approval to installing a mechitza in the main sanctuary, to separate men and women during services. That enabled the synagogue, which at one time was a flagship of the Conservative movement, to join the Orthodox Union, and came five years after the congregation hired Rabbi Lawrence Zierler with the understanding that the mechitza would be installed.

That change, it was thought, would help bring members from Teaneck’s Orthodox community, but it proved too little, too late. The synagogue had spent decades straddling the no-man’s land between Conservative and Orthodox as its membership declined.

Last week, its longtime rabbi, David Feldman, died.

It now has 69 member families, according to a board member who chose not to use his name. At its height, it had 1,500.

And two months ago, the Jewish Center let Rabbi Zierler go, citing budget difficulties.

Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah is now in its second year, with 33 students in ninth and tenth grade. Its largest continent of students comes from Teaneck, but it also boasts students from Passaic and Monsey, N.Y., both outposts of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah offers what it describes as “a classic yeshiva education and a superior general studies program with excitement, warmth and a passion for growth.”

Its head, Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, is a graduate of Yeshiva University, as are many of its faculty. But in contrast to Torah Academy of Bergen County, Teaneck’s longtime boy’s yeshiva high school, Heichal HaTorah adheres to a typically ultra-Orthodox school calendar of Sunday and evening Talmud classes, above and beyond the standard yeshiva high school schedule.

In a statement, Rabbi Stechler and the school’s president, Yehuda Jacoby, said: “The Yeshiva is pleased to announce that the Board of the Jewish Center has agreed to enter into partnership negotiations with Heichal that will enable Heichal to continue to grow and will ensure the continuity of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. We are excited about the opportunities this collaboration affords Heichal HaTorah and the larger Bergen County Jewish community.”

Both Rabbi Stechler and Mr. Student declined to comment on the details of the proposal. But sources on the synagogue’s board said the school offered to pay the synagogue $1 million at closing, and $120,000 a year over 10 years.

This contrasted with the Chabad offer, which sources said did not offer as much money. Supporters of the Chabad proposal, however, felt that the Jewish group could best replicate the Center in its glory days, as a full service, multigenerational Jewish center.

“I felt the Chabad proposal offered the Jewish Center a future that would have come close to the heyday,” said board member Abbe Rosner.

“They promised lots of activity, lots of programming,” she said.

Another board supporter of the Chabad proposal, Zalmen Mlotek, noted that Chabad drew 700 people to a Purim event at the Jewish Center last year.

“What does the Center need more desperately than traffic?” he said.

“Chabad has a packed preschool and kindergarten. That attracts people to a community,” he said.

Today, he said, the Jewish Center suffers from a lack of children and young parents in the congregation. “What’s going to change with bringing in Heichal Hatorah, a right-wing yeshiva?” Mr. Mlotek said. “I don’t understand that. Chabad is coming in with hundreds of families ready to come to our preschool.

“The main difference was that Heichal was plunking down a million dollars for the future of a minyan that frankly hasn’t grown,” he said.

By the numbers, the Holy Name proposal was far and away the best offer. It would have paid the synagogue its fair market appraised value, which the synagogue board has estimated to be $5 million.

“We would buy the building at its appraised value,” said Michael Maron, the hospital’s president. “We would allow the congregation to continue to use the main sanctuary. We would employ the rabbi for the congregation, jointly selected by the congregation and us.”

Mr. Maron said the hospital would use the center’s pool and fitness area to expand its physical therapy and fitness programs; it would use the classroom space for its nursing school.

And it would offer specific health programs targeted at the Jewish community. “We would keep the heritage alive,” he said.

Board member Eva Gans, however, is very pleased with the partnership with the school. “The financial arrangement with them will assure the viability of the synagogue into the future,” she said.

“We already have had experience with them. The boys in the building are very positive,” and have been helping the congregation with its daily minyan.

“They respect our history. They’re even talking about maybe making a museum kind of exhibit. It was the Jewish Center that was the center for a lot of Jewish life in Bergen County. Synagogues came from us, schools came from us. They recognize that, they appreciate it, they want to show it to everyone.”

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