West New York shul wins court battle

West New York shul wins court battle

An interior view of Congregation Shaarei Zedek in West New York features its stained glass windows.

A 101-year-old Orthodox congregation in West New York has won a court battle against a chasidic group that had signed an agreement with the synagogue’s president giving it control of the building.

In a late April ruling, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Hector Velazquez ruled that under state law, a synagogue building can be transferred only with the permission of the congregation’s membership.

No such permission had been granted by the 60 or so members of Congregation Shaarei Zedek, he ruled.

In 2006, Yeshiva Gedolah Lubavich signed an agreement with the president of Congregation Shaarei Zedek, under which the yeshivah would use and maintain the synagogue building, while helping to make up and lead the Shabbat morning minyan. After 10 years, control of the congregation would transfer to the yeshivah.

For the synagogue, this offered the prospect of 10 more years of a minyan in West New York. As Jews moved out of Hudson County, it had become increasingly difficult to gather 10 men on a Shabbat morning.

For the yeshivah, the agreement provided space for classrooms and dormitories – and even a basketball court, if it would renovate the decaying third floor gymnasium. During its heyday in the 1950s, the congregation had boasted 500 members.

By one estimate, the value of the synagogue and the attached school building now could be $4 million.

But the agreement hit its first snag in 2008, when the yeshivah closed. An attempt to reopen it in 2010 came to an end when a fire in the building led the town to shutting it for multiple zoning violations.

Meanwhile, Daniel Kaminsky of Oradell decided to do his great-uncle a favor and help make the minyan. His great-grandfather had been one of the congregation’s founders, and Kaminsky became a regular. It brought back memories of visiting his grandfather, who had been a kosher butcher in West New York.

Soon Kaminsky learned of the agreement between Shaarei Zedek and the yeshivah. He helped organize a membership meeting that voted to overturn the agreement. Soon afterward, the congregation went to court to void it, and to seek damages from the yeshivah, which, it said, had not maintained its part of the agreement.

For its part, the yeshivah counterclaimed that the agreement was still valid – and insisted that any litigation take place before a rabbinic court – a beit din – as called for in the agreement.

In his ruling, Velazquez separated the clause of the agreement calling for the transfer of the synagogue, which he declared null, from the rest of the agreement – details of which, he affirmed, must be decided by a beit din.

For Kaminsky, the important thing is that the future of the building and the synagogue is no longer in question.

“That’s 99 percent of the case,” he said of the ownership dispute. He said that the synagogue will ask the beit din to award it $80,000 for promised payments the yeshivah did not make. The yeshivah in turn will ask to be reinstated in the building, and for the synagogue to pay to bring the building up to code, said Larry Loigman, the yeshivah’s attorney.

With the synagogue’s long-term ownership assured, Kaminsky said the congregation can start planning its future.

“We just have to put our brains together. We couldn’t do anything until we got this monkey off our backs,” Kaminsky said.

“We’re thinking of making it a historic landmark. It’s an amazing place to see. Ninty-nine percent of the stained glass windows are the originals.”

And perhaps demographic tides will turn again.

“We’re hoping people are going to start to move back in the area, because Jersey City and Hoboken and the surrounding towns are starting to get overpopulated,” Kaminsky said. “We’re hoping in the next five to ten years the population will start to shift.”

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