Three members seeking to block the sale of Perth Amboy’s last remaining Orthodox synagogue will ask the state Supreme Court to overturn an Appellate Court decision on the grounds that a religious court, not civil authorities, should have had the final say.
Papers were filed Aug. 7 asking the high court to review a July 23 decision upholding the sale of Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh to an international spirituality and meditation group.
In that decision, Middlesex County Superior Court ruled that the synagogue’s presidium did not violate its bylaws by selling its building.
Larry Loigman, an attorney representing opponents of the sale, said the decision should have been made by a religious court, or beit din, and not by civil authorities.
“Basically, we contend the Appellate Court and the lower court…impermissibly interfered with a religious matter,” said Loigman. The attorney, who is based in Middletown and Red Bank, said he feels so strongly about the matter he is handling the case pro bono.
Loigman is representing Herschel Chomsky of Perth Amboy and his sister, Zephyr, of Edison, and Dr. Alan Goldsmith.
The Chomskys are the children of Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, who served as religious leader at the shul from 1983 to 1992. Goldsmith grew up in Perth Amboy and is founder and president of the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center.
Loigman contends presidium members were in violation of their own bylaws on several counts, particularly by not having a religious authority approve the sale. He said in lieu of a rabbi, a beit din should have been consulted.
“Don’t forget, when those bylaws were written the shul had a full-time rabbi to be that authority,” said Loigman. “They have not been updated for many years and when written no one ever contemplated there would be no shul rabbi.”
He expects the Supreme Court to take about two months to decide on whether to hear the case and another year after that for it to come to the court.
A “Committee to Save Shaarey Tefiloh” is collecting funds to cover filing fees and related expenses.
The July 23 ruling found that the presidium of the Orthodox congregation, which closed about two years ago, was “fully authorized” to sell the synagogue to the Science of Spirituality, Inc. The $925,000 to be paid for the building would be used to maintain the 110-year-old congregation’s three cemeteries.
Shaarey Tefiloh had only about 25 members left and could no longer draw a minyan required to hold a service. The original 1903 building was destroyed in a fire in 1975 and rebuilt the next year on the corner of Water and Market streets.
Presidium member Shep Sewitch, the prime defendant in the suit, said the filing was just another delaying tactic. “What can we do but sit and wait while these people drag this thing out and exhaust our funds,” said Sewitch, a city resident for all of his more than 90 years. “That’s their prerogative, but I can’t understand why they’re beating a dead horse. There is no one left in Perth Amboy.”
Other presidium defendants are his brother William, Barry Rosengarten, and George Cohen. The Sewitch brothers are former contractors who constructed the current building.
“Listen, we built it and it hurts us to have to do this,” said Shep Sewitch. “We feel as badly as anyone, but our leaders and founders are buried there and we must care for them. It is our duty.”
Herschel Chomsky, the only presidium member to vote against the sale, said presidium members were summoned to appear before a beit din early in the litigation in 2011, but failed to show, resulting in a default ruling for his side.
“I believe they should be removed as officers of the synagogue,” he told NJJN. “There have been a lot of things that haven’t been told that I don’t believe the courts have considered.”
In his 14-page decision issued last year, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Frank M. Ciuffani made note of the unspecified beit din’s default ruling.
However, he said, Jewish houses of worship are traditionally considered to be congregational, vesting governing power in their membership. As a result, civil courts must enforce property decisions made by a majority of its members or by any other governing body it may have instituted.
Additionally, Ciuffani said the Supreme Court has ruled that using “neutral, secular principles of property law” should be applied when examining church deeds, constitutions, bylaws, or canons to settle property disputes, “thereby freeing civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.”
However, Loigman said, there have been several cases where the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as New York courts, have upheld the right of churches to have authority over religious matters. No such decision has ever been made by a New Jersey court.