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Shul for Scandal

A Lower East Side rabbi tries to sell his synagogue -- without telling the congregants. And the faithful are heading to court.

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It's like something out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale. A beloved, frail 86-year-old rabbi contracts to sell his synagogue -- without telling the congregation -- to a Jesuit brother, for $1.2 million. Outrage (not to mention chaos) ensues. "Everyone has an opinion," says one congregant. "I have three opinions!" says another. "And all are right."

The issue is whether the 1913 Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan synagogue, at 180 Stanton Street, can be sold. The synagogue is deeded as a religious corporation, run by a board of trustees. Joseph Singer, the rabbi, claims that the board voted to sell in March 2000.

Since then, the building's been padlocked three times, twice after the rabbi's family removed Torahs. Another lockout was meant to keep congregants -- a mix of old-world butchers and a younger crowd of locals, one of whom brings his Venezuelan monkey to serve as Shabbes goy -- from making a squatters' claim. "It's sad, that's all," says artist Allen Hirsch. "We all loved the rabbi. He and the building went together: old and crumbling. They brought the flavor of the old country. The battle over the sale woke us out of the sweet dream."

In court recently, the matter at hand was whether Singer's board of congregants was in fact the real board, and therefore had the power to sell. On the stand, the rabbi's son-in-law couldn't remember who'd attended the meetings. The rabbi's son listed three board members as present and voting to sell. Congregants respond that one was hospitalized at the time; another denies attending; and the third, then 96, was homebound with Alzheimer's. Rabbi Singer's testimony was no more helpful: Barely audible, he spoke in Yiddish to a translator. He said the congregants had conspired against him, but he couldn't really piece his family's own case together. (Sample Q&A: "Rabbi, what happened in 1972?" "A lot.") Nothing seemed to add up -- and, in fact, the judge, perplexed, has handed the case to a "special referee," retired justice Martin Evans.

The litigation has scared off the buyer, Jesuit brother Rick Curry's National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. Rabbi Singer is rumored to have another candidate in the wings -- his son, who's expected to flip the property. (The rabbi's lawyers declined to comment.) Meanwhile, the congregants fume. "It's such a puzzler," says a man who's been coming to the temple since the twenties. "How does one man sell a building he doesn't own? He can barely even speak!" Adds Brian J. Burstin, the congregants' attorney, "This is like the God who failed. He lacked one strength: the ability to confront his own flock."


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