Temple Tantrum

Not even the embattled State of Israel can hold a candle to this feuding little synagogue in North Bay Village

It looked like the beginning of the end for Temple Beth El.
Here it was, the first night of the Jewish High Holidays in September, and the temple's last-ditch appeal for new members in the North Bay Village News seemed to have fallen rather flat. "Dig deep into your hearts. Will Temple Beth El survive or will it be gone forever? It is up to you!" Howard Kandel, the membership director, had pleaded on the front page a few weeks earlier. Now there were about 40 people, mostly elderly women, scattered among row after row of empty seats, a dozen wooden pews in front of a few hundred bland yellow chairs, all facing the holy ark. On the left side of the large chapel, hundreds of black memorial plaques bore the names of dead members and relatives, a reminder of a congregation that had dwindled in size from more than 400 dues-paying worshipers a decade ago to fewer than 100 today. By the time the black-robed cantor, Danny Tadmore, rose to lead the group in what was supposed to be a robust, joyous hymn to God's power, the Yigdal, they could produce only a weak humming sound. When he concluded the service with the traditional Hebrew greeting, "L'Shana Tova," or "Have a Good Year," the sentiment seemed starkly out of place.

The temple was, in fact, scheduled to be closed before the month was out A at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A narrowly split temple board had voted a month earlier to sell Beth El to the city for use as a community center and to merge with a larger synagogue, Temple Beth Moshe in North Miami. Temple Beth El appeared ready, in Dylan Thomas's phrase, to go gentle into that good night.

But ultimately there was nothing gentle about the Jewish version of mud-wrestling that developed after the decision to close the temple. Before the dust settled, legal motions flew back and forth between rival factions; old political vendettas were reborn with a new vengeance; vile innuendoes about sex, greed, and power were eagerly spread; and angry Jews shouted at -- and even shoved -- each other on the synagogue grounds. An ancient Judaic art form -- arguing -- was once again revived in all its glory. At the center of it all was a little old lady named Gabrielle Nash-Tessler, North Bay Village's most persistent gadfly and a failed candidate for city commissioner last fall.

A wealthy five-foot-tall woman who speaks with a high-pitched French accent, Nash-Tessler had unsuccessfully campaigned for several posts during the past 30 years, but she was seeking an even higher office this time around: savior of the Jewish heritage. With her silver bouffant hairdo and the diaphanous dresses and broad hats she wore to temple, she carried herself with the regal bearing of one who knows her cause is just, even Divine. "God has chosen me to save this shul because of the time, money, energy, and know-how I have," she declared.

If filing lawsuits and stirring up a hornet's nest of animosity were part of the Divine Plan, then the Lord could not have chosen a better vehicle. Nash-Tessler certainly has exhibited an unquenched thirst for spending money and battling officialdom during her lengthy activist career; in the process she has drawn one arrest (charges were ultimately dismissed) in Miami Beach for cop-bribing, as well as unproven bribery allegations from two North Bay Village officials during a zoning dispute (for details see "Village People," in the October 28, 1992, issue of New Times). In her view, those political charges merely reflected the dirty tactics that North Bay Village's power brokers are willing to use against their enemies. "You don't know what these people are capable of," she hinted darkly. "I do."

Many of the same actors from previous political melodramas returned to the stage to do battle over the temple's fate. The generals on one side included North Bay Village Mayor Paul Vogel and Vice Mayor Irving Leighton, along with their political ally, Phil Schonberger, a member of the town's zoning and recreation boards. All three men are members of the temple's 24-person board and all three voted to offer the synagogue for sale to the city. The battalion on the other side was headed by the trio's political enemy, Nash-Tessler, who, in her role as the town's Joan of Arc, led an assortment of disgruntled current and former temple members, including dissident temple board member Howard Kandel, who also mounted a failed bid for commissioner last year. In addition, a few of the board members who opposed the sale quietly worked with Nash-Tessler, who is a member of the temple but not on its board. Both sides also enlisted synagogue members who had little involvement in town politics. They all disagreed over the central question: Can this temple be saved?

For Irving Bunis, an 84-year-old man who has served for nearly a decade as Beth El's president, the answer was a sad and seemingly reluctant No. Even after moving north to Hollywood six years ago, Bunis continued to make the long drive to Hispanola Avenue three times a week to open the doors of the temple for morning services; all too often in recent years, he'd have to drive straight back because there weren't enough people to form a minyan, the ten-person minimum prescribed by Jewish law for group prayer. About five years ago Bunis began warning the congregation that the temple would have to be closed unless more members and more funds could be found.

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