Temple Tantrum

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

He and other leaders insist they tried their best to win more support; they even used telephone cross-directories to track down local residents with Jewish-sounding surnames. But nothing worked. The synagogue membership has also been afflicted by broader trends affecting all of Dade County: the Jewish population has gradually shrunk to about ten percent of the general population, largely because of deaths but also because of migration to Broward and Palm Beach counties. (In 1982 Jews made up fifteen percent of Dade's population, according to University of Miami geography professor Ira Sheskin.) A few temples, such as Adath Yeshurun in North Miami Beach, have closed or merged with others. For some congregations, it seemed almost inevitable.

It looked that way to Irving Bunis. After services ended one recent evening, he led the way down a hallway graced with an oil painting of a bearded rabbi (sale price: $85) and into a small office, where he closed the door and explained why he felt the temple had to be sold. "People may have faith in Judaism," he complained, "but they're not willing to support it." With the temple's $92,000 operating budget plus an estimated $60,000 to replace a decaying roof, said Bunis, $150,000 in pledges would be necessary to keep the temple alive for another year. But they couldn't possibly approach that amount: last year, for instance, they raised only $22,000 in dues and managed to add only $46,000 by soliciting funds during Jewish holidays and renting the space to a local civic group, among other measures. Beth El couldn't even afford to pay a rabbi.

"We just don't have the wealth in this temple that we used to have," Bunis said. "Any time you have two-thirds of a congregation that are women, they don't want to donate as much as when their husbands were alive."

Money wasn't a problem for one 71-year-old widow, Nash-Tessler, who grandly declared at a meeting of the temple's board, "I think it is a sin to destroy a temple," and offered to buy Beth El for $200,000. Despite her avowal of such noble concerns, the board wasn't about to risk giving her the property. Given the history of discord between her and several of the temple's politically active leaders, only a direct order from God A and perhaps not even that A would prompt them to sell to her voluntarily. Instead they voted to offer the synagogue to the city for $175,000. (At the mention of Nash-Tessler, Bunis's face hardened, and he said bitterly, "She's only doing it for herself.")

The ugly questions raised by Bunis and others about Nash-Tessler's underlying motivations sounded almost like...Gabrielle Nash-Tessler herself, no slouch when it comes to implying wrongdoing. ("How could they spend $92,000 without having a mortgage?" she wondered outloud. "But I'm not accusing anyone of anything.") From the start, her critics worried that her offer amounted to nothing more than political grandstanding designed to wreak revenge and embarrassment, or that she might even someday turn around and sell the property, assessed last year at nearly $557,000, for a tidy profit. "She's a real estate dealer, so people are suspicious," noted one temple member, Joseph Geller, chairman of the Dade County Democratic Party.

Nash-Tessler later admitted that she made the offer to underscore her contention that the temple leadership did not really want to preserve Beth El. "I knew it would not be accepted. I called a bluff a bluff," she said at an August city commission hearing.

But other would-be buyers fared no better. At various times the board had considered selling to A and sharing space with A two different ultra-Orthodox rabbis. But the officers had doubts about the willingness of those rabbis to let Beth El's current members practice Conservative (i.e., moderate) Judaism in the same synagogue A and about those congregations' financial strength. "When push came to shove, it was all talk," asserted Beth El's Irving Leighton.

A $300,000 offer from a coalition of three small Jehovah's Witnesses congregations was likewise turned down, a rejection that puzzled their spokesmen. No one said anything aloud, but could it be because they were...goys? Not according to Leighton, who explained the rebuff on more elevated grounds: "How would they benefit the current community? After they held their services, off they would go again."

To Leighton, Bunis, and other supporters of the sale, the city seemed the best choice under unfortunate circumstances. In Leighton's view, the offer to sell to the city was no betrayal; it was even consistent with the original vision of the temple's founders. "There was a strong emphasis on community facilities," he noted. But to critics, such as Simon Chevlin, a devout Jew who was one of Nash-Tessler's original allies, the real motivations were far less noble: "They're politicians; they're not interested in the temple. They want to destroy the shul to make a community hangout so they can get more votes."

Other opponents even whispered -- without any proof -- that at least one board member might personally profit from the sale by winning contracts for repair work. Not surprisingly, the dissidents didn't approve of the city attorney's decision that there was no conflict if Mayor Vogel and Vice Mayor Leighton voted on the temple sale as members of the temple board and the city commission. (Originally, both men voted in favor of the sale in both their capacities; at a later Beth El board meeting, they abstained from a vote that reconfirmed the sale offer.)

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