Temple Tantrum

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

In keeping with the spirit of North Bay Village politics, niceties such as civility and good sportsmanship were soon abandoned. At the August 30 meeting at which the city tentatively accepted the temple's offer to sell, at least 75 people packed the commission chambers and shouted out interruptions as the issue was discussed. One elderly woman warned, "If you make this a community center, a lot of teenage kids are going to be selling their drugs, and North Bay Village's going to have a gang problem." When she began haranguing six-term mayor Paul Vogel with hostile questions about the ownership plans, he snapped, "I don't feel like discussing it with you at this point." There were also moments of quiet passion. "I'm a survivor of the Holocaust," Simon Chevlin said, "and it hurts me very much that Jews themselves are trying to do what other people tried to do to us: to destroy a Jewish institution."

At that meeting, commissioners instructed City Manager James DiPietro to report back on the total cost of buying Beth El and converting it to a community center. DiPietro found in mid-September that it would cost $302,000 and would require a small increase in taxes.

But before the commissioners could act on his report, they ran into a brick wall named Gabrielle Nash-Tessler.

Although the decision to sell may have looked to be a fait accompli, Nash-Tessler and her cohorts continued their organizing and preliminary legal maneuvering -- even during the High Holidays. Her attorney, Charles Neustein, fired off letters to Bunis threatening to put him in legal "peril" if he sold the temple or any of its artifacts; she gathered form letters from more than 40 members protesting the sale; and she began consulting with Rabbi Abraham Korf, the regional director of Florida's fast-growing Lubavitch movement, who hadn't made a formal purchase offer yet but was willing to help run the temple. Despite that sect's controversial reputation -- among other things, its members believe the Messianic age is being ushered in by their own Brooklyn-based rebbe -- Nash-Tessler argued, "When you're dying, you don't care who's going to care for you. You need to get oxygen as soon as possible."

She had come after services to the home of her friends Sylvia and Max Nexer, on whose kitchen table she spread out her documents like a royal flush in a high-stakes poker game. Nash-Tessler carried copies of all the temple-related papers in the back seat of her white Cadillac, because she never knew when she'd have to unfurl a news clipping or legal memo in order to prove a point. (If documents were insufficient, she was likely to produce witnesses on a moment's notice; to prove that Bunis turned away at least a dozen new members who wanted to sign up, she jumped up to call Phyllis Lax, an ex-temple member who had tried unsuccessfully to rejoin. "There was no real attempt to encourage new membership," asserted Lax, a former city commissioner, over the phone.) These dissidents -- with and without Nash-Tessler -- often met in small groups after services to vent their anger, like revolutionary cells plotting the Czar's overthrow.

They had a fellow traveler in the cantor, Danny Tadmore, a red-haired Israeli who faced the delicate task of placating the temple's leadership while privately discouraging the sale of the synagogue that had employed him for ten years. One Sabbath night, after leading services, he went to a secret meeting at the home of Armand Abecassis, a youthfully handsome 55-year-old clothing manufacturer with an attractive wife and two adorable little children, just the sort of picture-perfect family the temple needed to recruit.

As Orthodox Jews, Abecassis and his wife Lucille were outraged about the planned closing. Although they hadn't yet become Beth El members, they were attending services and working to halt the sale. "You close a business, not a temple," Lucille contended. As they talked, the discussion became more heated, until Tadmore exploded, "Jews don't close a synagogue. Nazis do that!"

More than anger was needed to slow the sale, though, and that's where Nash-Tessler's legal skirmishing finally paid off. On September 20 she filed suit against Irving Bunis, requesting a court order barring him from selling any of the synagogue's property. In a mind-boggling series of stunts that dazed legal observers, she employed a technicality to claim the presidency of the nonprofit corporation that owned the temple property, set up a seemingly viable rival temple organization, and actually convinced a judge at an emergency hearing the following day to temporarily block the sale. And she did it all before the North Bay Village Commission had a chance to consider final approval of the purchase. It's small wonder Nash-Tessler believed God had chosen her to preserve the synagogue. "They have no authority," she spat, referring to the temple board headed by Bunis. "They are trespassers."

Nash-Tessler's legal end run was a piece of wizardry that would make Ellis Rubin blush. In the course of their research, she and her attorney had noticed that the temple had been operated over the years by two different corporate entities, North Bay Village Jewish Center, Inc., and Temple Beth El, Inc., of North Bay Village. (The latter organization was launched in 1966, but the temple building itself didn't open until 1976. Before then, worshipers had met in various locations.) After temple officers failed to file the required corporate reports and pay the annual fees, these nonprofit corporations were deemed inactive and were dissolved by the Florida Department of State in 1987 and 1973, respectively. Nash-Tessler and her attorney devised an ingenious scheme: In early September she paid off the fees and penalties and quietly revived both corporations, naming herself and various allies as officers of both.

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