Temple Tantrum

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

Temple Beth El's deed, for instance, names North Bay Village Jewish Center, Inc., as owner. So when Nash-Tessler acquired a letter from the Department of State affirming that its officers were herself and two pals, Sylvia and Max Nexer, there were then two organizations -- one headed by Irving Bunis, the other by Gabrielle Nash-Tessler -- claiming to speak for Temple Beth El.

At the September 21 emergency hearing, Circuit Court Judge Bernard Jaffe was treated to the consequences of Nash-Tessler's legerdemain. Claiming to be a temple officer, she asked for a restraining order blocking the proposed sale and requested the appointment of a receiver, Rabbi Korf, to manage the temple. The judge put the sale on hold but postponed further action until after a hearing he scheduled for later in the month. "The judge was laughing," Nash-Tessler recalled of the judge's reactions to her corporate shell game.

The temple leadership and city officials were not so amused. One city official, sounding a bit awestruck, admitted, "It's very creative. She really knows how to litigate." Board members were simply furious. "I thought it was deceitful," Irving Leighton opined. Further, he argued, under Florida law, her reinstatement action only served to legitimize all actions taken by North Bay Village Jewish Center, Inc., during the time it was "dissolved" in the eyes of the state. "Just because we didn't file papers doesn't mean the corporation doesn't exist," he insisted.

Judge Jaffe's court order did not exactly promote harmony when rival factions showed up to worship together later in the week A on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There had been more than enough sins to go around for everyone, and the air was thick with muted tension as about 100 people gathered for this mournful Kol Nidre service. During his brief sermon, Cantor Tadmore tried obliquely to bridge the gap between his feuding congregants. "We must learn to let go of hatred and mistrust," he implored. Citing one of the dozens of sins listed in the Yom Kippur prayer book, he reminded them, "Try not to say bad things about our neighbors."

Those who may have taken such vows didn't keep them very long. After services, in the hallway outside the chapel, Simon Chevlin spoke loudly to a group of angry temple-goers. "Bunis didn't give people a chance," he complained. "He decided to be God and close the temple." Even as worshipers drifted away into the parking lot, the bickering continued. Nash-Tessler faced off against Beth El office volunteer Mickey Sevin, the heavyset Sevin looming over the petite firebrand.

The dispute centered on the merits of Bunis's leadership. Sevin said, "He has done everything he could! There's no alternative until there's money on the table." Nash-Tessler, looking almost dainty in a yellow dress and a huge straw hat decorated with yellow felt roses, became so furious that she suffered a lapse of English grammar. "Why you want to keep it closed?" she shouted. "Why say there's no way to raise more money?" Sevin bristled and lit into Nash-Tessler for impugning Bunis's reputation. "You make him out to be a thief and he's not!"

The debate took a more personal turn, as Sevin questioned whether Nash-Tessler was actually a Beth El member. Nash-Tessler loudly insisted that the temple had cashed her membership check. Sevin begged to differ, and Nash-Tessler trumpeted, "I am a Jew, and if they don't let me be a member, something is wrong!" (In fact, Nash-Tessler and her late husband became members in 1990 and donated approximately $3500 since joining.) "You weren't turned down because you were a Jew," Sevin responded. "You can be very obnoxious." Undeterred, Nash-Tessler marched off to her car and returned waving her canceled check in triumph.

The next day, the most sacred (and the most crowded) holiday of the year for Jews, Nash-Tessler stood outside the temple's rear entrance handing out leaflets and placing them on the windshields of the cars that nearly filled the parking lot. In bold letters, the flyers alerted worshipers to the lawsuit and the upcoming hearing: "WE MUST SHOW THE COURT THAT WE WANT TO KEEP TEMPLE BETH EL OPEN. THE FUTURE OF OUR TEMPLE IS NOW UP TO US!"

Inside, while nearly 200 people prayed, the voices of some dissidents could be heard in the hallways, and a few board members huddled together, looking over documents. Tempers were clearly frayed: When Mayor Vogel was asked during a break to comment about the current situation, he yelled, "Get the hell away from me! It's a sin what you're doing. It's Yom Kippur!"

An undercurrent of unpleasantness persisted throughout the services, and as the proceedings neared their end, Bunis went to the podium. "As most of you know, this will be the last service at Temple Beth El," he announced, explaining that temple would close the next day, and their congregation would merge with Temple Beth Moshe in North Miami. Danny Tadmore spoke next, raising the possibility of Divine Intervention: "The ideal thing would be, if by a miracle of God, something happens that keeps the temple open. If not, then I enjoyed being with you." Simon Chevlin, who led the congregation in prayer during most of the day's services, was unwilling to accept these quiet farewells. His voice shaking with anger, he said from the podium, "We'll fight. The shul will not be closed!"

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