Temple Tantrum

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

The service ended with the blowing of the shofar, the notes from the ram's horn falling away into silence.

In retrospect, it turned out to be a call to further battle. At the following Monday's hearing, three different lawyers A two representing the warring temple factions and one from Temple Beth Moshe -- ringed the judge's bench in the crowded courtroom. Two rabbis, a well-tailored Yaakov Jory Lang of Temple Beth Moshe and the Lubavitch leader, Abraham Korf, wearing a dark hat and beard, hat near each other watching the legal fracas.

The sparring began. Nash-Tessler's lawyer, Charles Neustein, argued that the current board had no legal authority to sell the temple. One alleged reason: because it failed to conduct a formal poll of its members. Mauricio Ejenbaum, hired by Irving Bunis to represent the temple, countered that the board headed by Bunis had the right under its bylaws to sell. He also asserted that Nash-Tessler's hocus-pocus with the Department of State had reinstated his client's North Bay Village Jewish Center, Inc. A this in spite of the fact that Nash-Tessler had sued in the name of North Bay Village Jewish Center. "Mr. Neustein doesn't represent North Bay Village Jewish Center, Inc. I do," Ejenbaum announced. Which put Judge Jaffe, like the panel in the old What's My Line? show, in the position of asking, Will the real Temple Beth El leadership please stand up? It added a mad Alice-in-Wonderland quality to the legal debate.

"Then you are stating because of that reinstatement, you represent the corporation?" the judge asked, a bit puzzled.

"Yes, sir," Bunis's lawyer answered.
The dispute was only compounded by the comments of Joseph Paglino, representing Temple Beth Moshe, who said, "Mrs. Tessler just took it upon herself to make herself president with absolutely no authority whatsoever, as though I went and made myself president of General Motors."

The disagreement took up so much of the half-hour the judge had allotted that he had no time to render any final decision. Instead, he put the proposed sale on hold and ordered the temple to remain open for further religious observances until a full hearing could be held. (As of this writing, that hearing has not taken place. The temporary order barring the temple's sale remains in effect.)

Judge Jaffe's order allowed dissidents to claim a first-round victory and created, for a brief moment, the illusion of peace between the two warring parties A not unlike a cease-fire in Bosnia. At the service for the next Jewish holiday, Succoth, the harvest celebration known as the "feast of the tabernacles," the synagogue's small adjoining chapel, with its multicolored stained glass renditions of the Torah scrolls, was filled with more than 70 members. "This holiday celebrates the uniting of the Jewish nation, the mitzvah [blessing] of togetherness," Cantor Tadmore told them. Later everyone went out into the darkness and offered toasts in a wooden hut covered with palm leaves. Candles flickered in the thatched sukka, a few children scampered among the adults, and Simon Chevlin said over a wine cup held high, "This is the new beginning."

Back inside, they shared coffee and cake, and the temple rebels strutted a bit over their achievement. Nash-Tessler climbed onto a table, clad in a delicate pink dress of her own design, to exhort the troops. Shouting like a tiny French version of a union organizer at the barricades, she proclaimed, "This shul belongs to us! No one will take it away from you or me as long as there's breath in my body. We are all now together -- no longer separated."

It was a touching sentiment, but it didn't last. From the side of the room, Paul Vogel shouted out skeptically, "What about the dues?" A a reference to Beth El's shortage of funds. One woman whispered an unsubstantiated rumor about how Nash-Tessler violated Jewish custom in the burial of her husband. "Check into it," the would-be source urged. Irving Bunis pointed scornfully to one eager champion of temple preservation and said, "This lady here, she's never given a nickel to the temple."

Two days later, Bunis was hit by a notice from Nash-Tessler's attorney demanding that he produce all synagogue records and submit to a deposition. He filed a counter-motion refusing to cooperate.

A new round of in-fighting ensued. On the same Friday that Bunis was served with papers, Irving Leighton addressed the congregation, telling them that to "[raise] false hopes is a cruel hoax." The temple was fast running out of cash, he said, and it would be dangerous to wait until all the money was gone. (As of mid-November, only about $5000 was left in the treasury, according to Bunis.) "If you wait, everything goes down the drain," Leighton warned.

The congregants' spirits sagged. The next day, while a small group of worshipers gathered in the sukkaÉ, Nash-Tessler confronted Bunis and suggested, "Why don't you resign and let someone else do the job?"

Bunis said, "I won't resign -- just to spite you!"
The acrimony peaked on Simchat Torah, the October celebration of the Torah A the Jewish Bible itself. Once again the small chapel was packed. The appearance of joy was everywhere: Children and adults grasped the sacred Torah scrolls and danced down the aisles singing Hebrew songs. Gabrielle Nash-Tessler, grim-faced, hoisted a camera and went to the back of room to take flash photos, further proof for the judge of the popular support for the temple. At the podium, Bunis, in his prayer shawl and yarmulke, wheeled around in anger. The temple's monitor, the hulking Phil Schonberger, followed Nash-Tessler into the lobby, and when she continued to snap photographs of the singing congregants, including her grandson, he shoved her into a seat and started to grab her camera. "Go away, don't be Ivan the Terrible," she exclaimed, holding the camera tightly against her midsection. Schonberger, rigid with fury, said in a loud voice to anyone who would listen, "I told her before not to take pictures."

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