By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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.
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.)
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.
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!"
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."
Though the incident inspires one fundraising possibility no one had considered -- charging admission for a staged grudge match between Nash-Tessler and Schonberger -- after the confrontation the chance for any accommodation between the cliques seemed to disappear. Distrust and nasty gossip continued to spread. Nash-Tessler stalled on pressing for a formal vote of the temple's membership to choose between the rival boards and to determine once and for all Beth El's fate. She had recruited about 25 new members who had given her small deposits on membership, but she didn't want to turn over the funds to Bunis's group for fear he and his cohorts would squander the money or use smear tactics to throw the vote their way. "Why should we strengthen their authority?" she said. "I know these guys and how they operate. I don't want any hanky-panky." She favored waiting to see whether the court mandated the election of a new board.
Still, Nash-Tessler wasn't above retailing a few smears of her own. Privately, for instance, she raised broad -- and unproven -- hints about one city official's purported philandering. And her sharp tongue could even turn against her own allies when it suited her. So when Simon Chevlin, president of her Temple Beth El, Inc. of North Bay Village, threatened to resign in a dispute over her hardball legal tactics, she began subtly bad-mouthing him, too. "Nobody wants dirty laundry about him aired," she said, affecting a tone of sympathy. "He might not be able to be elected." It would be no great loss, she implied, if he were to step down.
By early November Chevlin was back in Nash-Tessler's good graces; he had decided to remain as president while their rebel group began discussions with a 90-member Miami Beach Orthodox congregation, Kolel Harambam, that was interested in running the temple even though its $175,000 offer already had been spurned by Bunis's board. The group recruited 40 of its members to sign on with Temple Beth El and give Nash-Tessler deposit checks so they could vote with her side in any upcoming issue put before the congregation. By last week Nash-Tessler had garnered membership commitments from 63 people -- more than enough to challenge Bunis's board -- and had asked the court for permission to open a bank account to deposit their dues.
Though some of Bunis's colleagues viewed the Orthodox worshipers as "fanatics" without any legal standing, Nash-Tessler remained confident of her ultimate triumph. "There is no more reason to close the building," she crowed as she awaited aid from this latest deus ex machina in her divine mission and began planning a huge Chanukah party at the temple next month. Of course, even as she envisioned a future as the heroine of Temple Beth El, she made sure to get in a few more jabs at her enemies. If her loyal warriors couldn't save the temple, she warned, the city leaders would eventually "sell the building and put up a high-rise.