Despite lawsuit by former president, Modern Orthodox Shul hires Chabad Rabbi [UPDATE – VIDEO]

On Dec. 19, at a closed-door meeting in Congregation Shaarei Tefila’s social hall, about 60 of the Modern Orthodox synagogue’s current members voted to hire Rabbi Moshe Kesselman to lead the shul.

Kesselman has been serving as Shaarei Tefila’s rabbi on a month-to-month basis since summer, and the final tally of votes was 52-1 in favor of hiring him, according to board member Sholom Feigelstock. The near unanimity of the vote notwithstanding, anybody who came into the building through the La Brea Avenue entrance could easily see that what was going on inside wasn’t simply a synagogue conducting business as usual.

Allan Lowy, a former president of Shaarei Tefila, had filed a lawsuit against the synagogue and its current leadership just a few days earlier. On the night of the vote, two bodyguards prevented him from entering the building, so he stood at the entryway informing all those who could vote about what was going on.

“I am being barred from coming in,” Lowy told a young man with a close-cropped beard as a bodyguard checked his name against the list in his hand. “I am a member of the shul.”

“You’ve gotta pay 2009; you’ve gotta pay 2010,” Feigelstock told Lowy that evening. According to Feigelstock, the reason Lowy is not a member of Shaarei Tefila is because he owes the synagogue about $4,000.

Story continues after the jump.

Video by Jonah Lowenfeld

Whether Lowy and the other longtime congregants he represents are indeed members of Shaarei Tefila has become the question at the center of an internal dispute that stretches back years. Lowy contends that in 2010 he pled hardship and settled his account with the man who was president of the synagogue at the time — only to see that settlement invalidated by the synagogue’s treasurer.

“There’s no question that there’s a recession and I’m hurting,” Lowy said, explaining why, even according to his calculations, he owed Shaarei Tefila $1,000. “But there are other people in there who are further behind.”

The conflict, which was the subject of an article in The Jewish Journal in October, has pitted Lowy and his small, aging cohort of mainstream Modern Orthodox Jews against a growing group of younger new members who mostly adhere to a Chabad Lubavitch style of Judaism. The decision to hire Kesselman, who is the grandson of an influential Chabad rabbi and whose last job was as an educator at Chabad of Beverly Hills, seems to Lowy a portent of a Chabad-style future for the synagogue that was at one time among the largest Modern Orthodox synagogues in the city.

Feigelstock has said that there are no immediate plans to alter the mode of prayers at Shaarei Tefila, but he stopped short of promising that no changes will be made in the future.

On Dec. 16, after months of unsuccessful attempts to resolve the dispute in a rabbinic court, the matter was officially put to the Superior Court of California. In the lawsuit, Lowy and his fellow plaintiffs allege that the current leadership of the synagogue engaged in “an illegal scheme” to take control of Shaarei Tefila “and its $8 [million] to $10 million in real estate and other assets.”

Lowy and his fellow plaintiffs are hoping the court will invalidate the results of the last two synagogue board elections and force the synagogue to hold new elections to be conducted under court supervision. No court date has yet been set.