National Council of Young Israel changes rule to let shuls quit

The National Council of Young Israel voted to eliminate a rule barring member synagogues from withdrawing from the franchise.

The rule became a subject of controversy two years ago when the National Council considered expelling a synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., that was said to owe some $20,000 in unpaid dues to the national organization. The move was seen as a possible precursor to legal action to seize the shul’s assets, causing alarm among member synagogues.

The Syracuse synagogue ended up dropping the Young Israel moniker and becoming Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation, and the National Council gave up its efforts to enforce the provision. But existing and prospective synagogues remained concerned that the National Council’s constitution gave it the power to seize their assets if they ever tried to quit the Orthodox synagogue umbrella group.

“It deterred possible new members, and yet if someone left, the National Council was not able to enforce it, and it upset people, so it had three terrible consequences to it,” Farley Weiss, the president of the National Council, told JTA.

This week's vote to drop the provision from its constitution passed with overwhelming support.

“Now, synagogues can join without the fear that once they join they can never leave,” said Farley, who last November became the organization’s first president from outside the New York metropolitan area. He lives in Phoenix and works as a trademark lawyer.

Some 200 Orthodox synagogues worldwide carry the name Young Israel, including more than 140 in the United States, 50 in Israel and a handful in Canada. The Israeli synagogues are affiliated with the National Council but are not under its control.

Farley said the rule about quitting was the organization’s most controversial issue and that other contentious issues would come up for review this year. Among them will be the organization’s position on what to do about synagogues that want to hire rabbis whose only ordination is from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal and pastoral-focused Modern Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York.

“Within the year we’ll have a more clear position on it,” Farley said.

There are no plans to change the organization’s rule against allowing women to be synagogue presidents, which Farley said follows the religious edicts of Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, two luminaries who guided Modern Orthodox American Judaism in the 20th century.

The National Council also is looking to hire a new executive director to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Rabbi Pesach Lerner in early 2012.

N.Y. lawmaker Carl Kruger quits over bribery charges

A New York lawmaker who had strong Orthodox Jewish backing because he rejected a gay rights initiative quit after pleading guilty to charges that he funneled bribes through his gay lover. State Sen. Carl Kruger, a conservative Democrat who has held his Brooklyn seat since 1994, resigned Dec. 20 just before pleading guilty to laundering up to $1 million from lobbyists through Michael Turano, a real estate agent described by prosecutors as Kruger’s “intimate associate” and housemate.

“I accept responsibility for my actions and am truly sorry for my conduct,” Kruger was quoted by the New York Daily News as telling the court.

Kruger, who is Jewish, earned plaudits from the Orthodox community in 2009 for voting against a gay marriage bill, telling the Orthodox Hamodia newspaper at the time, “When it becomes an emotional, gut-wrenching issue, when it cuts through the fabric of traditions and values, then I have my community as the cornerstone of my decision.”

Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance architects threaten to quit

The architects of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem have threatened to resign, two weeks before the scheduled start of construction.

Bracha and Michael Chyutin, the two architects, charged that the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, sponsor and funder of the $100 million project, “drove the architects crazy. They asked for daily briefings and nagged them to death,” according to a Jerusalem city official quoted by the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The company running the project, Tafnit Wind, also quit about a month ago, following differences of opinion with the Wiesenthal Center, Haaretz reported.

In a statement to The Journal Wednesday, Wiesenthal Center officials confirmed that “We are involved in a financial contractual dispute with Chyutin Architects. We are committed to try and resolve it as soon as possible.

“However, we want to make it very clear that the construction of the Museum of Tolerance project is going forward as scheduled and this financial dispute will have no impact whatsoever on the progress of the project and on the construction timeline. We will file all permits on time and will begin construction after the High Holidays.”

As to the “nagged to death” charges, a center spokeswoman replied that the project was funded by private donors, so “our guys were just doing their due diligence.”

When completed, the Center for Human Dignity- Museum of Tolerance is to include an exhibition space, theater and education center in some 150,000 square feet of space, as well as outdoor gardens and an amphitheater.

Originally, the museum architecture was conceived on a much larger and more elaborate scale, at a cost of $250 million, by architect Frank Gehry. This concept was attacked by some Jerusalem residents for its grandiose design, as well as the claim that the building site was on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery.

After years of litigation, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that construction could go ahead. However, for financial reasons, it was decided to downsize the design by Gehry, who then resigned from the project.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said the new museum would not infringe on Yad Vashem’s mission of Holocaust remembrance, but rather focus on human rights, as well as genocides and war crimes throughout the world.

In Political Tsunami, Sharon Bolts Likud

Israeli politics usually make for fine drama — and 2006 is shaping up to be no exception to that rule.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quit the Likud Party this week to form a new centrist party to compete in early elections expected to take place in March.

Sharon’s new party, to be called the National Responsibility Party, is expected to capitalize on mainstream support for his decision to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip last August.

But polls suggest that Sharon, 77, may have difficulty beating his chief rival, Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz. History has not been kind to Israeli leaders who try to reinvent themselves through new political parties.

Sharon is a founding father of the Likud, whose grass-roots supporters are famously partisan. Still, with almost half of the Likud faction chafing at Sharon’s diplomatic course, and with party rival Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu criticizing him over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon may have felt he had no choice.

“Sharon, as far as anyone call tell, decided long ago that he has no intention of drinking from the poisoned chalice prepared by those Likud colleagues who were meant to ride into the next Knesset on his coattails,” Yediot Achronot political correspondent Shimon Shiffer wrote.

The need for elections became clear Sunday after the Labor Party voted to pull out of Sharon’s coalition government. The vote by Labor’s Central Committee formalized the pledge by the party’s new leader, Amir Peretz, to leave the coalition and force elections.

Peretz, a veteran trade union chief, made clear in his speech that his campaign against Sharon would focus on economic issues.

“You stood by as Bibi battered your supporters mercilessly, forcing the poor to root around in the garbage,” Peretz said in his speech, referring to former Netanyahu, who oversaw a program of economic reform as Sharon’s finance minister. Peretz also accused Sharon of neglecting the needs of immigrants.

In forming his new political party, Sharon takes with him many of those Likudniks who agree with the party’s shift, in recent years, from championing Jewish settlement in all of “Greater Israel” toward embracing territorial concessions as a means of achieving peace — or at least quiet — with the Palestinians.

Eleven Likud ministers and legislators officially joined Sharon in National Responsibility, signing letters saying that they quit Likud. The 11 were Sharon, his son Omri Sharon, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, Ruhama Avraham, Eli Aflalo, Ze’ev Boim and Marina Solodkin.

A 12th, Majalli Whbee, announced that he would quit Likud to join Sharon, but Whbee was in Morocco and couldn’t make his departure official.

Sharon reportedly invited Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to join the party, though Mofaz — who is considering running for Likud head — hasn’t decided whether to do so.

Ma’ariv reported that Sharon hopes to court a number of center-right politicians as well, including Dan Meridor, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter; Russian immigration expert Ya’acov Kedmi; and the president of Ben-Gurion University, Avishai Braverman, who has long called for a civic revolution in Israel.

Early elections are now expected to take place in February or March, rather than November 2006 as originally scheduled.

Despite earlier reports, current Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the longtime Labor leader who lost a recent primary to Peretz, was not expected to join Sharon’s new party, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu heads the list of expected contenders for Likud leadership, but he won’t lead his party’s ticket without a vigorous challenge.