No female presidents, says Young Israel


By Michael Orbach

Issue of June 25, 2010/ 13 Tammuz, 5770
Can a woman be president of an Orthodox shul? Not if it’s a Young Israel, according to the constitution of the National Council of Young Israel, which requires that presidents be “male and Jewish from birth.” A small congregation in upstate New York said excluding women from leadership roles is not an option. Now, a dispute between the shul and National Council is raising questions about the conduct of two of Young Israel’s top leaders.

In 2005, the Young Israel-Shaarei Torah of Syracuse elected Joan Poltenson, a woman, to be shul president. The decision was a practical one, born of necessity, given that at its peak the shul had only 75 members.

“The fact of the matter is there’s a limited number of shomer Shabbos people that are willing to be president and here they’re cutting off half of that population,” said Beverly Marmor, a soft-spoken radiologist who serves as the current president of the shul and the second female president to win election.

The shul operates on a deficit, Marmor says — a third of the rabbi’s salary is covered by the local day school, where he teaches — and the shul has also received little from National Council. The shul was unable to pay its dues to Young Israel since the fee was based on an inflated number of members, she said. The shul’s only request to National Council — financial help to fix the shul’s roof — was rejected, she said.

The shul’s rav, Rabbi Evan Shor, told The Jewish Star that in 2008, during Poltenson’s third term as president, he received a threatening phone call from Rabbi Barry Hammer, National Council’s director of rabbinical service. Rabbi Hammer, who according to Rabbi Shor explained that the Young Israel had, “ignored... [the shul’s] woman president for 3 years,” demanded Poletenson's immediate resignation. If she would not resign, Rabbi Shore said he was told, then National Council would sue the shul and claim its assets. Rabbi Hammer has denied saying that.

The board of the shul convened an emergency meeting the day after the threats and then in a meeting for the entire congregation in August, voted to resign from the National Council. They took down the Young Israel sign outside the building and renamed the shul Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse.

Days later, according to Rabbi Shor, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, called and verbally attacked him, threatening that he would “destroy both Rabbi Shor and the shul” if the resignation was not rescinded.

Rabbi Shor was bewildered. “I’ve never been threatened before,” Rabbi Shor told The Jewish Star. “It stayed with me a long time. There isn’t a day that goes by that this doesn’t bother me. All I want is sholom. We’re the only Orthodox shul in Syracuse and I want to continue our work.”

Two days later, Rabbi Shor recounted, Rabbi Lerner called again and told Rabbi Shor that he would “depose everyone on the board” and that he hoped that the shul had “deep pockets.”

Rabbi Lerner declined to discuss the issue by phone with The Jewish Star but responded via email. “I don’t believe I said such,” Rabbi Lerner said. “And if he thinks I did or misunderstood my words or tone, I heartfully apologize, publicly.”

The entire dispute concerned money and had nothing to do with the female president, Rabbi Lerner said. “They owe us serious money, that is the issue,” he explained. “There are more important things going on in Klal Yisroel,” he added, declining any further comment.

The issue was scheduled to be discussed at a Delegates Meeting of the National Council of Young Israel on June 25. The agenda for the meeting lists both the money owed and the matter of the female president.

Marmor disagreed with Rabbi Lerner’s characterization of the dispute and said that during all the conversations between Rabbi Hammer, Rabbi Shor and her, the subject of dues owed to National Council never came up.

“It was the problem of the woman president,” Marmor explained. “They were quiet about the money for 24 years. Until the woman president there wasn’t a word.”

Both Rabbi Shor and Marmor were reluctant to talk to the press and kept quiet because of a fear of chillul Hashem for two years. Marmor posted information about the controversy on Sunday to provide information to the National Council delegates. Shor and Marmor only agreed to speak to The Jewish Star after the dispute was mentioned on The Jewish Week’s website. Since then, Marmor says, she received positive support from delegates who pledged to help the shul at Thursday’s meeting.

Avi Goldberg, president of the Young Israel of Brookline, a shul that has 200 member families, said he was “bothered by the incident.”

“I would like the leadership to focus its efforts on promoting the good causes of the organization rather than spend time, money, and resources going after a shul that doesn’t want to be a part of the organization,” he explained.

“We felt we have to protect our shul,” said Marmor. “We’re very small. We’re the only Orthodox shul around. If you’re in New York and you don’t like your shul you can go to another shul. We don’t have that choice.”