Dispute Sends City Synagogue From Court to Court

By Caryle Murphy
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Members of the District's oldest Orthodox synagogue are headed for an Orthodox Jewish religious court to settle a long-running internal dispute after a D.C. appeals court ordered them to use that arbitration process.

The three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals said it ordered the parties at Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah to use the religious court -- known as a "beth din" -- because the congregation's bylaws require that procedure for unresolved disagreements.

The March 10 ruling was a victory for a group of synagogue members who now worship in Olney and who had filed a lawsuit seeking to have the bylaws enforced.

"It's not kosher to violate your own bylaws" is the message of the ruling, said Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University. "This is a well-established principle: that neutral rules of corporate bylaws governing church groups are enforceable in court."

But David Epstein, attorney for the D.C. members who were sued, said he feared the decision could entangle civil courts in religious matters. What would happen, he asked, if a religious court issued a ruling that one side refused to obey? "Then do you go to a secular court to get it enforced because [the court] ordered them to go to the religious court?" asked Epstein. "That's where you get entangled, and there's no end to it."

Originally established in 1886, Ohev Sholom was a congregation of about 650 households by the 1960s. But as District residents left for the suburbs, membership at the synagogue at 16th and Jonquil streets NW shrank to fewer than 100 mostly aging households.

In the mid-1990s, the congregation began supporting a group of Orthodox Jews worshiping in Olney. As that community grew, the District members feared that the Olney group wanted control of the synagogue in order to sell the 16th Street building to finance expansion in Olney, a charge that the Olney group denied.

After a member of the Olney group was elected synagogue president in 2002, and the synagogue's board retaliated by transferring ownership of the building to a nonprofit it had set up, the Olney faction took the dispute to D.C. Superior Court. When Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush dismissed the case, citing constitutional prohibitions on courts interfering in religious affairs, the Olney group appealed.

In the last three years, the two congregations have grown separately. The 50 Jewish families in Olney have built a new facility. And Ohev Sholom has drawn 80 new households since September under the leadership of its new rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld.

"The congregation is so far beyond [the dispute with Olney] that it's not even on their radar," said Herzfeld. "The beth din will be great because it will finally end infighting among Jewish people, which is the greatest desecration of God's name."

Epstein said the District group would like to form the beth din, typically composed of three Orthodox rabbis who rule according to Jewish law, by having each side select one rabbi and permitting those two to select the third. Leonard Goodman, an Ohev Sholom member for more than 25 years, said the D.C. group has chosen Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., and a mentor of Herzfeld, to represent its side.

But David Felsen, the Olney group's attorney, said it prefers a different procedure for choosing the panel. The New York-based Beth Din of America, the organization overseeing the process, will make the final decision.

"Considering the fact that the 16th Street congregation is now thriving and its future looks very bright, we cannot understand what it is the Olney people want the 16th Street people to do," Epstein said. "Olney is a separate congregation doing very well on its own."

Felsen said the group will ask the beth din to look at "the propriety" of actions taken by the Ohev Sholom board, including "divesting members of their membership" in the synagogue and "the improper transfer of property."

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